An American cowboy’s adventure in Kazakhstan

08 мая 2011, 10:41

You couldn’t help but notice Michael Slattery at the Astana Economic Forum on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. He was the one with the cowboy hat.

The good-looking 23-year-old attracted a lot of attention from both the young ladies at the event and from news organizations covering it. In fact, a British television crew was among the journalists who interviewed him about what he was doing in Kazakhstan.

I was sitting near Michael when the television camera began rolling. I heard the announcer ask where he was from, and Michael reply: “Nebraska.”

Later in the interview he was more specific. “Southwest Nebraska,” he said.

I walked up to introduce myself as the interview ended. “Hi, Michael, I’m a journalist working in Kazakhstan, and I’m from Omaha,” I said. “I got my start as a journalist at the Omaha World-Herald.”

He was surprised.

“You said you were from southwest Nebraska,” I continued. “McCook?”

“That’s right,” he said.

The British television crew was bemused that I could guess the town he was from. But Nebraska, like Kazakhstan, has wide open spaces interspersed with small towns. And McCook is the biggest city in southwest Nebraska -- with a whopping 7,400 people. It was a good educated guess on my part.

Michael is having the adventure of his young life, running a ranch of 1,300 recently imported American cattle three hours north of Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.

The arrival of the first 170 head from North Dakota in a Boeing 747 cargo jet in October of last year generated headlines around the world. Even the New York Times covered the story.

The cattle are at the vanguard of a Kazakhstan effort to create one of the globe’s largest livestock industries.

The program has huge potential. The ninth-largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is larger than Europe and has only 16 million people.

Its vast grassy steppe can produce the hay that cattle need, please alfalfa, corn and other feed. And the bordering countries of China and Russia, which are both food importers, have a combined 1 ½ billion people to sell the beef to.

The North Dakota-Kazakhstan livestock-growing joint venture that Michael is managing under a two-year contract is aimed at producing cows and calves that can be sold to other Kazakhstan ranchers to start their own herds.

Kazakhstan had a sizable beef industry during Soviet times. But it dwindled to almost nothing after the country became independent 20 years ago. Cattle owners found themselves lacking the financial resources to keep their herds going. Plus their onetime markets in other Soviet states had dried up.

The government is determined to bring the herds back, and this time with hardy imported Angus, Hereford and other breeds from the United States, Canada and Europe.

On the job only six months, Michael already has some funny stories to tell.

One involves a newly arrived 1,700-pound bull that government inspectors in Astana wanted to check.

The inspectors sent a pickup truck rather than a standard cattle truck to fetch the animal.

Michael took one look at the pickup, which had no ramp that could be used to walk the bull up to the truck bed, and refused to load him. He said the loading would be too dangerous without a ramp. He told the inspectors he was “not running the risk of someone getting hurt.”

He lost that argument, though. “You can only argue with the government for so long,” he said.

That meant his ranch crew needed to improvise. Big time.

The first problem was immobilizing the animal. At the location where the loading was supposed to occur, Michael had no horse from which to lasso the bull, so he had to do it on foot.

It was a tense moment. If the roping went wrong, the Nebraskan would be gored or trampled.

It worked, though, with the rest of the crew tying the bull’s legs once he was lassoed.

Then there was the problem of getting an almost one-ton animal into the bed of a pickup four feet off the ground.

The solution was a payloader, a piece of heavy equipment with a bucket in front that’s normally used to scoop up dirt, rocks or gravel, then drop them in another place.

The payloader operator got the bucket under the bull and lifted him up to the pickup bed. Michael’s crew then gently deposited the animal onto the pickup bed. Voila!

It was all in a day’s work for the Nebraskan, who has promised to share other stories of his Kazakhstan adventure with readers as time goes by.

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