Dozens of hardy cattle bred to withstand North Dakota's harsh winters took off on a jumbo jet to Kazakhstan on Tuesday, the first wave of animals being sent to help rebuild the former Soviet republic's beef industry.
Most of Kazakhstan's cattle were sold or slaughtered after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and its herd has been reduced from about 35 million animals in the early 1990s to about 2 million today, said David Yerubayev, chairman of the government-supported KazBeef Ltd.
The oil-rich nation is now spending billions of dollars to rebuild its agriculture industry, including its beef production, Yerubayev told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Astana on Tuesday.
A $50 million deal between Bismarck-based Global Beef Consultants LLC and the Kazakh government calls for 2,040 Angus and Hereford cattle to be shipped on a dozen flights to central Asia by Dec. 15, Global Beef chairman Mike Seifert said.
About 170 pregnant cows and heifers weighing more than 80 tons were loaded in metal crates at the Fargo airport Tuesday and shipped by air freighter to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. A veterinarian and two North Dakota cowboys accompanied the cattle on the 22-hour flight operated by UPS Inc.
UPS officials said it was the first time the company had hauled a herd of bovines in the belly of one of its Boeing 747 freighters.
"We've shipped all kinds of animals, from whales to pandas but I can't recall cows," said Ronna Branch, a UPS spokeswoman at the company's headquarters in Atlanta.
Herds of U.S. dairy cattle have been shipped abroad before but usually by ship and trains, Seifert said. The beef cattle were flown because it was quicker and less stressful for them and because Kazakhstan is landlocked, he said.
"I believe this the first of its kind for beef cattle," he said.
The animals being sent from North Dakota will go to two 2,500-animal breeding facilities and a feedlot, Yerubayev said. Eventually, the country, the ninth-largest in the world, could buy as many as 50,000 cows from North Dakota, he said.
"This is just a pilot project," Yerubayev said. "But it is the biggest upgrade of cattle in our history.
"Everyone in our country knows about this project, including the president."
A delegation of Kazakhstan officials were invited to North Dakota in frigid January to look over cattle herds. The bitter conditions proved to be a big selling point.
"The winter in northern Kazakhstan gets hard like in North Dakota," Yerubayev said. "That's why we chose North Dakota cattle."
North Dakota cows typically have thicker coats and more marbling and fatty tissue "because of the environment in which they're raised," Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.
Bill Price, president of Global Beef Consultants, said cattle for the Kazakhstan project would come from ranches throughout central and western North Dakota.
"We have the northern genetics that everybody is after," said Price, who runs a ranch with his mother and brother north of Bismarck. "That's our selling point."
Kazakhstan already is the fourth-biggest importer of North Dakota products, mostly farm machinery. The state exported $40.3 million in goods last year, up from $25 million in 2005.