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A guy who builds feedlots in Kazakhstan and buffalo enclosures in America

01 october 2015, 16:31
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Jake Schubert has helped cattle owners in the United States keep their animals productive and healthy since he was a boy.

In the past four years he’s done the same in Kazakhstan.

He isn’t a rancher, cowboy or veterinarian.

The native of Valentine, Nebraska, builds ranch infrastructure, including fences, watering troughs, corrals and holding chutes. The chutes keep cattle immobile so they can be vaccinated or artificially inseminated without hurting themselves or the ranch hands who care for them.

This year Jake has branched into building infrastructure in the United States for another kind of range critter: the legendary North American buffalo.

The cattle infrastructure he is building in Kazakhstan is crucial to the country realizing its dream of becoming a major beef exporter in the next two decades.

The need for ranch infrastructure is likely to keep Jake working in the country for years. “There’s so much to be done,” he said. “There’s almost nothing in the steppe but wide-open space. It looks like Nebraska in the 1870s.”

Two new -- and very important -- projects he’s scheduled to do in Kazakhstan is constructing two sprawling feedlots – places where cattle can be fattened before they’re marketed.

About 50 hectares of the Lake Balkash ranch are sand dunes. “You can’t raise cows on it, but it’s a cool sight,” Jake said. Photo courtesy of Jake Schubert. 

One of the corrals he’s building for the buffalo that all of us remember from Wild West movies is near Joliet, Illinois. The other two are near Valentine, his hometown in western Nebraska.

The Joliet project is part of a U.S. Forest Service effort to restore native prairieland in an area that was once used to manufacture and store military arms.

One of the Nebraska projects is also for a prairie-restoration effort. The non-profit Nature Conservancy is carrying it out on land it bought near Valentine.

The other Nebraska project is for Ted Turner, the swashbuckling founder of CNN, who grows thousands of buffalo on ranches in Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico.

Kazakhstan imported its first pure-bred Angus and Hereford cattle from the United States in October of 2010.

The director of the KazBeef ranching operation that brought them in was a cowboy named Mike Slattery, a friend of Jake from Gordon, Nebraska, not far from Valentine.

Jake arrived in Kazakhstan a few months after Mike to begin building infrastructure.

Kazakhstan continues to build a pure-bred herd with imports from the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

The imports, and the offspring they’ve bred, have added up to a herd that Jake estimates at 60,000 to 70,000 head.

Before Kazakhstan can reach its goal of becoming one of the world’s biggest beef exporters, it will need a level of infrastructure beyond the basic needs of a ranch, Jake noted. The costlier facilities will include grain storage bins, feedlots, slaughterhouses and packing plants.

In his first two years in Kazakhstan, Jake did infrastructure work at ranches near Aktobe in the west, Taldykorgan in the south and Astana in the north.

He joined a family-run start-up cattle operation on 26,000 hectares near the town of Kabanbay on the shores of Lake Balkash in southern Kazakhstan in 2013.

His duties there have included working with the cattle as well as building infrastructure. The owners even sent him to Australia twice to pick out the operation’s first 2,700 cattle.

“I’ve never worked with cattle directly but I’ve been around them all my life, so I know a lot about them,” he said.

The Lake Balkash family, which has succeeded in a number of non-agricultural businesses, has ambitious plans for their livestock operation, Jake said. He’s convinced that some day it’s going to boast tens of thousands of cattle on 300,000 hectares.

Jake Schubert with some of the ranch hands he works with in the Lake Balkash area of southern Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy of Jake Schu

bert.

One of the two feedlots Jake is building is at the Lake Balkash operation. The other is at the cattle ranch of Jake’s friend Maksat Baktibayev near Karaganda in central Kazakhstan.

The feedlots will be huge – about 100 acres, or 40 hectares, each. Hectares are the ranchland measurement used in Kazakhstan and the rest of the former Soviet Union.   

The work will involve fencing in the acreage and building pens, grain storage bins, and feed and watering troughs.

It will take about a year to complete, Jake said.

When the feedlots are ready, the owners “will buy cattle from ranches all over central and northern Kazakhstan and fatten them for a year” before sending them to slaughterhouses and packing plants for marketing.

Jake’s father Mike began building ranch infrastructure for bison 20 years ago, when Ted Turner bought his first spread in western Nebraska.

The broadcast-industry giant now has six or seven ranches in the state totaling a half million acres, or about 202,000 hectares, Jake said.

Fencing and pens for buffalo have to be built differently than for cattle, he noted.

Five feet is high enough for cattle fences, he said, but “you have to go seven feet for buffalo. As big as they are, they’re very agile animals. They can jump over a five-foot fence.”

In addition, bison fences must be stronger than cattle fences.

An average Angus bull weighs about 2,500 pounds. An average bull buffalo raised in captivity can be well over 3,000 pounds, with some reaching almost 4,000.

That means the pipe used to build bison enclosures must be a bit larger than for cattle, Jake said. His family uses vertical fence posts about 3 inches thick and horizontal fence pieces about 2 ½ inches thick.

Turner is a noted conservationist but also grows bison as a business.

Buffalo is a healthier meat than cattle because it has considerably less fat, its proponents say.

It’s been appearing in more supermarkets and restaurants in the United States. Turner has made sure that visitors to the CNN Center in Atlanta find buffalo burgers on the complex’s restaurant menus.  

The land near Joliet, Illinois, where Jake, his brother George and three other crew members built about 1,200 feet of bison corals was an ammunition-making and –storage complex during World War II and afterward.

The government turned it over to the Forest Service in 1996.

The 18,000-acre Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie Preserve has 150 to 200 bison, Jake said.

Jake’s SUV stuck became stuck in the mud as he was using a GPS device to map the ranch in Kazakhstan where he works. Photo courtesy of Jake Schubert.

Bison are important to restoring prairieland to what it was like before farms and factories were built on it.

“They eat grasses but not wildflowers (as cattle do), they float just above the ground to avoid stepping on plants or compacting the soil, and they create tidy little wallows that fill with rainwater for tadpoles and wading birds,” according to the Prairie Ecologist website.

Kazakhstan has also been using wild grazing animals – particularly saiga antelope -- to help restore some of its steppe to its original condition.

The country has a number of steppe-restoration projects, particularly in the southwest.

It’s unlikely Jake will be working on restoration projects that include saiga anytime soon, however.

There’s too much for him to do to help Kazakhstan continue modernizing its cattle industry.

In fact, that work is likely to keep him busy for years, he said.

If he gets bored with it, he can always take a break to work on more Stateside buffalo projects.  


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