Comrade Cowboy

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 ...

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