When Jeremy and Roxy Thiessen first served their home-finished beef to friends, their guests declared they’d never tasted anything like it. While this is often how stories of direct-marketing success begin, the Thiessens had a distinct advantage based on their location and market demands, providing a unique opportunity for this family.
At first glance, the arid grasslands surrounding Jeremy Thiessen’s feedlot may bring to mind the Palliser’s Triangle. This landscape, however, has fostered a tradition of herding livestock that dates back thousands of years. The steppes of northern Mongolia are home to Xanadu Razorback, Thiessen’s small feedlot, located at Hutag-Ondor in the province of Bulgan.
What is now a “steppe-to-plate” program began when Thiessen first finished and processed beef for his family’s use. “Most of the animals that are slaughtered here are three- to six-year-old steers,” Thiessen explains. “There was no other intensive feedlots in Mongolia, and in the grocery stores you couldn’t find T-bone steak or ribeye steak or any sort of different types of cuts. It was all just big chunks of meat.”
After trying this beef, produced using management practices similar to those used in Canada, their friends expressed interest in purchasing beef, and then asked if Thiessen would raise beef to carry in their store in Ulaanbaatar, which catered to expatriates. Thiessen focused on Mongolia’s expat community as his first target market based on their desire for recognizable cuts of beef.
“Some of the higher-end restaurants also were wanting to put steaks on the menu, so I started giving samples,” he says. This evolved to his current program, in which he finishes and processes the animals himself to get as much value as possible out of his investment.
“There wasn’t any intermediate company or system that was in place that I could actually market my animals that I had put more money into. In order to make any profit I had to go all the way.”
Thiessen’s background in the Canadian beef industry provided the foundation for his business. He was raised on his family’s ranch north of Fort St. John, B.C. In the 1960s, his father and uncle started their ranch with 20 head of polled Herefords after riding in to select their land and building five miles of road through dense forest. The ranch grew to 200 head of females, and as kids Thiessen and his siblings enjoyed showing their family’s registered Hereford bulls at exhibitions. His two eldest brothers purchased the operation and have since expanded their herds.
Thiessen’s own adventure began in the fall of 1993, when he travelled to Mongolia with a Christian aid organization. While adapting to life in Mongolia was something of a culture shock, he was eager for the challenge.
“I spent the first three years in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, learning the language and culture, and then also taking weekend trips and week trips out into the different parts of the country and exploring it,” he says.
He moved to Bulgan province in 1996 and worked in a community where he and others taught gardening skills. By working on commercial-scale projects to grow vegetables, this has provided a new livelihood for more than 50 families in the community since then.
“We were looking at starting another aid project. However, as we were assessing that, in my mind it was becoming more necessary for the people (to) be given jobs and skills rather than aid,” says Thiessen. “Looking at the agriculture industry in Mongolia, there was so many opportunities because of the lack of development in the industry, so that was what I wanted to target.”
The opportunity came when he found his way to Mongolia’s cattle business after a local producer offered to sell him some calves in 2004. He purchased three calves for around $11 per head, built a small corral and bought local wild grass hay and wheat bran for feed. As the calves started to grow and do well on feed, neighbouring herdsmen had their doubts about Thiessen’s methods.
“As the months went on and the calves kept gaining, their perception changed,” he recalls. “I was given a calf the next fall because they saw I knew what I was doing.”
Challenges to beef industry
When Thiessen established his feedlot in 2009, he was operating within a challenging system. Cattle production in Mongolia has retained much of its traditional nomadic character.
“The local herdsmen move two to three times annually, looking for free-range pasture for their herds,” Thiessen explains. “Most herdsmen will have a winter and summer camp, but they also move in spring and fall depending on the availability of the grass.”
In the 1950s, Hereford genetics were introduced from Russia, and herds were established on state-run farms in the provinces of Bulgan and Selenge. The breed did well in this environment, and breeding programs were well-managed by Soviet-trained livestock specialists. After the fall of the Soviet Union, though, state farms closed, livestock services deteriorated and Mongolia’s cattle industry seriously declined.
As for the traditional herding system, problems began to appear at this time when the Mongolian government actively encouraged producers to expand their herds, putting undue stress on the grasslands. The Mongolian steppes share many qualities with the Canadian Prairies, but the landscape has its own ecological challenges.
