A First-Generation Russian Bull Comes of Age

Golden Autumn, Moscow’s annual livestock show, is a glorified petting zoo. Families walk the aisles petting sheep, rabbits, geese, chickens, ferrets, goats, and more.

At this year’s fair, the animals seemed to be handling the attention in stride. Except for the sheep. They’d had enough of wool-pulling and had sequestered themselves in the farthest corner of their pen. But children, undaunted, stretched their arms through the bars in what looked like a scene out of a zombie movie.

I backed up across the aisle to take their picture. And that’s when I felt it: something cold and slimy pressed against my neck. Startled, I spun around and came face-to-face with a Black Angus bull. I like to think that the bull was tapping me on the shoulder to say: “Hey, Ryan, how’ve you been?” Really, he was just curious about the flash on my camera.

But given the small number of beef cattle in Russia, there was a good chance that either I knew this bull, or the farm he was raised on. The sign above his pen—“Stevenson-Sputnik Ranch, Voronezh Oblast”—confirmed something even better: this bull came from the ranch I helped start in 2010.

I looked at the number on his yellow ear tag, 30859. The first digit corresponded to his birth year, 2013. The other numbers were his numeric birth order—the 839th calf born that season. This bull represented the first generation of our cattle that were entirely conceived and born in Russia.

I reached over the fence and gave him a head rub. He nodded against the pressure, the way my dog wiggles when I scratch his butt. The bull’s hair felt soft and clean, evidence that he’d been washed with shampoo for the exhibition. A common practice back in America, washing the cattle for show caught on in Russia thanks to Darrell Stevenson, the Montana rancher who was part owner of Stevenson-Sputnik Ranch.

As I stood there, having a moment with the bull, I thought about all the steps that had conspired to bring us together on that day in Moscow. It’s a story that illustrates how governmental policy translates into real, on-the-ground relationships between people who are working to grow enough food to feed the planet.

The Sputnik part of the name refers to Stevenson’s partners, Sergey Goncharov and Sasha Buzuleyev. And the story of how they came to be hyphenated together illustrates how government policy can shape agricultural development on the ground.

The Land Code

First, a little background. In 2002, Vladimir Putin was in a battle with old-guard politicians who did not want to see farmland privatized. At the time, Russia’s beef industry was in a tailspin (See Going Home, Home … on the Steppes of Eurasia.) Food production was so dismal that this nation, whose natural resources make it worthy of being a breadbasket to the world, was spending billions importing food. Putin held a meeting at the Kremlin, calling all 89 provincial leaders to Moscow.

“While we are arguing who must own the land, it is being conquered by weeds,” he told them. “During the last decade, about 18 million hectares (44 million acres) have gone out of agricultural production—an amount comparable to the territory of France.” he said, according to the Irish Times.

Putin would eventually amend the Land Code to allow for the sale of farmland for the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In 2005, Sergey Goncharov and Sasha Buzuleyev bought Sputnik Collective Farm, a failing pig farm located 30 minutes outside of St. Petersburg. All that kept the farm afloat was a section of land leased to the local municipality for use as a dump. But the two men had the idea of raising beef cattle. With steak dinners costing $100 a plate, the potential profit margin was appealing. All they needed was beef cattle, of which Russia had practically none.

Hungary Cattle, Starving Industry

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it took a long time for Cold War attitudes to fade. In 2005, Russia was still blocking imports from most Western nations. Goncharov and Buzuleyev went looking for beef cattle they could import to Russia. In Hungary, they bought 69 Black Angus heifers (young females) and four bulls. They weren’t all that exceptional—small and bony by industry standards—but the aspiring cattlemen would take what they could get.

The Soviet approach to cattle farming was to stick every animal inside of a barn. However, beef cattle thrive out in the open, on pasture. Goncharov, being the more inquisitive of the two farmers, learned about cell grazing, a holistic pasture management system pioneered in New Zealand. It meant dividing Sputnik Farm into a pasture grid, and moving the cattle from cell to cell so that their impact was distributed equally. By the time they got back to square one, the grass had regenerated to the point it could be grazed again without damage.

Cell grazing was especially easy on Sputnik Farm, given the modest herd size. This was a problem for their business plan. It would take a decade for these 73 cattle to grow into a herd the size of which they could use to make money. They needed more cattle, preferably of higher quality bloodlines. And those animals lived in major cattle-producing nations like the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

Trade Doors Open

The Russian government realized its farmers needed access to Western technology. But having been walled off from the West for so long, how could farmers even know where to look to do business abroad?

In January 2006, Russia sponsored a trade delegation to the Denver Stock Show, the largest livestock exhibition in America. Goncharov, who spoke a little English, went on the trip.

In Denver, he was befriended by Jim and Lynn Butcher, Simmental cattle ranchers from Montana. Even though Goncharov wasn’t interested in their breed of cattle, the ranchers invited him for a visit to Montana. While there, Buzuleyev asked to visit some Black Angus breeders. The Butchers took him to Stevenson Angus Ranch, but the owners weren’t home. A cowboy showed them around the ranch and the sight of rangeland filled with cattle inspired Goncharov for what he hoped to one day build in Russia.

Meanwhile, American agricultural experts were starting to see Russia as an emerging market. In Montana, the state livestock marketing officer organized a trade delegation to attend Golden Autumn in Moscow. Stevenson and a few of his ranching buddies went on the trip.

But at the fair, the translators got drunk, leaving the American ranchers to fend for themselves. Stevenson felt anxious. Someone grabbed him by the arm. It was a man who spoke only Russian and introduced himself as Sasha. He was adamant that Stevenson follow him.

In a corner of the exhibition hall, relegated and all but forgotten by event planners, was a pen with a Black Angus bull, cow, and calf. Just the smell of them calmed Stevenson’s nerves. Another man, Goncharov, stepped forward and said: “I know who you are. I’ve been to your house.”

They struck up a little business relationship. The Russians couldn’t import live animals, but they could buy fertilized embryos to implant in their cows. A few times a year, Stevenson would fly to Russia to give them advice. They were becoming friends.

Then, in 2010, the Food Security Doctrine was signed. Events moved quickly. Goncharov and Buzuleyev signed for a low-interest, $20 million loan to grow their cattle enterprise. Stevenson had once pitched them on the idea of importing a “nucleus herd” of cattle—enough heifers, cows, and bulls to hit the ground running. The Russians now had the means to invest. And they wanted Stevenson to be their partner.

They decided to start a whole new ranch. The three cattlemen flew around the country, giving Stevenson pick of the litter of Russia’s large inventory of fallow land. He chose Lighthouse Collective Farm, a 14,000-acre property in the Black Earth region near the Ukrainian border. By December, Stevenson was on his way with a team of cowboys (including me), 1,400 pregnant cows, 50 bulls, 5 horses, and every ranching doodad he would need to turn Lighthouse into Stevenson-Sputnik Ranch.

To date, its herd has grown to 12,000 head and its landholdings have surpassed 40,000 acres. Most of the cowboy oversight has been phased out. A team of Russian veterinarians and herdsmen do most of the work.

And the proof of their success —bull 30859—just laid a wet, slobbery kiss on my neck.

Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project, #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Other recent Plate posts by Ryan Bell: Going Home, Home … on the Steppes of Eurasia and For Some Russian Farmers, Sanctions Never Tasted so Good.

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