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Published August 27, 2012, 09:22 AM

Five years later

Kent Opdahl is waiting for the rebound in the horse market, but he isn’t holding his breath.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

HARVEY, N.D. — Kent Opdahl is waiting for the rebound in the horse market, but he isn’t holding his breath.

Opdahl’s life in the world of horses was turned upside down when Congress in late 2006 passed legislation that ended federal inspection of horse slaughter facilities, and horse slaughter in general in 2007. In 2011, Congress reinstated funding for the inspection, but bureaucratic obstacles and political opposition have prevented plants from opening.

Five years ago, Opdahl had 120 horses and a growing business. He made a good part of his family’s living from the sale of quarter horse foals. After the de facto ban, he’s seen his numbers drop and their value decline precipitously. He’s turned his prime focus from horses to truck gardening, and has doubts that the industry will ever return to the way it was.

Raised on horses

Horses were always on the farm that his parents, Dale and Shirley Opdahl, ran along U.S. Highway 52, 6 miles east of Harvey, N.D.

The Opdahls raised turkeys, beef cattle and milked up to 100 cows until about 10 years ago. When Kent, now 39, was growing up, the Opdahls always had a string of 20 horses. The kids all showed and trained horses for 4-H and open shows. “I got my first one when I was four,” he says.

The second-youngest among five children, Opdahl graduated high school in 1991. He initially ran a modest farrow-to-finish hog operation, then spent a few years in Alaska and then moved back to Harvey in 1996. He and an ex-wife worked off the farm and started the Howling Horse Ranch.

They started out with five mares, while his dad still had another 10. Opdahl says they would break all of their horses to saddle. “Horses were going to be our main focus, our main way of making a living.”

In 1998, the couple added Longhorn cattle to its enterprises.

Opdahl sold horses, traveling the country for brood mares and herd studs. Foals were born in March and April and sold in August and September.

“The foal market was very good to start with,” Opdahl recalls. “We were averaging $1,200 a baby.”

The Opdahls together often marketed 30 foals a year by word-of-mouth promotion and eventually on the internet. They’d take foals and some bred mares to sales in Missouri or Corsica, S.D. The couple worked full-time and trained horses another eight hours a day — breaking them to halter, and then to riding for people who wanted them for barrel racing, roping and other work.

Big blows

The first blow to the operation came after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which significantly affected the U.S. economy. “I didn’t realize it would have that impact,” Opdahl says. “We had our first cataloged horse sale in the last Saturday of that month, and it hit us then. People just weren’t spending on luxury items and — basically — a horse is a luxury item.”

It became a lot of work for no return. But he was determined to keep on. “I’d always wanted about 100 to 200 brood mares.” Horses eat about the same amount of hay as a cow, he says — about 1,600 pounds per month, free-choice. “That’s one large, round-bale per horse per month.”

Opdahl had 110 animals, and — despite the lean times — increased the herd blood lines. Foal values declined by more than half, to an average of about $500 an animal. Gradually, value partly recovered. Foals came up to a $700 average, which he figured was better than raising a beef calf.

Through the years, Opdahl would take salvage animals — old mares or those that were hurt or couldn’t be broken to ride — to Kist Livestock Auction at Mandan, N.D.

“Normally, you’d be able to sell an older mare for $800 to $1,000 — about a third of the price of a new, good mare,” he says. “The one you sell to the slaughter market brings enough to feed four or five other horses for the winter.”

A spokesperson for Kist Livestock says the company now holds its monthly horse sales during the summer, but “randomly” after that. The most recent sale brought 400 horses, she says, mostly from areas affected by the drought. The horses are bringing 10 to 20 cents a pound or no value at all. They’re headed to Fort Macleod, Alberta, about 750 miles away. Some of the buyers attempt to leave some of the animals at Mandan because they can only get so many across the border, she says.

The market for horse meat is declining in Europe because of the international recession, she says.

In late 2006, Congress cut off funding for horse meat inspections, meaning the meat couldn’t be sold. The last U.S. slaughterhouse for horses closed in Illinois in 2007.

Opdahl felt the effect of plant closures.

“They kept holding the sales, but all of a sudden you were getting $50 a horse, or $5 — or no bid,” he says. “They were having horses being left there because no one would buy them. We’d always get some kind of bid on ours, but it wasn’t enough.”

He contacted his congressional members to complain about the horse slaughter issue, but didn’t think he was getting anywhere. So Opdahl slowed his breeding. Instead of taking all of his culls to Mandan, he was forced to shoot some of them. He estimates he dispatched 25 or more.

Life goes on

Meanwhile, Opdahl shifted because life had to go on.

His parents mostly retired from farming. His siblings, who had been part of the farming operation, are still in the area, but now have off-farm jobs and raise some beef cows.

In 2009, Opdahl started Howling Horse Productions, a disc-jockey business that performs gigs throughout the state. In 2010, he married Angel, a special education teacher. She travels among seven school districts in the region.

The Opdahls’ goat herd has expanded to 50 animals. They say the goat sales that had been run in tandem with horse sales are not common anymore, even though goat values have risen.

In 2010, Opdahl started a greenhouse for his own use and expanded that into growing vegetables for farmers markets in Harvey, Anamoose, Drake, Minot and Rugby, N.D. He continues to sell Longhorns, not for the rodeo market any longer, but for the beef market, touting leanness and healthfulness.

He has doubts about whether resumption of U.S. horse slaughter will come anytime soon, but he did start breeding more mares this year. Their horse herd is down to about 64 animals. Instead of selling 30 foals a year, they’ve been selling eight.

“We had 19 foals this year, compared to eight or nine foals a year for the last several years.” Heavy culling has meant that the breeding of what’s left are the best of the best, emphasizing temperament, athletic ability and visual appeal.

Kent thinks slaughter opponents often can gum up the works in court. “The animal rights people just move too fast, with too much money and push the right buttons,” he says. “If they get reopened, it’ll bring the price up all across the board. If you can’t get rid of an old horse that’s worthless, you can’t afford a new horse, either.”