'We have fulfilled every feed order, including all our exports'
Industry members tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Polly Bonnor, director of thoroughbred nutrition at Saracen Horse Feeds, tells us about how she is managing – both personally and professionally – with the UK government's lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
How is life at Saracen ticking over?
It’s very busy! As a manufacturer of animal feeds, our business is classed as having key worker status as defined by the government, which means the feed mill continues to operate and our feed will still be delivered even if extra restrictions are put in place.
Our teams in the mill and the warehouses are working six days a week keeping up with the demand. Our racing and breeding clients have continued to buy in their normal patterns as we have been able to fully explain the situation to them, but for feed merchants and the rest of the distribution chain we supply, it has been a bit like the supermarkets with a crazy amount of panic buying and unnecessary stockpiling going on.
Our delivery drivers have been hard at it, and the whole team have pulled out all the stops and done an absolutely fantastic job. Horses still need to be fed and cared for, and we're very lucky to be able to keep working when you consider the devastating effect the virus has had on businesses throughout the whole of the country.
What new measures have you brought in to deal with coronavirus and the lockdown?
We have developed plans to allow us to respond in a flexible way as government policies change, and we've put a full range of precautionary measures in place to protect our staff and clients from potential exposure.
We are following all of the health advice and government guidance to help tackle the spread of the virus and maintain a healthy work environment. We have good supplies of handwash, hand sanitisers, wipes, etc, and new routines for the cleaning down of equipment and communal areas as cleanliness and hygiene are a major priority for us. Posters have been placed in appropriate areas throughout our site to encourage hand washing and increase awareness.
The mill and warehouse staff have been split into teams and they all work quite separately and independently at their own work stations, so they are effectively following the social distancing advice already, but we are working a new staggered shift system now to reduce transmission among our employees. The offices are being run with a skeleton staff, and we've taken into account the personal circumstances of our team and their families.
Has the crisis affected your supply and delivery chain?
We forward-buy our feed ingredients anyway, so we've just taken that up to another level to stay ahead. Our suppliers understand and have upped their game accordingly, which has been supremely helpful. We're using additional storage to hold a greater stock of raw materials and finished product.
Consequently, we've been able to maintain the integrity of our feed formulations and have fulfilled every order, including our exports to Europe and the Middle East. We've made special arrangements for delivery drivers to have access to welfare facilities, and stay separate from each other.
Are office staff working from home, and are you managing to stay in the loop with one another?
Yes, just to be on the safe side, we had split each of our departments into two teams before the lockdown, so as soon as the announcement was made, we were ready with the appropriate kit for our office staff to be able to work from home comfortably.
We've been having daily meetings for the full management team and our sales teams for the last few weeks using Microsoft Teams to communicate, which has worked really well, and several new WhatsApp groups have been set up as a result of the new procedures. We’ve adapted as required, and everyone has pulled together brilliantly to help the whole operation run smoothly, despite the constant challenges as things can change so frequently.
On a personal level, how are you keeping yourself busy during lockdown?
I'm keeping in regular contact with my clients on the phone, and we have been using Facetime or the WhatsApp video feature to check on the horses as I can’t do my usual visits in person.
You can tell which clients are more adept at this for their Twitter or Instagram feeds as they can film the horses without having their fingers blocking the camera while giving me a full commentary!
We had started on a new website build before all of this began, so that work continues apace with our designers. We're also involved in a big international growth study with our American partners at Kentucky Equine Research and Hallway Feeds since the start of the year.
This project is looking at the link between the size of thoroughbred foals from all across the world and their subsequent soundness and success on the racecourse, so we will continue to gather that data with a full investigation of growth rates, radiographic findings and sales and racing performance.
All thoroughbred breeders are invited to participate, if they would like to (details are on our website under ‘Latest Research from KER’), and we plan to present the findings at the TBA’s annual seminar in the summer of 2021.
I'm having ongoing discussions with trainers about ways to modify their feeding programmes, if necessary, to take things down a notch with horses that are coming to hand rather quickly while we wait and see what will be done to resume racing.
It’s obviously very difficult for them to make any proper plans without the usual goals, but they're all keeping a sense of perspective and want to be ready to react at the earliest opportunity. If we can manipulate the nutrition a little to help, then we will try a few different things to suit the horses.
I downloaded the Houseparty app and got lots of friends to do the same, so we've had plenty of amusement catching up with each other that way. I would recommend it.
Thankfully, I showed my parents (who are both in their 80’s) how to use Facetime, and that has helped them feel less isolated from the rest of the family. I live near Lambourn, my sister lives near Cardiff and they are closer to Newmarket, so it’s definitely made things easier.
Any film, TV or book recommendations for getting through home confinement?
I've found myself looking for comedy programmes in the evenings, so I’m working my way through classic episodes of Seinfeld again. We all need a good laugh and to keep our sense of humour at the moment!
There are some good crime dramas that I didn’t catch in full during their last series (Line of Duty and The Bridge) and you want something gripping to take your mind off things for a while. I could probably watch Killing Eve again without too much trouble!
I've been listening to more podcasts than usual as I’m working; I'm really enjoying catching up with Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin - he’s very entertaining – plus Evil Genius with Russell Kane and Fortunately with Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. I generally listen to the Luck on Sunday podcast, but I've been able to watch it live the last two weeks.
What is the availability of groceries and essential products around you like?
I haven’t been out to shop anywhere since Saturday, March 21, so I don’t know first hand, but from what friends tell me, I don’t think there have been any long queues, just some empty shelves for certain products.
What are you most looking forward to when the Flat season returns?
I'm as superstitious as the next racegoer, so I won’t name any particular horses for fear of a jinx, but just to know roughly when the Flat season could start would be a massive relief right now for all concerned.
Not seeing a proper end to the National Hunt season has been really odd, and I just hope the postponement of the Flat doesn’t have to last too long as it will throw the whole rhythm of the year off.
We're so accustomed to our seasons in this game that everything feels doubly muddled at the moment. I'm really missing my time with the mares and foals (they change so fast!) and seeing the yearlings coming together at this time of year is something I just took for granted.
These are very strange times, but we must adapt accordingly, and who knows if we won’t have found new ways of working when we manage to get back to our normal routines.
The latest on the coronavirus crisis