HARVEY, N.D. (AP) - 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 inspections, 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.
Horses were always on the farm that his parents, Dale and Shirley Opdahl, ran along U.S. Highway 52, 6 miles east of Harvey.
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," he says.
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.
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, he says."
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.
"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."
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.