Kazakhstan puts its money on North Dakota cattle

Oct 24, 2011

On the afternoon of Oct. 18, North Dakota rancher Dan Price was in Fargo overseeing a load of his bred heifers as they prepared to travel to their new home. What elevated this routine event from the ordinary to the unexpected is that Price’s cattle were being herded into crates which were then loaded into the belly of an awaiting plane bound for Astana, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic located to the south of present-day Russia.

It may sound like a scene from a Baxter Black novel, but this is the second year that Dan and Bill Price of Global Beef LLC have been exporting their cattle half a world away from the North Dakota plains as part of a business

partnership with the Kazakhstani government. In all, Global Beef will ship a total of 2,600 cattle in 14 planeloads this year. That’s up from last year when they shipped 2,100 head.

Clearly, the demand for American breeding stock is expanding beyond the usual outlets.

This unique partnership is the outcome of a recent effort to regrow the cattle herd in Kazakhstan. Although previously a major producer of beef under the former Soviet Union, according to a report by the Associated Press, the region went from supporting some 35 million head to around a mere 2 million following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The aim of the current partnership with Global Beef is to reestablish Kazakhstan as a regional exporter of high-quality beef to supply the emerging markets of Russia and China.
“I guess my brother Bill and I decided we were up for the challenge of it,” says Dan.
But with North Dakota a world apart from the central Asian steppes, it’s hard to imagine how Dan and Bill Price ever made the connection with Kazakhstan in the first place. According to Dan, it began when the Global Beef team made a pioneering trip to an agriculture trade show in Kazakhstan several years ago and started negotiating with the government.
“We went over there for a trade show and they wanted to buy some cattle. Then the government kind of brought up a deal for us to partner with them.”
But before any deal could be struck, Global Beef had to convince the Kazakhs that North Dakota cattle were hearty enough to survive the bitter winters in their country. In a region sometimes known as “south Siberia,” winters there are not for the faint of heart.
“They didn’t believe Angus cattle could live over there because it would be too cold,” explained Dan.
What sealed the deal for the Kazakhs was a return visit to North Dakota in January, when temperatures can dip well below zero. They witnessed first hand that the cattle in the high Plains are well adapted to the extreme cold, and needed no shelters to survive.
“The northern genetics are bred into them,” explained Dan, “so they can handle cold weather. …[It’s a] heartier animal. They’ve got a little more hair to ’em; they can just survive the winter better.”
But growing cattle profitably in extreme weather takes more than just good genetics. Experience and scientific advances have helped to make the American cattle herd the most efficient in the world. Not only did the Kazakhs lack cattle, they also lacked the knowledge to manage cattle efficiently and effectively. It became clear that Global Beef had more to bring to the table than just breeding stock. They could also bring management expertise that would help close the knowledge gap in a country that was many years behind the times.
“They didn’t know to balance the ration,” Dan pointed out. “They just thought [the cattle] would eat hay, and it didn’t matter what kind of hay it was. We showed them that nutrition was a big part of it, because the cattle could maintain their heat and not get cold and die on them.”
The outcome of the negotiations was KazBeef Ltd., a business partnership between Global Beef and the Kazak government. Global Beef runs the management side of the operation and imports the breeding stock. KazBeef operates one Angus and one Hereford “reproductive center” as well as a feedlot. They are currently retaining most females in an attempt to build up the herd. Hopes are that KazBeef can start exporting product in several years.
Perhaps the biggest question a person would like to ask Dan Price is: How are the North Dakota cows doing in their new adopted home? If numbers are any indication, the cows are very happy, indeed.
“[They’re] doing great,” says Dan. “We had like an 89 percent calf crop. Calves are weaned now, gaining about 2-3 pounds a day. They’re doing real well. …We’ll keep the females and grow the herd.”
And the opportunities may not stop with Kazakhstan. Other countries in the region are showing an interest in partnering with Global Beef. “We’re looking at doing something in Georgia with some guys,” says Dan, speaking of another former Soviet republic. “In fact, they’re here right now this week in Bismark. We’re working out a deal with them.”
There’s little question that doing business in a country as far off and culturally different as Kazakhstan would give a lot of American ranchers cold feet. But the Prices have seized the opportunity as a chance to access the expanding Chinese market. Their bold step may end up paying significant returns in the long run.
And the cultural divide doesn’t seem to be all that wide after all. In fact, to hear Dan Price tell it, the steppes of Kazakhstan and the Plains of North Dakota might have a lot more in common that you’d think.
“I like it,” says Dan. “It’s just wide open… and you get out in the countryside, it’s peaceful. It’s a lot like North Dakota. Same kind of grasses, not a lot of people. …And there’s just a lot of opportunity to do things there.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent