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Helping out the Russians

Nutritionist Barry Robinson is consulting with the largest Angus herd in the world… in Russia

How does a farm go from zero to having what is believed to be the largest Angus herd in the world with more than 250,000 head including 110,000 cows, two 45,000-head feedlots and its own packing plant, in four years?

Besides a lot of money, you start by gathering a lot of know-how from international specialists like Dr. Barry Robinson, a beef cattle nutritionist from Westlock, Alta.

The North American-style beef operation, a division of Miratorg Agribusiness Holding, is oceans away in Russia’s Bryansk region, about 350 kilometres southwest of Moscow. It’s a 26-hour trip from Westlock to Moscow and another five hours by train to Bryansk.

Robinson’s job as Miratorg’s head beef nutritionist for the past 2-1/2 years involves long-distance consulting with the cow-calf farm and feedlot managers and nutritionists on ration planning and cattle management as well as quarterly week-long trips to visit the operations. For those, Miratorg supplies a driver and interpreter.

Miratorg owners, Alex and Viktor Linnik, are no strangers to food production, processing and marketing. They started raising hogs approximately 20 years ago and established Miratorg in 1995 to create a modern vertically integrated “from field to shop counter” operation from scratch.

Miratorg has grown to become Russia’s leading pork producer with capacity to raise and process three million pigs a year. Fresh, frozen, ready-made and pork products for further processing are sold through the company’s distribution system that supplies its own products and brands, as well as imported meat and frozen vegetables to retail and restaurant chains in major cities across Russia.

The company was well positioned to take advantage of government incentives under Russia’s agricultural development scheme to make the country more self-sufficient in proteins. The goal is to replace about 20 per cent of current meat imports with domestic production to supply 85 per cent of the country’s meat requirements by 2020. The Russian government has dedicated US$69.7 billion from 2013 to 2020 to support domestic agriculture.

Miratorg applied the same business model and principles of implementing the latest technology and efficient production systems from around the globe to start up a broiler poultry operation in 2010. It now handles 3.7 million birds per year and is set to expand with two more broiler sites by the end of this year.

The company’s beef project started that same year. Robinson says the goal is to supply domestic grain-finished triple-A Angus beef to high-end restaurants and to other customers through its established distribution system.

First came the heifers — by the thousands — from the U.S. and Australia. Shiploads of 2,500 to 10,000 head arrived through Black Sea or Baltic Sea ports. Some of the cattle liners used to transport them to the farms were similar to those used in Canada, but many were nothing more than shipping containers with modified ventilation slots for transport.

Being on the same latitude as Edmonton, the climate of the Bryansk region is similar with about 20 inches of precipitation a year and winter temperatures that can dip to -30 C. The geography is much like Alberta’s parkland region with poplar, birch and evergreen trees, rich soil and grasslands… minus the rocks.

As far as Robinson can gather, land in the Bryansk region sells for about $300 an acre. You’d pay $3,000 to $3,500 an acre to get similar land in the Westlock area.

Miratorg’s land base for the beef project alone was 191,000 hectares in 2013 and was projected to grow to 200,000 this year. The company uses no-till cropping systems to grow wheat, barley, maize, peas, sunflowers and soybean crops. It has an established network of high-efficiency feed mills with a current capacity to process 1.46 million tons a year to supply the meat production units, mainly the pig and poultry operations.

Robinson says the main crops grown in the Bryansk region for beef production are high-moisture corn, corn silage, triticale, alfalfa and grasses. Barley for the feedlot rations is brought in from elsewhere.

The forage-to-concentrate ratio of a typical finishing ration is similar to that in Western Canada. Currently, the feedlot is feeding 65 per cent dry-rolled barley and 35 per cent high-moisture corn. High-quality corn silage, sunflower meal and a custom formulated feedlot premix balance out the ration.

Robinson does the complete workup for rations at the feedlot because grain-based feedlot rations are new to the employees and carry a higher risk level than the cow and heifer rations.

At the cow-calf farms, he works with Russian nutritionists, giving them the parameters for rations for each class of cattle, such as estimated dry-matter intake and minimum energy and crude protein requirements, and then the Russian nutritionists formulate the rations.

Each farm has 4,000 to 5,000 cows wintered in roomy pens with wind protection and bedding.

Most of Miratorg’s calves are born May through June, but the farm runs a smaller fall-calving program as well. The calves are weaned and started on feed at about five months of age and then go to grass as yearlings.

The existing feedlot and the second feedlot under construction were designed by Kansas feedlot engineer John George and are very similar to those in the U.S. High Plains and southern Alberta. According to the company’s operational performance for the first six months of 2014, this style of feedlot is unique in Russia.

Robinson says the first of the company’s cattle to be harvested went through the new state-of-the-art packing plant earlier this fall. It is located about half a kilometre from the home lot; however, cattle from the new feedlot will have to be trucked a couple of hours to the plant. When fully operational, the plant will handle 4,000 head a week.

A bit of history

“The people are very nice and welcoming and I feel very safe in Russia,” he says. “The biggest challenge is that there is one entire generation with no beef experience. When a problem occurs it’s important to help them learn how to work through it so that small problems don’t turn into big ones. My objective is to teach the basics over and over again.”

Breeding and raising beef cattle had pretty much fallen by the wayside during the era of collective farms that had been the norm since the 1930s, with most of the country’s beef coming from culled dairy cows and steers. Consequently, up until the current government’s mandate to increase meat production, there were only about 50,000 beef cows left in all of Russia.

Currently, Miratorg contracts approximately 15 Americans to instruct the Russian managers and employees of its 40 cow-calf farms and feedlot operations in livestock husbandry and handling. Valery Samoylov, director of beef operations, along with lead beef managers, Eugene Albokrinov and Dr. Phil George from the U.S., have been instrumental in the beef project’s success so far, Robinson says.

All of the nutritional expertise for the beef, swine and poultry operations comes from Canada. Dr. Mario Ramirez of the Aylmer, Ont.-based Gowan’s Feed Consulting, is the lead swine and poultry nutritionist and assists on the beef side. Having lived in Russia for several years he is fluent in Russian, which is a key skill when it comes to dealing with suppliers and a number of chores such as bidding on premix.

Other than a few consultants, virtually all of the labour comes from within the region, which is viewed as a positive development for rural Russia where good jobs have not been plentiful for some time.

The beef project alone had 1,700 employees last year and is scheduled to reach 3,000 once production ramps up. Even with automated production systems, the company employs approximately 20,000 people in total across the country.

“I am really enjoying the experience so far and hope it continues for a significant period of time,” says Robinson.

Miratorg's stated goal is to supply grain-finished Angus beef to high-end restaurants and other buyers.

Miratorg’s stated goal is to supply grain-finished Angus beef to high-end restaurants and other buyers.

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