U.S. producers fly cattle to Kazakhstan

Oct 22, 2010

Last week, nearly 170 pregnant cows and heifers boarded a Boeing 747 in Fargo, ND, destined for the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. They were the second of 12 such loads, scheduled between now and mid-December, designed to bolster the former Soviet nation’s ailing beef industry.

Following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, most of Kazakhstan’s beef herd was liquidated, falling from 35 million head at its peak, to just 2 million head today. The recent shipments are part of a pilot project brought about by a partnership between the Kazakh government and Bismarck, ND-based Global Beef Consultants, LLC. In an effort to provide the country with superior U.S. genetics, Global Beef intends to ship a total of 2,000 head of purebred cattle, 1,000 Angus, and 1,000 Herefords.

According to Bill Price, Global Beef president, the project represents the culmination of a three-year effort to establish a connection between the two countries.

"It began with the North Dakota Trade Office," he says. "They brought some delegations over. The trade office hooks up the private sector with global markets, and that’s how it started. Since then, we’ve just slowly built up a relationship."

In addition to purchasing and shipping the cattle, the partnership also consists of two 2,500-head breeding facilities, and a 5,000-head feedlot, which will be operated as a joint venture between Global Beef and Kazmeat, an entity of the Kazakh government.

For Kazakhstan, the project represents just part of a massive effort to revamp its entire agriculture industry, with the expectation that beef production will play a major role. The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan has an estimated 236,000 square miles of available pasture land. They also possess large oil and natural gas reserves, and much of the wealth resulting from those resources is being poured into their agriculture infrastructure. In an interview with the Associated Press (AP), Kazmeat Chairman David Yerubayev expressed his excitement over the quality of genetics this project will bring to their beef herd, which is currently comprised largely of Jersey cross cattle.

"This is just a pilot project," Yerubayev told AP. "But it is the biggest upgrade of cattle in our history. Everyone in our country knows about this project, including the president."

According to Yerbayev, the preference for North Dakota cattle over other regions of the U.S. stems from the similarities in climate between the two areas. Of particular concern was the severity of Kazakh winters, which can routinely reach temperatures of -40 Farenheit.

"The winter in northern Kazakhstan gets hard, like in North Dakota," said Yerbayev. "That’s why we chose North Dakota cattle."

Bill Price agrees that comparable weather played a major role in the decision to use cattle from northern states.

"It’s a lot like the Dakotas; it’s a lot like central and eastern Montana," says Price. "They have plains and mountain ranges; it’s great cattle country."

However, Price points out that the genetics offered by the region’s ranchers provided the primary selling point.

"The climate is similar, but our genetics are superior," said Price. "It was an easy sell for us because the ranchers have done all the hard work. Ranchers up here in the Dakotas, Montana, and the other northern states, they really concentrate on their genetics. Over the last two generations, some of them have done a really great job."

Price, a fourth-generation rancher himself, says that he knows well how much hard work goes into creating those genetics.

"We understand what it takes, and it isn’t easy," he says. "This is finally something where the producers can get paid for all their hard work and diligent record keeping."

According to Price, the project is currently worth an estimated $50 million, much of which goes towards the purchase of cattle from participating ranches.

While the project has so far proved lucrative for area ranchers, it has been complicated to execute. Simply getting the cattle out of the country has required significant cooperation from both federal and state officials. Prior to transport, the cattle must first reside in a quarantine facility, and must be visually inspected for a five-hour period immediately prior to loading. Because Kazakhstan is a landlocked nation, the use of ships was not an option, which led to the decision to contract with UPS to transport the cattle by air. A decision that Price says has also been beneficial from a welfare standpoint. The planes can hold a limited number of cattle, meaning more trips must be made, but reducing the travel time from 28 days to just 20 hours has helped to ensure that the cattle arrive in the same condition in which they left.

"Health-wise, it’s definitely been a better choice," he says. "The cattle are arriving in great shape."

Price credits everyone involved with making the entire process a reality.

"It’s a pretty big undertaking, but it definitely can be done," he says. "What really helps is having the support of local USDA vets and state officials. It’s really a team effort by everybody."

Not everyone, however, is in favor of shipping U.S. genetics overseas. Price has been approached by detractors, many of whom feel that his company is essentially providing Kazakhstan with the ability to compete with the U.S. in the global beef arena. Although aware of the concerns, Price cautions that the Kazakh beef industry has a long way to go before it becomes competitive at that scale.

"The people that say these things aren’t always involved in ranching," he says. "Those of us in the business know that it takes generations to build a ranch."

He points out that it takes longer still to build a working industry around those ranches, once established.

"Meanwhile, we’re opening up a whole new genetic market for our producers. Hopefully, what happens now is that they will see the genetics from our area and return to buy more bulls and heifers from these ranchers."

Price also points out that by avoiding developing industries, U.S. cattlemen may miss out on an opportunity to gain revenue from a process that will likely occur whether or not they play a role.

"Agriculture is very important overseas, and we seem to be losing touch with it a little bit here," he says. "As I see it, we can either be a part of their industry over there, or be bypassed by it." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent