Montana rancher Darrell Stevenson teams up with two Russian cattlemen to export an entire cow outfit to the Russian steppes. In the first of a three-part series, the author rides along with the Stevenson cowboys to the land of borscht, fallow land and the $75 steak dinner.
IN THE JUDITH BASIN OF CENTRAL MONTANA, nuclear missile silos pockmark the ground like an atomic-age prairie dog town. They were installed in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War with Russia. The Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and most of the missiles are now deactivated, but Cold War phobias live on in the psyche of the cowboys who ride herd amidst the sleeping giants of havoc.
That’s why it was shocking for locals to learn that Judith Basin rancher Darrell Stevenson was taking 1,434 cattle, five Quarter Horses and a team of cowboys to start a ranch in Russia.
The Stevenson Angus Ranch is a leading Black Angus cattle breeder, founded in the 1930s and now owned by the fourth generation of Stevensons. Its annual bull sale, now in its 51st year, is a prime-time event that draws cattlemen from across the United States to the tiny ranch town of Hobson, Montana. Understandably, it was big news that Darrell was taking more than 50 percent of the Stevenson herd to Russia.
“Russia is wide open,” Darrell told newspapers last December. “There are literally millions of acres of vacant grasslands waving in the wind.”
It turns out that the Russian Federation suffers from a beef crisis. It imports 40 percent of its red meat, a steak costs $75 in a Moscow restaurant, and the beef in village grocery stores is, as Darrell puts it, just one step above boot leather.
The Russian beef industry wasn’t always so destitute. It steadily declined over the past 100 years, going from 18 million beef cattle in 1917 to 600,000 in 2010. Today, there’s one cow per 237 Russians, compared to the U.S ratio of one cow per 3.5 Americans.
Resolving the beef shortage is a top priority for the Russian government. In February 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev signed the Food Security Doctrine, calling for Russia to produce 85 percent of its own beef by 2020. To make it happen, Medvedev cut import duties and taxes on foreign pedigreed beef cattle, and created a loan subsidy program to encourage international business. And that’s how a Montana rancher teamed up with two Russian cattlemen to start a Western-style cattle ranch on the Russian steppes.
STARTING A COW OUTFIT from scratch isn’t as romantic an idea as it may seem. Where do you begin? The list of considerations is endless: land, water, grass, livestock, barns, labor, bunkhouses, fences, gates, hostile locals, hostile bureaucrats, hostile wildlife, ranch roads, machinery, winter weather, summer weather and so on. The idea tarnishes, leaving you with a glimpse at how a frontiersman could be driven mad by the consequences of his own ambition.
That reality dawned on Darrell last spring, after he signed a $7 million contract with Russian cattlemen Alexander Buzuleyev and Sergey Goncharov. He needed help to pull off the venture, so turned to a trusted friend, Kraig Sweeney. The Lewistown, Montana, cowboy had managed Stevenson Angus Ranch for a decade before striking off on his own.
“How about a cowboy adventure to Russia?” Darrell asked Kraig.
Kraig was game, but he had one question: “We’ll take our own horses, right?”
Darrell hesitated. “I’m not sure about that.”
“I’m not going to battle with a BB gun,” Kraig said. “If I’m going over, we’re bringing our own horses.”
Darrell ran the idea by his Russian partners, but they didn’t like it. Why spend the money to ship horses from America when there were plenty of cheap mounts in Russia? Darrell had learned a thing or two about Russian diplomacy. He told the Russians that in the American West, a horse is considered a tool for performing a job, and that a cowboy is handicapped without it. They needed well-built Quarter Horses, with the instincts and training to work cattle. The Russians trusted Darrell and relented.
