Artificial insemination issue is being addressed

Monday, March 6, 2006

Shelbyville's delegation to the General Assembly is sponsoring legislation that solves a big portion of the horse industry's problem with the state Health Department's interpretation of laws on artificial insemination.

The proposed law "designates artificial insemination of livestock as an accepted livestock management practice rather than veterinary medical service," according to Democratic Rep. Curt Cobb and Republican Sen. Jim Tracy.

Making the distinction comes after a Health Department investigation that had letters sent to 72 individuals who were told they were being investigated because of information received by the department alleging that they were engaged in unlicensed veterinary practices.

The investigation followed the state's realization that Bonnie Cady, owner of The Horse Hub on Montgomery Road, was -- according to a department order -- artificially inseminating mares, flushing mares' reproductive organs, conducting ultrasound examinations on mares to check for pregnancy, infusing horses with antibiotics, injecting drugs to get horses to come into season and injecting a drug to get mares to ovulate.

Litigation over that continues, but many of the 72 individuals -- mostly at Tennessee Walking Horse farms -- have been informed that their practices of artificial insemination without direct supervision of a veterinarian is subject to a civil penalty. Some of those horse farmers have realized that the fine equals $1,000 for each year they told a state investigator they'd been artificially inseminating mares.

That probably won't matter after the bills become law as sponsored by Cobb and Tracy.

Their proposed law "requires [the] board of veterinary medical examiners to refund all monetary fines and civil penalties imposed and collected in current and previous fiscal years for artificial insemination of livestock without a veterinary medical license upon application thereof by persons fined for such practice."

Exactly how much has been paid in penalties and how much was sought by the department was not known, not even by the lawmakers, according to Tracy, who characterized it as "quite a bit."

Cobb said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Gene Davidson (D-Nashville), a farmer and grain elevator operator, has asked health department officials to provide an accounting of the fines.

"They're supposed to be totaling this up for us," said Cobb, who was scheduled to present the proposed law to the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday morning.

"I feel confident about this bill," Cobb said Sunday. "I've got support from the chairman and vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee."

Tracy said the companion bills he and Cobb are sponsoring in the House and Senate are a combination and distillation of laws proposed by several legislators.

Last month, Davidson led an agriculture committee hearing to gather information about the subjects and Cobb confirmed views that the meeting was filled with tension between various factions surrounding the issue.

At one point, it was suggested that the Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners be moved from the Health Department to the Department of Agriculture which has no investigatory services or any regulatory board.

However, reorganization -- criticized by health department officials as fiscally irresponsible since it would result in duplication of effort -- was proposed, filed and set aside.

"The bill to move the veterinary board to the Department of Agriculture is no longer in existence," Tracy said, turning to the bill he and Cobb are sponsoring.

"This will take care of our walking horse folks and the vets are in agreement," Tracy said.

If the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners' interpretation of current law on what's required for artificial insemination continued, the results could have been financially devastating for walking horse farms in and around Bedford County, according to statements to the board and from horse breeders.

They'd have to have a veterinarian present for each of the dozens, if not hundreds of procedures conducted on farms and that would have been cost prohibitive, according to several leaders in the industry, including Larry Lowman, proprietor of Bridlewood Farm near Bell Buckle.

The increased cost could result in horse stabling their horses out of Tennessee for breeding which could result in unemployment for farm hands, operators, trainers and others, according to equestrians.

Ironically, artificial insemination, like other farm practices, can be performed by livestock owners on their own horse, cow, hog, or other farm animal, according to state regulations now.

Without indicating that it's easy, Tracy said that years ago he's performed artificial insemination while in college.

Discussion during meetings in Nashville on the subject show that the more often the procedure is performed, the more familiar it becomes and the mystery of life becomes a farm management practice.

Even members of the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners acknowledged the law needed changing and that they were enforcing a rule they want to change. They indicated they were stuck in a regulatory dilemma. As a result, their president, vice president and another member of the five-member panel anticipated pubic hearings in April on how the rules might be changed.

That may not be necessary with the law being changed as he and Cobb propose, the senator said.

There are, however, other livestock breeding practices that may be addressed by other legislation and the conflict between the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has revealed other state work is needed.

"We do not have enough large animal veterinarians," Tracy said. "And the University of Tennessee told me this [last] week they're going to try to encourage more students to become large animal veterinarians."

Student loan forgiveness is one idea, the senator said. Lawmakers want 3-4 other ideas on how to increase the number of large animal veterinarians in Tennessee.

While the controversy over artificial insemination brought some conflict and worries among state officials and those in the walking horse industry, Tracy said he's "excited" that steps will be taken that will improve the business.

Cobb said Farm Bureau and veterinarian association leaders support the bills which have been presented on the floor of the House and Senate and are working their way through the committee system.

Among the concerns has been whether lawmakers should revise all state laws on farm management, the representative said. That's not yet been decided. It could be addressed in the next session of the General Assembly.

For now, though, Cobb has the bill on artificial insemination "on notice" and he's to present it to the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.