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CANNIBALISM OR EMBRYONIC DEATH MAY WELL BE TWO of the most unlikely items to appear on a company's profit and loss statement, but they are nevertheless legitimate costs of doing business for Diana Dickson and Myrna Thompson respectively.

Both are owners of small businesses and both are engaged in animal breeding. Dickson supplies hamsters to pet stores and Thompson raises and sells miniature horses.

The 10th of 11 children, Thompson was raised on a grain farm in Brunkild, Manitoba, and had little or no experience with animals. "My husband always teased me that I was brought up easy," she says. "I never had to carry water or shovel manure. But he can't say that anymore." The idea of raising animals - particularly horses - always appealed to her, but she was intimidated by their size. That is, until she saw her first miniature horse.

"To be registered as a miniature horse, it must stand 34 inches or less from its withers (the ridge between the shoulders) to the ground," says Thompson. Miniature horses are also extremely gentle animals and very friendly, quite unlike their cousins, the thoroghbred race horses and hunters. "They are more like pets than farm animals and they are very hardy, making them easy to care for," adds Thompson.

Human intervention played a major role in developing the breed. It all started back in the early 1600s when European royal families wanted smaller horses so their princes and princesses could learn to ride at a very young age. Bred down from Arabian and quarter horses - continuously breeding only the smallest and most docile animals - it took generations to produce the miniature horse.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Thompson was so intrigued with the breed, she had to have one for herself. She purchased her first brood mare, Squeaky, in the fall of 1988. Within months, she bought another one, and in April of 89, Squeaky gave birth to a colt. "It really all started out- as a hobby," says Thompson.

Before long, she was in the market for a stallion and ended up buying another mare and a stallion. With more than $10,000 invested, her hobby was fast becoming too expensive and that's when she decided to make it her business. "Eventually, I hope to have between 12 and 15 head in my herd," she says.

So far, so good. Her business operates under the name Red River Miniatures and she has a herd of seven horses - six mares and one stallion. To date, she has recovered 40 per cent of her initial investment. That's in only two years," says Thompson. "I expect to start breaking even in a couple more years and by the fifth year I should be making a profit."

Of course, it all depends on her breeding program. That's where embryonic deaths come in. It's not uncommon for a mare to become pregnant and then for one reason or another, to either re-absorb the fetus or slip the foal,' says Dr. Ken Johnson of Central Veterinary Services of Winnipeg and Thompson's trusted veterinarian. "The only way to know if the horse is bred is to keep a close watch on it," says Thompson. 'If the stallion seems to be very interested in her and if she stands still for his attention, it's a good bet she's not pregnant," she says.

The gestation period is I I months and I 1 days give or take a day or 10. The horses are usually bred in the summer so that the foals will be born in the spring when weather conditions are more favorable," says Thompson. Her horses sell for anywhere between $2,500 and $6,500. "The mares command a higher price than the colts and if we sell a mare that's been bred, she guarantee she is in foal," she says.

The operating costs for Red River Miniatures are in the neighborhood of $2,500 a year. This includes insurance, registration fees, veterinary bills, feed, and farrier fees, as well as tack and grooming supplies.

Dickson's experience in breeding hamsters has been a totally different proposition. Just before Christmas in 1988, I was sitting with my two small children thinking there's got to be a way to make some money without having to go out to work," says Dickson. She had heard of some people raising small animals for pet stores and decided she could do it too.

"I wrote a letter to Petland Stores in Winnipeg and asked them what they needed in the way of locally-bred animals. They wrote back and provided a list which included ferrets, hamsters and-canaries," she says. Following a personal visit to Petland, Dick, son chose to breed hamsters, which sell for up to $11 or sometimes 90 cents on sale.

It required a modest investment - under $2,000 - to set up the operation and it promised a quick return. Dickson's wholesale stock go for $2 for short-hairs and $3 for long-hairs. It's not hard to breed hamsters so long as you remember to keep everything very, very clean," says Dickson. And providing you keep everything on a strictly business level. Dickson's 40 pairs of breeding hamsters are not pets for her or her children.

"I don't fool around," she says. "If I see an animal that looks even vaguely ill, I don't wait to see what might develop. I terminate it with extreme prejudice." If one should be diseased, it could wipe out the whole lot, and that would be expensive. The way she sm it, one or two hamsters are expendable. In fact, they are probably the cheapest part of the operation, compared to the price of water bottles, cages and nesting materials.

"Cannibalism is also a major problem," she adds. Both the males and females do it and the victims are usually the offspring. If the hamster becomes frightened or feels threatened, it will automatically eat its young, explains Dickson. It can also happen between siblings if you're not careful.

The hamsters will breed at three weeks old and are good breeders for up to two or three years. "The average litter is around eight to 10, but I'm shooting for litters of up to 12," says Dickson. The ideal she explains, is to select the top breeders so that you can reduce your input costs - feed, water, shelter - and increase production at the same time.

Dickson started her business in early 1989 and recovered her initial investment within six months. She produces two breeds of hamster: the short-hair and the more popular long-hair. "The long-hair breed, the 'Teddy Bear', command a higher price," says Dick, son. Her production is currently split 80-20 with the larger percentage being long-hairs, but she intends to shift that to 60-40 for Christmas sales.

She has no intention of expanding production beyond the 200-a-month level she currently maintains, unless she has assured markets for her product. There's a lot of competition out there and it's a tough market to break, especially with the two big Hs, Hagen's and Hartz," she says. One avenue she may explore in the future is the consumption market. That's a polite way of saying breeding animals for snake food. Business is business but she isn't too keen on that prospect.
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Title Annotation:Diana Dickson raises hamsters and Myrna Thompson raises miniature horses
Author:Mouflier, Sylvia
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Words:1206
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