In March, Kraig traveled with Darrell to Russia and visited the 13,000-acre Stevenson Sputnik Ranch (the Russian word “sputnik” translates loosely as “partner to the earth”). There, he got an idea of the type of horse they needed. The ranch was at an elevation of 1,000 feet, and at latitude similar to that of Calgary, Alberta. Kraig knew that any horse they brought would need to survive in extreme weather conditions, including temperatures to 30 below in winter and 100 degrees in summer. And the ground wasn’t rocky like in Montana, but soft and loamy owing to its location in Russia’s Black Earth region. A deep layer of topsoil covers this land, which makes for great summer grass but terrible springtime mud.
A final consideration was the fact that the Stevenson crew would be training Russian villagers in the cowboy trade. So, it wouldn’t hurt if a few of the horses had more dude than rawhide in them.
Straight away, Kraig bought a 4-year-old gelding named Tumbleweeds who he’d had an eye on. With bloodlines going back to CD Olena and Grays Starlight, the gelding’s streamlined frame promised good agility, speed and a cowy punch. Kraig also bought Tumbleweeds’ cousin, Big Joe, a bulky gelding with a calm disposition that would be Russian-friendly. He rounded out the Stevenson-Sputnik string with three grade horses sourced from local ranchers he trusted. They included a buckskin named Bucky, a bay horse named Bay, and a sorrel who Kraig called Red. What the horses lacked in imaginative names, they made up for in good disposition, strength and training.
The horses were put into a quarantine pasture on Stevenson Angus Ranch to prepare them for entry into Russia. However, that didn’t mean they got the summer off. The 1,434 cattle were also in quarantine, requiring a laundry list of vaccinations for a range of diseases, including bovine leukosis, brucellosis, tuberculosis and Johne’s disease. There was no shortage of horseback work.
In October, two Russian veterinarians flew to Montana to oversee the quarantine process. Yury Azarov was a quiet family man from the city of Voronezh, which is the administrative center of Voronezh Oblast (province). He worked for the Russian government and had final say in clearing the animals for shipment. Kate Zimina worked for Darrell’s partners on another farm of theirs, located outside of St. Petersburg. She was in charge of seeing the livestock through to Stevenson Sputnik Ranch and conducting a second round of quarantine in Russia.
Between Yury and Kate, there was the spectrum of Russian personalities. Yury was a government bureaucrat who didn’t speak English, rarely showed emotion, and gave the impression that every footstep off Russian soil physically hurt him. When I met Yury, I tried out a Russian phrase I’d memorized: Вы понимаете английский? (Do you understand English?) Yury shook his head “no.” End of conversation.
Kate spoke fluent English, she worked hard, and had a sympathetic nature that endeared her to everyone she met. Sara Stevenson, Darrell’s wife, all but adopted Kate as a daughter, and Kraig took her under his wing to teach her Western horsemanship. They didn’t know it at the time, but Kate would be invaluable on Stevenson Sputnik Ranch, helping to teach Western culture and the cowboy work ethic to her Russian comrades.
ON THE EVE OF OUR DEPARTURE, the Stevenson Angus Ranch crew and its Russian guests descended on the Elk Ridge Saloon, a beer hall in Hobson, Montana. The only space big enough to seat us all was a poker table in the back room. The green felt was singed with cigarette burns and watermarked by the ghosts of spilled drinks past. I traced one stain with my finger, thinking how it was shaped like the birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead. I had too much Russia on the brain. We all did. One of the cowboys bought a round of vodka, thinking Yury would appreciate the gesture. But instead of drinking his shot, Yury sat back in his chair, arms crossed, staring at the vodka like a mule sizing up a packsaddle.
“He doesn’t like American vodka. Give him whiskey,” Darrell joked.
At age 40, Darrell is a Dennis the Menace sort, known among friends for his decorative use of the English language and a predilection for heavy betting at Texas Hold ’Em. As we peppered him with questions about the upcoming trip, it occurred to me that Darrell was motivated as much by the business opportunity to be found in Russia as by the excuse for adventure.
“What’s the food like?” someone asked.
“It sucks, you better like beets,” he said.
“Are the women pretty?”
