Cattle are returning to the wide-open steppes of the former Soviet Union, and some of them are coming from the wide-open Canadian prairie.
Ron Batho and Albert Rimke, purebred breeders from Oak Lake, recently sold 20 bred Hereford yearling heifers that were part of a recent shipment that were mustered from local ranches, packed into wooden crates, and flown to distant Kazakhstan.
Batho, who has shipped live purebreds to Russia and other countries before, said that international sales are good for the industry as a whole, especially because of its prestige.
“Canadian cattle are pretty well respected around the world. Canadians are respected, too, and other countries like to deal with Canada,” said Batho.
As with any export deal, before they can be loaded onto the plane, the cattle must undergo extensive health checks and tests.
The pall cast over Canada’s reputation by the BSE outbreak that began in 2003 hasn’t completely lifted, and may never totally go away, he added, but efforts since then to face up to the problem and deal with it in the appropriate way have gone a long way in restoring confidence in the Canadian beef industry.
The prices paid for live cattle exports aren’t much higher than what they’d fetch on the local purebred market, said Batho, but that may be due to the fact that the cost of the cattle themselves probably represents only a minor portion of the total equation once veterinary fees and shipping are factored in.
Doris Rempel, executive assistant for the Canadian Beef Breeds Council, said that about 15,000 head of purebred cattle have been shipped abroad in recent years, mainly to the former Soviet Union.
The effect on local prices is negligible, she added, given that there are roughly 250,000 head of purebred cattle in the country, of which almost half are officially registered animals.
“There is huge demand for our cattle,” said Rempel, who recently attended an international genetics trade show.
“But the logistics and red tape are making it increasingly difficult. It’s quite a challenge to get the cattle over there.”
Most shipments have been by air in recent years, mainly due to a shortage of cattle boats, she added.
The cost differential between the two is not wide as one might think. By air, the trip takes less than a day, while for ocean freight it might take nearly three weeks.
Boats may be more roomy, but storms on the open seas can lead to costly delays. One shipment in recent memory was left stranded on the Baltic Sea amid rough weather, which led to a few hair-raising days for the cattle and crew, she added.
“You’ve got to supply a vet and the feed the whole time. If you could just visualize it, it’s just amazing,” said Rempel.
OTHER POTENTIAL BUYERS
Other countries with abundant grasslands are on the hunt for breeding stock, including Armenia and Turkey, which means that there are “staggering” opportunities for more sales, she said.
It’s not just Angus and Herefords, because Simmentals are in demand as a “dual purpose” breed that can also be milked.
Russian buyers are also interested in the lucrative potential of introducing herds of bison, she added, and the council has been hosting tours to Canadian ranches.
One of the largest players in the booming niche industry is Gary Smith, president of Alta Exports International, who has shipped 10,000- 12,000 head of purebred cattle abroad in the past three years, with his most recent load headed out in September.
In a telephone interview from Texas, Smith said that the demand for purebreds comes as government and industry in the former Soviet states undertake to replenish herds that were literally eaten to the bone in the years after the communist empire went to pieces in 1991.
From a peak of some 15 million head, the herd there plummeted to just a few hundred thousand head amid the years of economic chaos that followed the overnight collapse of central planning, which left hundreds of workers stranded on collective farms without paycheques, fuel, spare parts or effective leadership.
“When the Soviet empire collapsed, people still needed to eat. Unfortunately, all they had to eat was the cattle,” he said.
“The herd was absolutely decimated. What the hell, people are going to do what they have to do to survive.”
Even with their rich grasslands, rebuilding the herd to the point where beef exports might compete with Canada’s would take “generations,” he added.
Millions of acres of rich yet abandoned farmland can still be seen all across the former USSR, and now governments – flush with cash from skyrocketing oil prices – are redistributing it into private hands.
In Kazakhstan, the government is handing over large parcels and financing, but with an important caveat: the new owners have to rebuild critical infrastructure and figure out a way to put the locals to work.
Whereas in Manitoba, a farm family might manage thousands of acres with very little outside help, in the former USSR, there might be 500 to 1,000 people attached to a former collective farm of a similar size.
“You’ve got the farm, but also 2,000 people that you have to look after,” said Smith. “Somebody has to find something for them to do, and that’s not easy.” daniel. [email protected]
“Canadiancattleareprettywellrespectedaround theworld.Canadiansarerespected,too,and othercountriesliketodealwithCanada.”
– RON BATHO