Dairy farming in the U.S. is a science. Farmers combine the best bull semen with the best cow embryos to improve the milk production of their herds. In many other countries, dairy is not as advanced but farmers in some of these countries recognize the potential for improvement. Recognizing the business potential of providing superior dairy cattle genetics to farmers in other countries, Kevin Leaverton founded Shore Genetics nearly 30 years ago as a hobby. The business has evolved to become a full-time operation doing business in about 50 countries.
The Leaverton family has been in the area of Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties for around 300 years. Kevin Leaverton grew up farming on his family’s dairy farm on Grange Hall Road in Centreville. His parents, F. Reed and Maryellen Leaverton, started the dairy in 1961 with 28 cows on a rented piece of property. In 1966 they purchased land with a $100 deposit and a handwritten agreement. Today, the Leavertons have a full dairy operation with 100 cattle.
Leaverton said that when he was growing up on the farm, buyers would come to the dairy to buy embryos and bulls to mix with their herds.
Leaverton started Shore Genetics in 1989 as an S-corporation with eight other local stock-holders. The business dealt in embryos and live cattle. At first, Shore Genetics used other hubs to move its genetic products internationally, but eventually economics came in to play and the business began reducing steps from producer to customer to cut cost and price.
“A group of local farmers gathered and we decided instead of using the brokers all over the world (to sell the genetic material) that we would become more direct business to the buyers,” Leaverton said.
In 1999, the company left the international companies it was a part of and went into direct sales. The move allowed the company to get the product to the buyer more quickly and at the cheapest price possible. The company expanded to offer bull semen the same year.
“The semen side is a lot more difficult, because virtually after you make your investment it is five years later before you know what you have,” Leaverton said. “There is a whole testing mechanism that the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) uses to figure out what the end product is. A group of local farmers decided that they would start testing young bulls to see if they would come through as mature to make semen to increase milk, butter fat and protein levels in the dairy industry.”
Shore Genetics Today
Shore Genetics has three hubs in the U.S. where the semen is collected from bulls. The hubs are in Virginia, Ohio and California. Some embryos and bull calves come from the Leaverton farm. The business also has bulls in the Czech Republic and Italy. Shore Genetics shipped embryos to the Czech Republic to make bull calves to start that operation. Now the grown bulls, which have the same genetics as U.S. bulls, serve as a cheaper source of semen. In Italy the bulls are from the European market and Shore Genetics works closely with a small artificial inseminator. Shore Genetics International will also sell live cattle to customers, but does so on a limited basis because there is a higher risk and cost associated with them dying in transit, Leaverton said.
Every customer is different, with each country having a different way of doing business, Leaverton said. In Spain, Leaverton deals with a group of veterinarians.
In Gambia, he deals with a private farm, consisting of six or seven neighbors. In Guatemala, he deals with a college graduate who wants to start a business. In Peru, he deals with a farmer who sells to other farmers. In China, he deals with a large milk plant. In Barbados, he sells both to individual farmers and also to the country’s agricultural ministry. In Iran, he sells to a private industry that sells to the country’s agricultural ministry. His buyers are farmers, governments and other businesses that need bull semen or cow embryos to bolster their local breeds, usually for improved milk production.
“It is always something different,” he said.
“Learning the way of doing business in each country and how money is handled is a challenge,” Leaverton said. Sometimes translators have to be brought in for negotiations, he said.
Leaverton travels extensively with the business to establish a business presence in new countries. A map in his office is dotted with pins in the places he has visited. He works closely with the United States Department of Agriculture, different countries’ embassies and the World Trade Center Institute, which helps Maryland businesses do business around the world.
“Also, what helps is you do a really good deal on one country and it just moves across the line”, Leaverton said. “Word of mouth really moves it.”
In 2006, Shore Genetics International received the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Achievement Certificate, recognizing its success entering new foreign markets.
The Benefit of Genetics
“Every country has a different genetic base, a different need in the past for what a cow does”, Leaverton said. “One hundred years ago, there were a lot of countries that used cows for dual purposes to pull the plow and make milk. There are a lot of countries now that want to be more specific, maybe more production or pulling the plow or maybe more meat.”
“In the U.S., genetics for dairy cattle are far superior thanks to farmers having the freedom to experiment, Leaverton said. In some other countries, governments regulate farmers on how they can breed their cows”, he said.