“Does it matter? Stevenson Sputnik is in the sticks. Long shot you’ll meet any women out there.”
“How are we taking the critters over, anyway?”
That was a good question. The plan was to send one group of 550 head (cattle and horses) by cargo ship, departing from Wilmington, Delaware, and arriving at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, Russia. The remainder would fly over on 747 cargo airplanes, departing from Chicago and arriving in Moscow. Once in Russia, the livestock would be trucked to Stevenson Sputnik Ranch in the province of Voronezh. If everything went according to plan, we’d be on the ground in time for the start of calving season in January.
The second Monday in November started out like any other for veterinarian Craig Moore of Choteau, Montana. He sat at his desk, wading through the week’s paperwork, when the phone rang. It was Darrell Stevenson.
“I need a veterinarian to accompany a cargo ship full of cattle across the Atlantic Ocean,” Darrell said. “Can you leave for Russia in two weeks?”
The offer was so far-fetched that, if true, it was an adventure Moore couldn’t pass up. Thirteen days later, he was on board the Murray Express, a 240-foot livestock cargo ship, waving bon voyage to America.
The first few days at sea were tranquil. Moore made rounds through the ship’s three stories of livestock pens, checking on the cattle and horses. He spent his free time taking pictures of the ocean and getting to know the ship’s crew, all of whom were Filipino. The Murray Express, like most international cargo ships, is “flagged” in the Philippines where laws are lax and labor cheap. According to a 2009 report, one-third (330,000) of the world’s sailors are Filipino. Moore saw why; the crew worked hard around the clock, operating the ship and caring for the livestock.
Under clear skies, the ship made 10 knots (11.5 mph), the speed at which it would travel the 7,500 miles to Novorossiysk in 26 days. But half way across the Atlantic, the ship sailed into a storm. Monster 30-foot waves rocked the boat, pummeling both man and beast for several days. Moore, between bouts of seasickness, went below decks to check on the animals. They were woozy and filthy, shellacked in a concoction of mud, wood shavings and manure.
“It looks like they’ve been through a washing machine of s---,” he wrote Darrell in a satellite e-mail.
When the storm subsided, the crew hooked hoses to water pumps and washed down the animals and the facilities while Moore tended to the bruised and battered livestock. Miraculously, the horses made it through the storm unscathed. They had pressed into each other for stability, giving them better balance than their stubby-legged bovine shipmates.
The calm after the storm didn’t last long. After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, the gap between Africa and Europe that marks the beginning of the Mediterranean Sea, another storm hit, this one making international news. The Adriatic, a cargo vessel hauling scrap iron, sunk off the coast of Israel. The 11-man crew escaped in life rafts. Three more cargo ships were pummeled so badly that they needed to be towed into port for repairs. And a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Brilliance of the Seas, was tossed about like a rubber ducky in a storm gutter, traumatizing its passengers.
The Murray Express chugged headlong into the storm. The ship bucked and kicked so hard that Moore retreated to his bunk for safety, holding onto handrails fastened to the bed frame for stability. He stared at the ceiling to fight off nausea, watching the window curtains swing away from the wall at 30-degree angles and then back flush in rhythm with the rocking ship.
The Murray Express arched around the boot of Italy and threaded through the Greek Isles, still six days from making port in Russia.
MEANWHILE, DARRELL, Yury, Kate and I flew to Russia. The number of airline passengers wearing cowboy hats dwindled as we went east: seven hats in Billings, four in Salt Lake City, and in New York a man wearing a fedora deserved honorable mention (for bravery, if not fashion sense). By the time we deplaned in Moscow, it was just Darrell and me sporting our best black felts. A curious Muscovite approached Kate and asked where we were from.
“Они американские” (They’re Americans), she said. The man nodded approvingly, like he expected all Americans to wear cowboy hats.
