SHESTAKOVO, Russia -- Darrell Stevenson knew it would take more than rugged Montana cowboys, horses and cattle to create a ranching way of life in Russia, and the Hobson-area Angus breeder figures he's made a good start. Russian youth might help show the way.
A lack of worker passion after years of collective farming in the old Soviet Union was among the challenges Stevenson faced in 2010 when he and two Russian partners launched Stevenson Sputnik Ranch, a breeding operation they hope will populate cattle ranches throughout the country. Needing a way to showcase the ranch's pedigreed stock led Stevenson to hire two young sisters, about the age of his daughter, from the nearby village of Shestakovo.
Kids in Montana grow up showing livestock at county fairs, practically living with their animals, Stevenson says, so why not try the same thing in southwestern Russia. He taught the girls, ages 11 and 14, how to halter lead, bathe and care for the selected calves, and took the sisters to the Golden Autumn Moscow livestock exhibition, the country's premier show.
The young show women did well, by all accounts. At one point, a crush of spectators caused one of the animals to freeze. When other tactics didn't work, one of the sisters "whispered in the calf's ear and that got it moving again. It was so cute. They loved it at the show," says Marty Earnheart, livestock marketing specialist for the Montana Department of Agriculture.
"You should have seen their grandmother," Stevenson says. "She was just beaming."
There were skeptics at first, but the Montana ranching community is seeing the value of the ranch, which is 11 time zones east of Montana in the Voronezh region of Russia, about 340 miles south of Moscow. Through Stevenson's efforts, with help from people like Valier Hereford breeder Jack Holden, at least 44 Montana seed stock producers have sold live cattle to Russia and Kazakhstan since the fall of 2010.
The numbers are escalating. An initial 1,434 registered Angus and Herefords shipped to the ranch in 2010; another 2,000 head to Voronezh and 2,000 head to Kazakhstan in 2011; and new orders pending for 4,500 breeding stock at three locations, including Siberia, in 2012.
"This is an opportunity, in my particular case the opportunity of a lifetime. But it's also a great opportunity for Montana," says Stevenson, who is 42.
Sales of live cattle, semen and embryos from Montana during the last 18 months exceed $20 million. He estimates another $750,000 in benefits to Montana businesses from sales of supplies and services that include cattle chutes, saddles, automatic head-restraint gates, veterinary care and vaccines. Stevenson first met Sergey Goncharov, a Russian investor, at the Denver livestock show in 2006. A year later, the two and another investor met during a Montana trade mission to Moscow and discussed becoming partners.