Kazakhstan Cowboys – Part 1

Host: Dr Campbell Costello

This is part 1 in a 5 part series written about Dr. Campbell Costello’s time managing and developing a cattle station in Kazakhstan. 

I can hear the waves and spray hitting the side of the boat. It’s a balmy day in the Indian Ocean and I’m escorting some Dairy cows to Pakistan. Some little storm cells have brewed up off Sri Lanka within the last thirty minutes. These small collections of cumulonimbus clouds have mustered enough strength to create a few feet of swell from an otherwise calm and flat body of water. The swell slaps at the starboard bow and the spray peppers the officer’s mess windows. The patter of seawater against the glass takes me back to a freezing cold night, in a leaky UNICEF tent, in the Kazakhstan Alps . . .

Kazakhstan is an ancient landlocked country located in central Asia to the South of Russia, to the west of China, to the East of the Caspian Sea, and to the North of all the other “Stan” countries. Kazakhstan has a continental climate – hot summers, and severely cold winters, and being flat allows its plains to accommodate impressive high, sweeping winds. For thousands of years nomadic, Islam-practising stock herders that spoke a Turkic language roamed its pastures and defended its lands from Mongol armies. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world and was the largest of the Soviet-union’s “Stans”. During the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan experienced a lot of change; the desertification of the Aral sea for agriculture, the secularisation away from faith and Islam, the adoption of the Russian language, the construction of the world’s oldest and still operational Space launch facility at “Baykonur”, and radioactivity from nuclear explosions at the Semipalatinsk test site just to name a few.

Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since has experience major economic growth due to large mineral, gas and oil reserves. It is somewhat investing back into its Agricultural sector. Kazakhstan has a stunning landscape that eerily gives a feeling of isolation second to that of Australia. The landscape stretch across deserts and dry steppes, which is flat in the west, has lowlands against the Caspian Sea, and massive mountains rise along its East and Southeast borders. These mountains against the Kyrgyzstan Republic would be where I would call home for several months as station manager and head veterinarian of an Angus cattle station.

So how does one end up being the only English speaking, western male for five hundred kilometres, in a country that most folk have never heard of? It is a long story, which my friends and colleagues are accustomed to when I explain the weird and wonderful misadventures of my veterinary career. It was January 2016 and I had found myself working with Dairy cows in Pakistan a few hours from Lahore, the administrative center in the North East of the country. A veterinary colleague rang me and asked if I could check some Angus heifers in Kazakhstan on a farm five hours drive from Almaty. Forty-eight hours later I found myself on a flight from Lahore to Almaty via Dubai – from warm weather to sub zero, snow covered mountains, and 400 pregnant heifers in the snow.

Cattle and agriculture have been in my family for generations. I was born and raised in North Queensland, on my family’s beef cattle stations near Charters Towers, which ran Brahman cattle. I did School-of-the-air through Charters Towers and lived the life of a typical bush kid before going to Charters Towers, and finally Brisbane, for boarding school. I then took a Gap Year off between high school and veterinary college to work on my family’s stations. I graduated from James Cook University’s very first class of Veterinarians and I have focused on rural cattle practice ever since, which has taken me both interstate and overseas.

The contrast of black Angus cattle against the snow white covered Kazakhstani mountains and landscape was mesmerising. My translator rounded up my team of Kazakh and Russian speaking cowboys, truck drivers, and mechanics. We had ten days to pregnancy test 400 head of cattle in slow facilities, fix the mixer wagon, and prepare their “feedlot” for their first calves, which were due only eight weeks away. We got it done, I packed my bags and my driver and I headed to Almaty very quickly – we ran out of money to bribe the police officers as we had incurred four speeding fines in two hundred kilometres. I spent a few hours in a tradition Russian “Banya” or sauna, headed to the airport, and as quickly as I had arrived I was headed back to the southern hemisphere. A few months passed, some spent working as a veterinarian for the Iditarod sled race in Alaska, and I received word from the Kazakhstani owners that they wanted me as their farm manager and head veterinarian full time. So I packed my bags, greased my boots, and flew back to Central Asia for the wettest spring the country had seen in decades.

Feeding in the snow.

Impressive storm building over our mess hall.

Cattle grazing in the mountains.

Dr Campbell Costello BVSc.

Instagram: @dr_cozy