We loaded into a passenger van and drove straight south to meet the Murray Express at the Port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. The Russian countryside was astonishingly beautiful. Humpbacked hills breeched through stands of birch and lodgepole pine forests. Much of the land had been cleared for agriculture, and yet we saw only a few fields planted in cover crops or winter wheat. The vast majority of it sat fallow, and there wasn’t a cow, horse or fence line in sight.
“It’s the closest thing I can imagine to what the American frontier looked like,” Darrell said.
Something didn’t add up: so much vacant land and so few cattle, and yet a national beef crisis. To understand it, you must look back on key events during the 20th century that dealt successive blows to the Russian beef industry.
During World War I, Tsar Nicholas II requisitioned 4 million head of livestock to feed the military. In 1917, the Communist Party overthrew the Tsar during the Russian Revolution, but the beef industry didn’t fare well afterward. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the newly formed Soviet Union, seized private land and cattle in the name of the Russian people, a tenet of communism.
In the region where Stevenson Sputnik Ranch is located, the peasants resisted, but Lenin’s ill-tempered successor, Joseph Stalin, waged genocide against them during the “Terror Famine.” Soviet agents seized property, sent those who defied the system to gulag work camps in Siberia, and blockaded the delivery of food, effectively starving the peasants into submission. An estimated 5 million people died, and those who survived had picked the land clean of what meat they could find.
In the 1940s, the Soviet Union rebuilt agriculture under the direct control of the Communist Party in Moscow. The Party consolidated large tracts of land into “collective farms,” giving them lofty names that rang with propaganda, such as Red Giant Farm and Farm Victory of Communism. Soviet planners favored labor-intensive agriculture that yielded large quantities of foodstuffs, so flooded river basins for rice farming, planted 10,000-acre grain fields, and employed legions of laborers to do the work by hand.
In the cattle sector, the Soviets focused on the dairy industry, reasoning that a dairy cow produced milk and beef. Consequently, what few pedigreed beef cattle remained were sent to the feedlots for processing, without any effort made to replace them.
The collective farm system deteriorated during the Cold War era. The farms were poorly managed, orders took too long to arrive from the central office in Moscow, the workers lacked motivation because they didn’t receive a paycheck or feel a sense of ownership, and the farms were stymied by a lack of Western technology available to the rest of the world. Food shortages and breadlines ensued, and the Soviet government was forced to import beef, grain and rice to feed its people.
By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, heralding the end of communism and the beginning of the Soviet Union’s demise, the collective farm system was gone. Workers reverted to their peasant ways, consuming what meat was on hand and eking out a subsistence living on the land adjacent to their villages.
As we traveled south, I saw vestiges of the collective farming era. Warehouse-sized barns that once housed dairy, pork and poultry factories now stood vacant. Human activity was conspicuously absent, making the facilities look post-apocalyptic. The windows were smashed out, unused grain silos wore marshmallow hats of snow, and farm machinery was parked with its gears probably rusted solid. It was a haunting, yet strangely beautiful sight.
AT THE PORT OF NOVOROSSIYSK, tensions were building by the minute. The Russian authorities had blockaded the Murray Express at sea, refusing to let it make port. As we walked up the steps of a nefarious-looking government building—the kind political dissenters disappeared from during the Soviet era—I was glad to have Darrell’s partner, Alexander “Sasha” Buzuleyev, on our side.
When I first met Sasha, I thought him an intimidating example of why Russians are compared to bears. He stood six feet tall, with a muscled and potbellied physique that made him look as though he could finish off a prime rib dinner and then easily change a trailer tire before dessert. He had a nervous energy, with eyes that flitted about and hands that shook sunflower seeds like a pair of dice before launching them into his mouth.
A secretary ushered us into an office occupied by six port officials. Sasha walked around the room, shaking everyone’s hand politely. Then he turned on them and dished out a major league tongue-lashing. Darrell and I stood at the doorway, giving our best stern looks to support whatever he was saying in Russian. Kate didn’t bother translating, because Sasha was using expletives that probably don’t exist in the English language. Plus, we had agreed to keep English conversations to a minimum because espionage is alive and well in Russia, and we couldn’t be sure who was eavesdropping.
