Why was Cow Camp Ranch owner Mark Brunner of Ramona traveling throughout Russia and Kazakhstan Oct. 6 through Oct. 17? He was following the winding road of ranching economics.
Brunner was part of a group of five producers — Brunner plus two farmers from Kansas and two ranchers from Montana and Colorado — that went on the Kansas Department of Agriculture sponsored trip to Kazakhstan and Russia. Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman spearheaded the trip and headlined meetings with Russian and Kazakhstani government officials.
The producers spoke and negotiated with their foreign counterparts. Bolstered by government subsidies, Russian and Kazakhstani producers were interested in building feedlots with American cattle.
Brunner pursued the interest of his company, but the expense of transporting the cattle did not make the sale of his Simmental bulls feasible.
“It costs about $2,000 per head,” Brunner said. “Drought has forced cattle onto market and the price for beef has gone up. It’s pretty profitable to sell them in the U.S.”
More so than a business trip, Brunner and the other producers were there as experts, educating their Russian and Kazakhstani counterparts on the American way of agriculture.
“They’re way behind us in agriculture,” Brunner said.
In an example of this teaching experience, Brunner took it upon himself to represent the Semmintal cattle producers at the Moscow Farm Show. His major selling point was that breeding a purebred Semmintal bull with a purebred Hereford or Angus heifer could create super cattle that grow twice as big as their parents.
“It’s very important if you can generate 20 extra pounds without having to feed the animal,” Brunner said. “It helps maternal instincts, increases in milk production, and they breed more prolifically.”
The Russian ranchers had no idea about crossbreeding.
“They’re in their infant stages of beef production. I’m not sure they even know the best way to cut. What we saw just didn’t have marbling,” Brunner said. “That’s probably the biggest thing we need to do over there is educate them on beef production.”
The Russian ranch land is vast, akin to Western Kansas or North Dakota. The grasses are not as thick as the Flint Hills — about 15 acres per head in the land of a farm in southern Siberia Brunner visited compared to seven acres per head in the Flint Hills. Ranching is not an impossible profession in Russia.
However, there is very little beef production in Russia. The Soviet Union focused heavily on dairy production. When the iron curtain fell about 20 years ago, Russians were faced with dire economic straits and ranchers swiftly sold their cattle. The cattle population decrease coupled with the flood of beef onto the market was a double whammy from which the Russian beef economy has never really recovered.
Brunner said he enjoyed the food in both Russia and Kazakhstan.
“They have a lot of very good chefs, it was well prepared,” Brunner said. “The lamb we ate was very good.”
But the cuisine showed the weakness of the Russian and Kazakhstani beef industry. Borscht was on every menu Brunner said; beef was not.
“They had very little beef, predominantly lamb and pork,” Brunner added.
Much of the trip was contained inside stuffy meeting rooms. Brunner attended six meetings during the trip. Men dressed in suits on both sides of a table as Brownback and top foreign government representatives talked back and forth.
But Brunner and his fellow producers were able to get out of the conference room a few times. They visited a 20,000-acre farm in southern Siberia. The landowner was already working on a dairy, featuring three, 300-yard indoor lots.
“There’s a lot of high tech stuff that you need to make that work,” Brunner said.
However, Brunner said financing new tractors and combines is a monstrous problem in Russia. Most farmers still use Soviet-era equipment, which is more than 20 years old. Brunner said locals pointed to fields of wheat that would not be harvested because of a lack of combines.
“A lot of the guys we met, they were genuine farmers,” Brunner said. “You could tell they were the guys who did the work.”
In Kazakhstan, the economic vibe was a little different. With three pipelines pumping oil out the country to other Asian nations, the Kazakhstani government is looking to spend to help ranchers with production.
Brownback also established diplomatic ties with the Kazakhstani government when he was a senator. Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayez met with Brownback personally. Whenever the American group made suggestions, the response was always, “We will get this done.”
One situation where Russia and Kazakhstan were similar was the imposing architecture featured in Moscow and Astana. In some free time, Brunner visited the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Cathedral of St. Basil.
Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, was more modernly impressive. The city features monuments like the Baiterek Tower, which looks like a flaming chalice clutching a golden ball, two golden towers surrounding the Baiterek Tower like glowing guardians, and Lord Foster’s Pyramid, a glass and steel spire. The city is like Las Vegas, but with a purpose behind its excess.
“Everything is to appear strong, intimidating,” Brunner said. “Most of the architects who built those buildings were world renowned.”
There were many differences between Brunner and the people he visited in Russia and Kazakhstan. Starting on the plane ride from New York to Moscow, with 90 percent of the passengers going home to Russia, the language barrier was huge. In both countries, an interpreter was with the group whenever the producers’ needed to conduct business.
Road etiquette was also noticeably different. To make left turns in Russia, drivers often had to turn around completely, back track, and turn right. In Kazakhstan, traffic cops acted as stoplights.
However, the biggest difference was in the freedoms and luxuries Brunner enjoys at home. He was constantly reminded of this with street peddlers and broken farm equipment.
“We should appreciate our freedom here and how much access we have to food supply, the quality of it and its inexpensiveness,” Brunner said.