Cows for Kazakhstan
By Sheridan Prasso, contributor
February 3, 2011
FORTUNE – It all got started with some fourth-generation North Dakota ranchers wanting to sell cattle. One of them was Dan Price, a 6-foot-3 cowboy who never seems to take off his hat, and who can make roping a calf at 15 paces, even after a few drinks, look easier than drawing a breath.
Price and Mike Seifert, partners in a business called Global Beef, were in a yurt not far from Kazakhstan’s border with what used to be called “South Siberia” on old maps. The two men were trying to win an open bid from the government of Kazakhstan to furnish livestock. They’d been drinking vodka and eating a goat that was killed and cooked over an open flame out back. When Price was offered the honor of the head, he decided you can’t be shy about these things. He ripped off an ear, tucked it in his mouth, and chewed. Then the Kazakh hosts prodded Price for a demonstration of his ranch-hand skills. “Think you can rope a calf?” Price was asked, and he was handed a length of soft-wound hemp, nothing like the stiff rope back home. He stood and steadied himself, stooped through the doorframe, and threw a loop at the closest animal he saw.
“I’m thinking, this isn’t going to work very good,” Price recalls, “but he just grabbed by the back legs and down he went.”
“When Dan roped that calf, that just sealed it,” says Seifert. “The fact that the owner can actually go out and rope a cow, it says, ‘Wow, these guys are the real deal.'”
Global Beef’s prize was a $50 million joint venture with the Kazakh government that calls initially for flying 2,000 pregnant heifers and 20 bulls – ultimately 40,000 animals – accompanied by a cowboy on every flight, from the snow-covered Great Plains to the snow-covered Central Asian steppes. These heifers will give birth in March, after which they’ll be bred again, either with the bulls or artificially inseminated – up to 13 times in their lifetimes. Their male calves will be raised for beef, and females for further breeding.
The Agriculture Minister of Kazakhstan, Akylbek Kurishbayev, explains by e-mail that years ago Kazakhstan was exporting 350,000 tons of meat a year, but “now this figure is close to zero.”
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Kazakhstan became an independent country, infrastructure collapsed, the economy foundered for a few years, and food supplies dwindled. “They had 38 million head of cattle in 1994, and they’re down to 2 million now,” Price explains. “They killed and ate ’em all.”
“It’s like the 1890s over there,” says Vern Anderson, an animal scientist at North Dakota State University, who is Global Beef’s director of nutrition. “No fences. They don’t de-horn. They don’t castrate anything.” Lack of trust in the food supply, Global Beef executives say, encourages Kazakhs to overcook. “If you order a steak over there, it costs $70, and it’s all gray,” says Siefert.
It was only after Minister Kurishbayev visited North Dakota in September that he was persuaded to try his meat medium rare. He liked it. “Nowadays we need highly productive beef cattle with high genetic potential to accelerate development of cattle breeding in Kazakhstan,” he writes.
Photo gallery: When cows fly
So, around a table over Dakota-bred porterhouse steaks in freezing Fargo on a recent evening, the men of Global Beef sit down to discuss the next day’s cow-lift, the antepenultimate of a dozen chartered 747 flights. Price and Seifert are here, and Price’s brother Bill, who is Global Beef’s president, and Anderson, and a few more cowboys and friends. Turns out they had their first fatality the previous day. A cow fell in her transport crate at 35,000 feet and got trampled by her crate-mates. Until then not a single animal had died, even though Global Beef had reckoned on losing up to three per flight. One did run loose from the first flight to arrive at Astana International Airport in October, bolting down the tarmac as the cowboy accompanying the plane gave chase in his cowboy boots and roped her on the runway. The Kazakhs watching the scene broke into applause.
But on this evening the death of a cow was nothing to be happy about, and Price wasn’t in the mood to joke with those at the table who were imagining, Gary Larson-like, the bovine dialogue on the flight over.
“Hey, quit yer mooin’ over there.”
“No. Shut up.”
“No, you shut up!”
“What happened was, I think she probably fell down and got stepped on, and then threw a clot,” Price says, ending the jollity. He’s a man of few words, but they carry authority, especially when it comes to ruminants.
Price’s great-grandfather came over from Hereford, England, with a namesake cow, the meat of which is among the most widely eaten in the world today because, as it turns out, Herefords thrive in harsh climates like the Great Plains, and they’re good breeders too. Great-grandpa Price got land along the Missouri River through the Homestead Act and in 1890 established Price Cattle Ranch. Today it comprises tens of thousands of acres, including a 10,000-head feed lot, 7,000 acres of corn and wheat, wind turbines, liquid feed supplement production, and a 500 cow-calf breeding operation, not to mention 10,000 sows. The Prices operate Global Beef as general contractors, sourcing cows from around the state for export to places like Kazakhstan – and soon, they expect, to other countries, perhaps China, and Turkey as well. The math is simple: North Dakota has way more cows than people – 980,000 is the count of its standard breeding herd, which nearly doubles with calving every spring. North Dakotans number just 647,000.
“It’s about getting into the global thing for the next generation,” says Price, taking a sip of whiskey and a cut of steak. “You don’t make money right away. You build relationships. The money will come.”
Talk at the dinner table turns to comparing the cows’ future home with their present one. Sparse populations, of course, and in both places it gets down to minus 40 – that’s Celsius and Fahrenheit, the spot where the two scales meet. Summers are over 100° F. “There’s no difference from North Dakota out there,” Price says. “I could live there.”
0:00 /3:05 No inflation? Check out food.
Plus, North Dakotans and Kazakhstanis bond over the mislocated movies they don’t care for much, Seifert adds. The movie Fargo presents a wry, noir pastiche of North Dakota, though the action mostly takes place in Minnesota. Borat’s opening and closing sequences are filmed in Romania, a country with virtually nothing in common with the nobly nomadic culture of the Kazakhs. Yet the movie’s subtitle, Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, wouldn’t be nearly as funny about Romania.
The next day, on the outskirts of the airport in Fargo, the cows have passed their USDA quarantine and are ready to go. The plane, chartered via UPS from transport hauler Kalitta Air, is late. Seifert reminds himself that patience is a virtue. “We have a saying: ‘Nine pregnant ladies won’t make a baby in one month.’ You can’t build back 38 million head of cattle overnight either.”
When they finally have a confirmed arrival time, Price and his team herd the cows into horse trucks and drive them a short distance to the tarmac, where some hired NDSU students have built pine crates and lined them with wood chips. Loading, five cows to a crate, begins.
The hold is nearly full when Capt. Daelyn Dirksen and the flight crew show up. Dirksen grew up on a North Dakota farm and doesn’t mind the ammonia smell that builds up en route. The non-farm hands, however, tend to grumble. They try to keep the hold at 40° F to 60° F, but the cows keep warming it up. “They’ve all got heavy coats on,” Dirksen explains. Luckily the plane stops for brief refueling in Newfoundland and Belgium where they can open the doors to let out the dank humidity of the cows’ breath and their fumes. “The old saying around here is, ‘It smells like money,’ ” Dirksen says. It’s 18 to 20 hours to Kazakhstan, and the pilots are careful not to make any sharp banks or steep inclines. It’s not as if cows can wear seatbelts.
As the plane clears for takeoff, then rises into the cold air, the cows breathe their last goodbyes over the great white bleak expanse of snow-covered plains, soon to make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan – and America.
His work done for now, Price climbs back into his horse truck, adjusts his hat, and floors it the 200 miles back to Price Ranch for another load.