After 10 minutes of Sasha’s berating them, two of the men exited the room tuck-tailed and the others were backed up against the wall. And that’s when the secretary returned to invite Darrell, Kate and me to tea.
“No thanks, I’m fine … ,” I began to say.
“I don’t think she’s offering; she’s telling us,” Darrell said.
We followed her down a hallway to a back room, leaving Sasha to fend for himself. The walls in the room were painted a peach color in a poor attempt to liven-up a space that’s prominent feature was an iron-barred window. It was essentially a holding cell.
“I don’t like feeling backed into a corner like this,” Darrell said.
He reached to his belt and checked that his Leatherman was handy. I reflex-ively checked mine, too, but if things went south, did we really think we could multi-tool our way out? We were probably the first Americans to see this far inside the government building, but with 550 exhausted animals on a ship blockaded on the Black Sea, we didn’t feel too honored.
“This is Russia. They could stop the boat just because an ‘i’ was not dotted in the shipping contract,” Darrell said.
Many hours later, Sasha came to our door and told us that the ship was on its way into port. He didn’t offer an explanation, and just stood there shaking sunflower seeds in his hand. We drove through the industrial shipyards, a James Bond-looking scene of security checkpoints, railroad cars hauling God-knows-what, and giant cranes loading coal onto ships. We found where the Murray Express was docked, and Craig Moore came running down the gangplank, making a dramatic final leap onto the pier.
“Get me off this thing!” he exclaimed.
We unloaded the cattle in batches of 50 onto stock trucks that looked homemade. The resourceful Russians had welded storage containers to truck frames, and cut air holes into the sides for ventilation. When it was time to unload the horses, Moore took us to where the five geldings stood inside the ship, huddled around a feed bin of grain. Physically, they looked awful—skinny as waifs and their hides matted in grime. But the look in their eyes suggested that they weren’t worse for wear.
We haltered and walked them off the ship and into a posh-looking horse coach, complete with padded stalls and mangers overflowing with hay. We shut the door and sent the truck on its way for the last 24-hour leg of their journey to their new home on the Russian steppes.
AT LAST, WE DROVE onto Stevenson Sputnik Ranch. The property was shrouded in fog and blanketed in two feet of snow. A winter storm had hit, scattering the convoy of trucks along the 500-mile route between Novorossiysk and Voronezh. Inside the ranch’s security gate, three trucks were stuck, their tires sunk into the snow. Kate asked a driver if there were cattle onboard.
“He’s empty,” she reported.
“Good, let’s go to the corrals,” Darrell said, impatient to see his cattle.
With barely any light left in the day, we pulled up at a pipe rail fence, behind which the shadows of a thousand cattle moved in the fog. But the horses weren’t in sight. Kate spoke with a man driving a tractor, who pointed to a wood-sided barn. Inside, we found Tumbleweeds, Big Joe, Bucky, Bay and Red in a stall, looking skinny and pathetic. Their lead ropes were tied short to a rail so they couldn’t raise or lower their heads, and there wasn’t any hay or water.
“This is ridiculous,” Darrell said, untying the nearest horse.
We walked them outside to a vacant cattle pen. The horses pushed and lunged against the lead ropes, justifiably irate over their treatment during the past five weeks. We turned them loose and they put on a show of kicking, running and rolling in the snow. Darrell, Kate, Craig and I stood watching them against the backdrop of a setting sun so crimson in color that I could imagine a hammer and sickle stamped into it. But when we rose for work the next morning, the sky was dishwater gray, without a hint of red.
In Part 2 of “Comrade Cowboy,” Ryan T. Bell details a Russian calving season, with 30 calves dropping a day in three-foot-deep snow. Bell writes the column “Backcountry Insight.” Visit his web site at ryantbell.com.