Darrell Stevenson of Hobson, Mont., isn’t sure where the last six years have gone. Like many folks who jump head first into a new venture, Stevenson has been focused on seeing that his new ranching enterprise is successful.
But Stevenson’s new undertaking is ranching with a twist—six years ago, he took his ranching expertise to Russia, named it Stevenson Sputnik, and hasn’t looked back.
Stevenson first plunged into raising cattle in Russia with international shipments of cattle – 1,435 in 2010 – and then more each consecutive year.
“The floodgates opened in 2011 and there was a window of opportunity in Russia and Kazakhstan to take live cattle and semen there. There was a legitimate institutional push to build Russia’s beef industry to be self-sustaining. Goals were outlined to expand the country’s international food production,” Stevenson says.
So Stevenson partnered with two St. Petersburg businessmen who knew the country, from politics to paperwork to the people, to build a ranching operation there.
Voronezh, Russia, is where the first ranch, Stevenson Sputnik, was planted. Later, two more commercial cattle operations were established at other locations.
When Sputnik was created there was nothing but vacant ground. In the first year, wells, fences, outbuildings and pens had to be created. “It was a lot to do,” Stevenson admits. “And I didn’t know if we could get it done.”
But somehow they did.
Stevenson operates an Angus seedstock operation in Montana. That concept was the initial path for Stevenson Sputnik, but plans change and Stevenson and his business partners have had to switch their end target.
Today, Stevenson says the operation is vertically integrated. The cattle herd is mainly commercial cow-calf, they have their own feedyard and a small slaughtering facility. The meat is sold at street markets and now through their own restaurants. Nearly 7,000 head will be calved this year between all of the units.
The cowherd at this point is maintaining, according to Stevenson. All the semen is imported and is “real-time” genetics, some of the best in the U.S.
The focus is converting all the commercial cattle into a meat product. The animals are fed to 1,200 pounds. The cattle aren’t as fat and marbled as is typical of fed cattle in the U.S., but that seems to make little to no difference to the Russian public, Stevenson says.
In the first few years of operating in Russia, American cowboys were on hand for the various seasons and tasks associated with them. In 2015, the last fulltime U.S cowboy came home.
“What I am so pleased about today is the evolution of our Russian employees. We have some key people that have made things successful,” Stevenson says.
First there is the general manager, Vladimir, whom Stevenson says knows how to manage people and is truthful with a budget.
Second, there is a local woman who has made a large impact in the health and well being of the cattle. When Stevenson was struggling to find adequate help in the calving barn, he finally asked his manager to source women from the village in hopes that he could tap into their innate maternal instinct. It worked and today, Svetlana has been elevated to different key aspects related to the well being of the cattle.
The final two that Stevenson says are owed large thanks, are two young, 28-year-old veterinarians, Losha and Katya, who manage all the cattle scheduling and health protocols.
They don’t speak an ounce of English but are extremely observant and, Stevenson says, they are a rare find.
“This has been quite an adventure to say the least. Never would I have imagined where it has taken me,” says Stevenson in reflection.
He says among the greatest lessons learned involves animal breeding. Stevenson says he learned real fast what sire groups rose to the challenge of life in Russia and made changes in genetics based on those results.
Stevenson’s role with the Russia operations has changed since the beginning. At first he was there for continuous months overseeing things, but always he had in the back of his mind his family duties in the U.S.
“I told my partners I would not be sacrificing fatherhood for this. And I think I have made that work pretty well. I made all my son’s basketball and football games last year,” he says.
Now he is down to two to three trips a year to visit the Russian cattle operations.
“One of the neatest stories, I was standing in a pasture in Montana in 2012 on my cell phone with a livestock broker in Australia confirming a sale of 40 bulls that we raised in Russia and sold to a customer in Kazakhstan. It was a four-country, three-continent deal. It’s just ridiculous,” Stevenson says with a laugh of the global ranch life he now enjoys.
Codi Vallery-Mills is an ag journalist based in Sturgis, S.D. where she lives and ranches with her family.
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