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Russian farmers importing Virginia Holstein bulls to help dairy industry

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They’re studs abroad, playing the field. The next wave waits in Virginia, preparing to board a ship, cross an ocean and hit a desperate mating scene.

It’s an enviable mission, at least from the perspective of the Virginia Holstein bulls dispatched to help the Russian dairy industry by doing what bulls do best.

“It’s a new version of detente,” said Travis Hill, Virginia’s deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry.

Twenty-nine black-and-white aspiring sires have set hoof in Russia, part of the first export of live Virginia Holstein bulls to that country, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced last week. Thirty more will head there in April.

Russian farmers want American bulls to improve dairy-herd genetics in a land hampered first by collective farming, then by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Sending live animals overseas is a bit of an anachronism in an era in which cattle genetics are more often shipped in sperm- and embryo-filled vials, not on hoof. Lacking expertise in assisted bovine reproductive technology, many Russian farmers prefer to buy the bull and let nature take it from there.

“A bull is able to do a lot of business over the course of his lifetime,” said Todd P. Haymore, Virginia’s agriculture and forestry secretary.

It may do little for Russian egos to look abroad for the incarnation of “strong, like bull.” But the long-sought deal — a decade in the making — promises to do wonders for Russian dairy production, not to mention Old Dominion farmers.

Russia spends more than $300 million a year importing live animals. As of last year, American cattle farmers received just $10 million of that fast-growing market.

When Haymore calls Russia “a bull market,” he’s not simply cracking wise. In 2009, the country imported 35,000 live cattle. Last year, the number was 55,000.

“After years and years and years of trying to get into that marketplace, we’re in,” he said. “It’s opening the door for a new export market. . . . The governor believes, as I do, that one of the key aspects of future prosperity for Virginia’s farming sector is increasing the amount of our exports.”

Russian farmers are trying to improve dairy herds that produce an average 7,000 pounds of milk per cow each year, said Valery Osipenko, who co-owns Vistar Farms of Mechanicsville, which sold the bulls to Russian farmers for an undisclosed amount. Top-quality American Holsteins produce an average of more than 20,000 pounds of milk per year.

Instead of raising dairy cattle for milk and beef cattle for meat, Soviet collective farms had “dual-use” cattle, which would be milked for a while, then killed for meat, Osipenko said. Those one-size-fits-all cattle may have embodied an egalitarian ideal, but both milk and meat were mediocre, said Osipenko, a native of Ukraine who recalled his mother boiling beef for hours in a fruitless attempt to tenderize it.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, many dairy herds were all but wiped out as hungry Russians consumed them for food.

“There was a terrible crisis, apparently, and they pretty much ate their seed stock,” said Patrick Comyn, a large-animal veterinarian with the private Virginia Herd Health Management Services who worked on the deal.

In recent years, with at least pockets of affluence in Russia, consumers have started to demand more and higher-quality dairy and beef products, Osipenko said.

Since the early 2000s, Virginia agriculture officials have traveled to Russia to try to get into the market. Embassy diplomats, federal agriculture officials, veterinarians and farmers all got tapped to help overcome challenges, from cutting through Russian red tape to locating a stateside port set up to ship live animals. The first shipment of Virginia bulls had to be trucked to Maine, where the port still has the necessary ramps and holding pens. Haymore hopes live-animal exports will pick up enough that the Port of Richmond, perhaps with help from private industry, will see fit to reinstall that sort of infrastructure.

Russian and American officials had to work out a detailed protocol for shipping the animals, including tests for numerous diseases (two of them venereal). In October, Osipenko assembled a herd of about 75 bulls from farms in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, then sent them to Millwood Farm in Orange, Va. for a months-long quarantine.

Doug Harris, who owns Millwood, has other cattle and goats on his 200-acre spread, but the Russian-bound bulls have been kept in separate pens. Anyone entering the pens must wash their boots with a disinfectant issued by the Agriculture Department. Even the tires of tractors hauling bales of hay are sprayed.

Along with keeping the bulls healthy, Harris’s job has been to fatten them up — but not too much. Turns out fat doesn’t do much for the bovine love life. (It lowers semen quality.)

The first 29 bulls were shipped to the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk at the end of December and arrived in early January. The climate there is fairly similar to Virginia’s, said Comyn, so the animals should have little trouble adjusting.

Shipping vials of genetic material is much easier than sending tons of living, breathing cargo that requires water, food, veterinary care and specially ventilated containers for a voyage that can take 20 days or more. But long term, live bulls can be the more economical way to go.

Top-quality fertilized Holstein eggs can fetch as much as $5,000, Comyn said. A young bull with good genetics can be had for as little as $1,100, a relative bargain even if shipping doubles or triples the cost.

“If he’s tan, rested and ready,” Comyn said, “he can breed 10 [cows] a day.”

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