Kazakhstan Cowboys – Part 2

Host: Dr Campbell Costello

This is part 2 in a 5 part series written about Dr. Campbell Costello’s time managing and developing a cattle station in Kazakhstan. 

In my career I had had very little experience with snow – it’s something that most Australians do not come across. I arrived back into Kazakhstan in late April and the snow melt had begun; and so did the rain. Boy did it rain, hail and “snow”. For most of April and May the precipitation kept coming. The underfed, unvaccinated heifers calved down into a frozen bog that would suck your gumboots off and chill you to the bone. This hostile environment coupled with unvaccinated and underfed mothers, poor quality colostrum, and very green Kazakh stockmen meant I was up against the ropes fast. There was a year’s work to get done in a fortnight.

With the pregnant heifers.

My quad bike after some light snow.

We had to mark the dropped calves, vaccinate EVERYTHING, treat scouring newborns, bury the dead ones, clean the yards up as best as we could for the calves that were still on their way, saddle our horses, and bush the cattle up into the only fenced paddock we had in the mountains – the holding paddock “feedlot” was filthy. So, after an extremely busy week, we swung the gates in the late afternoon and let the calved heifers and their calves out onto mountain pasture. My translator was on a lead rope behind me so I could coordinate my rough and tumble Kazakh stock camp via Russian and Kazakh linguistics.

The ringers riding back in the snow.

Boy were these cattle hungry! Three hundred plus head of Angus breeders plus calves bogged down into the fresh shoots of grass that had been tended to by the recent snow melt. My Kazakh steed had obviously not spent much time in the lead of a mob before and they were putting the pressure on us to head into the mountains of our only paddock. Being so hungry, fending for their calves and mothering up was a very low priority. My Kazakh ringers were struggling to keep a group of forty plus young calves on the tail of the mob up with us. The gradient of the mountains was brutal, and the only way up to the water trough was via a serpentine shaped valley with steep sides, and plenty of brush and scrub within it.

My stockcamp.

My Kazakh ringers on the tail were done – it had been a baptism of fire for them and without having an experienced stockman back on the tail with them for guidance, they were having calves splitting into low-lying brush, or beating them back and heading for the yards where the calves had had their last suck. It was a textbook “shit show” – what had I got myself into? The Sun had set and we did the best we could to hold the remnants in the dark. There was a Hansel and Gretel trail of bellowing calves up the valley. I hoped that the wolves, which Kazakhstan has a lot of, would not pick them off in the night but it was a death sentence to ride a horse along the side of the mountains at night to grab them. I was exhausted.

Mountain pasture.

Five weeks later and our only fenced paddock was short on grass. Most of the heifers had calved and were still bouncing back from the harsh Kazakhstani winter. Pestivirus had hit our herd hard, the scours had ripped through the calves, we’d been flat out vaccinating and getting our herd’s health program back on track. To make matters more frustrating our promised fencing supplies were nowhere to be seen. I’d had to wean calves very young as our heifers were thin and there some cows suckling three or so calves at once. The rain was still pounding us and I had got accustomed to smashing a packet of Parliament cigarettes daily. I’d sacked half a dozen “ringers” and another two or three had quit. The training and induction of stockmen became a daily, if not an hourly task, and with Ramadan upon us I had to ensure that my devout Islam ringers didn’t hit the deck whilst drafting cattle in the sun all day due to the religious custom of not being able to eat and drink during daylight hours. We had a massive problem looming – the head powers had spent all our cash doubling our land instead of on promised and much needed fencing products for the seven thousand unfenced hectares we already owned. We only had two-hundred and forty odd hectares fenced and about 650 head of ravenous cows, weaners, and calves to feed.

One of the few pieces of fence we had.

I jumped in a car and drove two hours to our other blocks that were 2500 metres above sea level in the mountains against the Kyrgyzstan border. Our land was in the vicinity of where these two countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, met in a triangle with China. The pasture was amazing and the scenery was like something out of “The Sound of Music”. This succulent pasture was exactly what the cattle needed to get much needed weight back on them before the next winter. It’s what the growing calves needed as they approached weaning. It’s what all the breeding animals needed so anoestrus (lack of cycling) could be minimised. Every gully or small valley in the undulating landscape had a fresh water spring in it, so water was not a problem.

All the ducks lined up, except a major one – fencing. There wasn’t a stretch of fence for hundreds of kilometres or any stockyards. It’s just something that doesn’t get done when you’re a nomad that shepherds your stock into these pastures during the summer, before retreating to lower country in the autumn before the snow hits in the winter. There isn’t a produce store, a local Elders or Landmark, a contract musterer to call, or neighbours to lend you a hand. This coupled with the fact that I had inexperienced stockmen to hold the cattle up in the mountains so that they didn’t get stolen or end up in another country meant there were several ways things could go badly! As a sixth cigarette chained into a seventh, I decided to roll the dice. We were going droving in the Alps.

Dr Campbell Costello BVSc.

Instagram: @dr_cozy