Where the Boys Are: The Lewis Ranch

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Lessons, training, boarding; these are the income sources for most professional equine operations. However, for those who have an affinity for stallions, broodmares, and working to create the next generation, stallion stations are a great alternative. Here’s a look at one such facility, and what is involved in its successful operation.

A Little History

Located in the quiet town of Woodlake, Calif., The Lewis Ranch began in the early 1990s as a colt breaking and training business. Tina Lewis, the ranch’s owner, loved working with young stock, and it wasn’t long before she purchased several broodmares. Soon, stud fees began to add up, so Lewis purchased a top-quality seasoned stallion. “I learned what it took to handle a stallion, what it took to properly house him, and proper breeding techniques,” recalls Lewis.

“I really enjoyed working with that stallion, so I bought a young colt with the intention of keeping him a stallion. At the same time, I took courses at the local college so I could learn everything about nutrition, foaling out, mare production, as well as stallion management, mounting a phantom, and other subjects associated with handling stallions. I took everything the local college had to offer and soon had an equine certificate and an A.S. degree in animal science.”

While Lewis fine-tuned her skills, her herd of stallions grew. She now stands seven studs, six of which she owns. She also collects and breeds a few outside stallions as well as stores frozen semen for still others. The number of mares bred has steadily increased each year; in 2008 The Lewis Ranch bred 72 mares.

Why a Stallion Station?

The Lewis Ranch is primarily a one-woman operation, with Lewis handling much of the work and all of the promotion. From February through July, she hires two full-time workers to help with the breeding responsibilities; during the off-season, she frequently hires part-time help. “I much prefer the schedule that a stallion station offers as opposed to giving lessons or boarding,” admits Lewis. “I don’t do lessons because it is so time-constrictive. If I have lessons at 2 p.m. every day, then I have to be here. Boarding is similar; you’ve got more responsibility and you’re tied to the farm. Having a stallion station offers me more flexibility. From August through January, I have a lot of free time.”

The benefits of sending a mare to a stallion station are many. First, notes Lewis, the selection of stallions is usually far greater than at a private farm that might stand one or two stallions. Second, the veterinarian visits frequently. When work is needed on a mare, the call fee is split between several owners, sometimes as many as nine. Third, the facility is well equipped to handle all sorts of breeding complications and difficult mares.

The Stallions

The Paint and Quarter Horse stallions kept at The Lewis Ranch are carefully chosen, with several criteria in mind. Correct conformation and temperament top the list, but Lewis also made the decision to focus her energies on offering color-producing studs. Two factors played into her decision. First, she loves seeing what the various combinations will produce in the foal, and second, she admits, color sells. “People will be drawn to the painted ones,” says Lewis, “sometimes over a better, well-bred, more correct sorrel or bay. It’s not right, but color definitely sells.”

If one of her stallions does not attract sufficient breedings, Lewis will rotate him out of the program. “It costs me about $2,500 to keep each stallion for a year,” says Lewis, “and if I can’t make money off one of them, then I have to sell him. Because I can only keep six studs of my own, I’ve got to watch costs carefully. On the upside, when I do sell one of my stallions, they sell for a good price because they are gentle and trained to a phantom.”

Why doesn’t Lewis stand more customer-owned stallions? “It’s just not as lucrative,” explains Lewis. “It is the same amount of work to stand someone else’s stud, and I make about half what I would if I owned him.”

Lewis also owns several broodmares. At one point she had 15, but found that it was too time-consuming to work with all the foals, and has cut back to eight—with the goal of selling a few more this year. Although not as profitable as standing her stallions, particularly with hay and feed prices soaring, she finds that selling foals provides income in the off-season.

Facilities

Setting up a stallion station requires a substantial financial commitment. Housing numerous stallions, in close quarters, requires strong, reinforced structures. “I have an eight-stall barn built specifically for stallions,” says Lewis, “and for turnout, I use pipe fencing, which is very strong, as well as safe. All the studs can touch each other over a six foot fence, which I feel is important. They are herd animals, so I think it’s a lot healthier for them. I had to experiment to see which studs got along with which ones. They are less destructive to the barn when they are able to go out and play with their friends.”

Lewis takes extra precautions to ensure safety. All the stall doors have chains in addition to latches, turnout gates are reinforced, and there’s a gate at the front of the property to prevent escape.

Every stallion station needs a well-equipped laboratory. “I have a full lab,” says Lewis, “including a semen counter, incubator, liquid nitrogen tanks for freezing semen, a refrigerator, freezer, microscope for semen evaluations, artificial vagina, phantom for mounting, plus shippers for frozen and cooled. I also have an ultrasound machine. By California law [Editor’s note: laws vary from state to state], I’m not allowed to do ultrasound on mares that are brought in because it’s considered diagnosing, and I’m not a veterinarian. But I can ultrasound my own mares.”

What sort of investment did the lab require? “I did it over two or three years,” says Lewis. “I tried to find used equipment and then upgrade when I could afford it. Probably the biggest expense was the ultrasound machine, which cost $6,000. The other most expensive piece was the semen counter at $1,300. When you add up everything, I probably have $15,000 invested.”

AI Versus Live Cover

The Lewis Ranch services all segments of the breeding community with live cover, fresh cooled on the farm, as well as shipped and frozen. Many farms, notes Lewis, do not like to do live cover if they are able to do AI. “I believe,” argues Lewis, “that live cover is fine as long as I don’t have more than one mare to breed to that stallion at that time. Of course, this assumes that the mare isn’t fractious. Still, about two-thirds of our breedings are done via AI.”

As the stallions at her farm have gained recognition, Lewis has noted an increase in shipping semen. “I love shipping,” says Lewis. “It’s the same amount of money and a lot less work, because you don’t have to tease, breed, feed, water, and care for the mare day after day. It is simply collecting the stallion, putting him away, evaluating the semen, processing it and shipping.”

Marketing

Because the stallions standing at The Lewis Ranch are not high-end, high-priced, World Champion horses with high-dollar stud fees, they are not promoted extensively through national publications. “I place an ad each month with the local newspaper and keep posters and business cards in all the local feed stores,” says Lewis. “A couple of times a year I have a stallion preview and horse sale. I may not sell any horses during the preview, but that’s not the point. The point is I’m getting flyers, signs, and posters out, and keeping my name out there. I also write a couple of articles for magazines and take the money they pay me to buy an ad from them.”

Lewis has found the Internet to be her best source of advertising. “I use five or six websites where I list my studs and mention my website. I get a lot of business that way, so I’ve found it is very important to keep my site current. I also collect addresses of previous customers and send them a mailing each year. Finally, I have a friend who does all my photography and designs my ads. She has a couple of mares so we swap breedings for photos.”

Is a stallion station right for you? Lewis weighs the pros and cons: “It’s a huge responsibility and requires a significant financial investment. But it’s also a lot of fun and very rewarding. Last week I sold a foal and the neat thing was that I raised the stud, I raised the mare, I collected that stallion, I bred that mare, and that baby is the result. It means a lot to me to get that foal to a nice home. That’s the product of all this work!”