Until a few years ago, Garner Deobald had not set foot in Kazakhstan. The Saskatchewan rancher had little reason to travel across the world to a fledgling former Soviet republic where slaughterhouses had long sat idle.
But times have changed. With Kazakhstan's thriving oil fields driving a surging economy, the country's government wants to diversify. That means kick-starting an agriculture sector and turning to Canada – not just to buy Canadian meat, equipment and expertise, but live animals.
Canadian ranchers have flocked since Kazakhstan's government set aside $900-million to buy breeding cattle. Mr. Deobald first visited Kazakhstan three years ago; this week, he's making his ninth trip to the country, about which he once knew little.
"I knew where it was on the map, and ran across people that were in the oil and gas business that had been over there," said Mr. Deobald, who has sold about 800 head of cattle to Kazakhstan buyers in three years. "I think we're in the middle of a heyday."
But it is not just cattle. The trade talk now includes horses, which are eaten as a delicacy in Kazakhstan. A memo released under the Access to Information Act shows federal officials last year hosted a Kazakh delegation that wanted to buy 350 Canadian breeding horses to kick-start a domestic slaughter industry.
While no Kazakh money has been earmarked for buying horses abroad, "there is hope that this could change soon," the Canadian memo says. If so, the delegation envisioned a "substantial market" for Canada in a country that believes it "represents the future in terms of per capita [horse] consumption."
The memo comes amid ongoing debate about Canada's role in the world horse meat sector, but also underscores a trade-off facing producers: Kazakhstan represents a rich market for livestock at a time when buyers are drying up, but exporting live animals erodes demand for Canadian meat and helps build a potential competitor.
"We're interested in that. Let's face it – if we're not there, they'll buy [live animals] from the Australians, the Americans or whomever else. It's probably true that in some way they'll end up being a competitor of ours," says Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson, who made his first visit to Kazakhstan this year with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and other officials.
Mr. Olson found a bustling capital ("like Vegas without the casinos"), eager trade partners and infrastructure dating back to the Soviet Union. "So they're interested in trying to reboot their activity," he said.
Canada-Kazakhstan trade tops $3-billion annually, mostly in oil and gas. Kazakhstan spent $21-million on Canadian cattle, horse meat and agriculture products last year. The livestock is coveted largely because Canada's climate is similar to that of Kazakhstan.
"It's a very nice industry for us here in this country, for us breeders," said Burt Grundy, president of the board of the Canadian Hereford Association, a beef industry group. He is not concerned about Kazakhstan emerging as a competitor in meat export. "Quite frankly, it would be a long way down the road."
But beef is not king in Kazakhstan, where an emerging middle class has sent meat demand soaring. Horse meat is a favourite – Mr. Olson tried it on his trip – and Canada sold Kazakhstan $6.8-million in horse, donkey and mule meat last year, compared to $7.6-million in purebred cattle. If Kazakhstan starts buying live breeding horses, it will be with the goal of reducing its reliance on horse meat imports.
"At the moment, we can't satisfy our demand in Kazakhstan, so we have to import meat from other countries. But in [the] long term, we would like to enlarge our production facilities," Daniyar Seidaliyev, a trade official in Kazakhstan's Canadian embassy, said in an interview.
Demand for Canadian horses has dwindled, with the value of live horse exports down 30 per cent over the past five years. Canada exported just over 10,000 live horses last year, for breeding or slaughter, and slaughtered another 82,195 horses at four abattoirs. Belgium, France and Japan are the top buyers of Canadian horse meat.
Horse slaughter is a controversial industry in Canada, with animal rights advocates pushing for adoption of aging animals rather than slaughter. An NDP private member's bill, C-322, proposed bans on exporting horse meat and horses destined for slaughter.
But Kazakhstan is interested, according to the departmental memo prepared by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada employee Gavin Conacher and obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.
According to the memo, one of two Kazakh delegations at last year's Agribition trade fair in Regina asked about buying Canadian draft horses – hulking breeds, such as Clydesdales. The request appears to have caught Canadian officials off-guard.
"Their bigger objective, this particular group, was in the horse meat side. What I can tell is that [the federal officials] didn't know that was the case when this group arrived, specifically," Agribition CEO Marty Seymour recalls. He does not get many horse questions. "If it hadn't been for this Kazakh group coming through last year, I probably wouldn't have appreciated that there is a market for it."
Mr. Ritz declined interview requests. The memo says department officials brought the Kazakh delegation to an Alberta horse slaughter facility and says Kazakh officials view Canada "as a leader in the horse meat export business."
The memo is the only sign that Kazakhstan might want to buy live Canadian horses. A spokesman for Mr. Ritz's department said the agency is "not aware of any follow-up on activities from the meeting," and Mr. Olson's trip this spring included no discussion on live horse sales. A Kazakh delegation is set to visit Farmfair International in Alberta this year.
For now, the focus is on cattle. Mr. Deobald has carved out a niche rounding up suitable cattle domestically and then selling them to Kazakhstan, and hopes to continue while he can. "With most of these export programs like this, they're very dependent on the support they get from the Kazakh government," he said.
Mr. Seymour said Kazakhstan remains a "big market" at a time when countries across the globe are looking to Canada for seed stock to boost their livestock breeding. "Agriculture has become agribusiness. It's not just farming," he said. "There's a lot at stake, because countries need food."