“It is a bit of a delicate landscape because of the aridness and the climate and the temperatures,” says Thiessen. “You can go from minus 40 in the wintertime to almost plus 40 in the summertime.”
Stocking rates and overgrazing have become critical issues in the steppes, challenging the future of the Mongolian beef industry. Loss of plant biodiversity and not enough pasture recovery time have put more pressure on the already low feed availability.
“There has to be some kind of management or this delicate landscape is going to be turned into a desert, and once that happens, if that happens, how do you bring it back? It’s very difficult.”
With a lack of supplemental feed in the winter, it’s estimated that native Mongolian cattle generally lose up to 30 per cent of their body weight each winter. With such conditions, it generally took several years to finish a steer. Intensive feeding programs were a foreign concept in Mongolia’s beef industry before Thiessen started his feedlot, and such programs are still an anomaly.
“Traditionally, Mongolian herdsmen will cut wild grass in meadows and valleys in September in minimal amounts because of it being labour-intensive,” he says. “It is cut with small tractors with a sickle bar, putting the hay into piles, then loading them onto trucks by hand, unloading them onto a bigger stack at their winter camps by hand. The amount of hay put up is insufficient and the quality is poor because it is cut after the grass is dried.”
In addition to the size of the market and availability of quality feed, several health challenges face the development of the Mongolian beef industry. Some areas continue to deal with brucellosis and foot-and-mouth disease in herds, and Thiessen treats all his cattle for warbles upon feedlot entry. As well, he notes the difficulty in sourcing good-quality calves due to age, health and body condition. Other issues hindering the country’s cattle business include outdated production technologies and very few processing facilities that meet export standards.
Opportunities for development
Despite these industry-wide challenges, Thiessen foresees Mongolian beef carving out its place in the market. New opportunities are emerging, with domestic markets demanding higher-quality beef and export markets growing in China and Russia.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for a niche market to sell all-natural, high-quality meat to some of the bigger markets around us,” he says.
He also envisions opportunities for the recovery of Mongolia’s grasslands, further supporting the industry’s development.
“If they were managed properly, and a short period of time of intensive feeding with good-quality feed, a unique, great-tasting beef is possible, which could be exported to niche markets in this region and farther.”
In developing his own operation, Thiessen currently sources two-year-olds from local producers for his 90-day feeding program and generally has around 150 head on feed at any time.
“I like the numbers to be closer to 200,” he says. “If I go too much more than that I end up feeding them for too many days, and my profitability starts to go down.”
With 10 employees at Xanadu Razorback, Thiessen and his team take the animals from feeding through the rest of the supply chain. This year, they aim to process 60 head per month. After slaughter, the beef is dry-aged and processed. Profit margins have been minimal due to the nature of a steppe-to-plate program, but Thiessen reports this is beginning to change. Xanadu Razorback supplies beef to several high-end restaurants, promoting the feeding program, animal health standards and management practices that contribute to great-tasting beef.
“One of my objectives in feeding cattle is to encourage quality to the livestock: bringing them off of the pasture earlier, putting them into a more intensive feeding program where they can gain weight, improving their health and quality of meat,” he explains.
While Thiessen sees further opportunities for the use of production technologies from Canada, he’s found it’s important to understand the culture and history of Mongolian herding traditions when introducing new methods.
“Sometimes expats come in with expectations that we’ll just copy-paste our system into this other context, and it doesn’t work — not all the time — the way it’s supposed to because of logistics, of culture,” he says. “There’s a host of things that people need to be considering if they go cross-culturally and get involved directly into people’s lives.”
Xanadu Razorback’s approach to finishing beef has attracted attention from the Mongolian government and businesses who want to help develop the country’s beef industry.
“In 2014 we had the parliament speaker of the house come visit our farm, and since then we’ve had multiple government officials come through. We’ve had multiple Mongolian businesses come and see our feedlot even though it’s really small, and just recently the minister of agriculture has recognized that this type of intensive feeding needs to be supported and developed in Mongolia,” he says.
“Even though it’s a small company and a small business right now, I’ve been able to have an impact not only in developing a business but also working to try and help the whole cattle industry develop here in Mongolia.”