Thursday, October 26, 2017

Texas ranches air freight cattle to Vietnam

Ten Brahman bulls sat patiently in 10-by-8-foot crates as the doors were drilled shut. They peeped through slats when lifted some two stories into the air and onto a Boeing 747 cargo plane at Bush Intercontinental Airport. They would go much higher and farther during the 30-hour-plus journey to Vietnam.

International sales of Texas cattle are not new, but they are increasing as population growth and rising incomes around the world have more people introducing beef, pork and other meat-based proteins into their diets.

"As their incomes go up, people eat more meat," said David Anderson, a professor and agriculture economist at Texas A&M University. "And so there are countries who want to upgrade their quality of meat production and quantity of meat production."

In Vietnam, specifically, beef production has been relatively stagnant while demand has increased. Imported beef made up 19 percent of consumption in 2016, compared with 5 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Seeing the strong demand, Vietnamese producers have been investing in their herds. The USDA reports the value of U.S. shipments of live cattle and bovine semen reached $11.6 million and $1.1 million, respectively, between January and August.

Houston-area exports of live animals to Vietnam was worth $731,554 last year, according to WISERTrade data provided by the Greater Houston Partnership.

The 10 Texas Brahmans flown out Wednesday will be bred with local cows to improve Vietnamese beef's quality and quantity. Texas cattle have more meat with better marbling and tenderness.

And since one bull produces 30,000 units of semen throughout his lifetime - about two units of semen are required to inseminate a cow - each of these 10 bulls could produce 5,000 calves.

Alfredo A. Muskus, of the family-owned Santa Elena Ranch in Madisonville, first went to Vietnam a year ago on a trade mission with the American Brahman Breeders Association, based in Houston, and Holstein Association USA. Santa Elena sent its first shipment of bulls to Vietnam in March.

"I think a lot of cattlemen in the United States need to start realizing that there's a lot of international markets," Muskus said.

Eight of the bulls headed to Vietnam were from Santa Elena Ranch. The other two were from Detering Red Brahmans.

After the cattle were loaded onto the plane in their two crates, Muskus climbed aboard himself. As the livestock attendant for the flight, he would sit on the 747's upper deck while the cattle, with some room to lie down inside their crates, are in the bottom portion of the plane. Muskus will feed the animals and be available should they need anything.

He compared it to flying in first class with food and a few lie-flat beds. The cattle might as well be flying first class, too, as the cost to ship a bull to Vietnam is similar to the cost of a premium airline ticket.

The 747 departed Wednesday for Anchorage, Alaska, and will then fly to Taipei, Taiwan. The crates are unloaded in Taipei and placed onto another plane that will travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and then their ultimate destination in Hanoi.

The cattle will be taken to a breeding station that, according to an article in the Brahman Journal, is run by the Vietnamese government. It collects semen from beef and dairy bulls to sell to local producers.

Vietnam is just one of the markets where Texas cattle are being sent. Muskus said 60 percent of his ranch's business is with international customers. He's sent live Brahman cattle, frozen semen or frozen embryos to countries including Thailand, Pakistan, Venezuela, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico.

The Texas Department of Agriculture has also expanded international agriculture trade programs. It has coordinated activities on every continent, except Antarctica, and the department said trade missions to countries like China have opened new markets for Texas.

The department's Livestock Export Facility at Bush Intercontinental Airport was built in 1978 to export cattle. But the focus shifted to exporting horses about a decade ago, said Dr. Netia Abercrombie, a veterinary medical officer with the USDA.

Cattle began coming through the export facility again about a year ago, and Wednesday's flight marked the fifth cattle shipment in the past year to go through the site. In general, animals pass through the export facility two to three times a week.

But only certain cattle are worth first-class tickets.

"They have to be really expensive, high-dollar breeding stock," Anderson said. "Meaning they're going to be some really special bulls or cows."

The Brahmans exported Wednesday are a good fit for Vietnam because they're a resilient breed that does well in hot, humid weather.

"They truly thrive where it's harsh," said William Bunce, executive vice president of the American Brahman Breeders Association.

Muskus will spend four days working with his counterparts in Vietnam. He'll make sure the bulls are settled, check on the bulls his ranch previously sent and make suggestions that could improve the program.

Gordon Thornhill, general manager for T.K. Exports, which specializes in livestock, said Muskus will be able to teach them some tricks of the trade.

"You have an opportunity to take what you've learned and share it with somebody else," he said.

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