By SEAN ELLIS
McCALL, IDAHO -- The Russian government is providing billions of dollars in subsidies to grow its nation's beef herd and is turning to the U.S. for cattle.
Live cattle exports to Russia from Idaho, Montana and other U.S. states have exploded since 2011 and show no signs of slowing.
"There is amazing opportunity over there," Marty Earnheart, meats and livestock marketing manager for the Montana Department of Agriculture, told Idaho Cattle Association members recently during their annual summer roundup.
According to a report prepared by the U.S. embassy in Moscow, the Russian government has authorized $5 billion in funding to improve the country's agriculture industry, and the bulk of the money has been tabbed to revitalize the nation's livestock sector.
Russian imports of live U.S. beef cattle increased from $49 million in 2011 to $173 million in 2012, Earnheart said.
Idaho live cattle exports have also increased, from near nothing in 2010 to $13 million in 2011 and $17 million in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
According to Idaho State Department of Agriculture officials, those numbers, which were not broken down by dairy or beef, only reflect live animals exported directly from Idaho and don't include Idaho cattle sent to other states to meet quarantine standards before being exported.
"We're actually shipping quite a bit more cattle than the numbers are showing," said Laura Johnson, who heads the ISDA's market development division.
Montana exported its first beef cattle to Russia in 2010 and shipped $22 million worth of those animals to Russia last year.
Earnheart said Russia has set a goal of increasing its beef herd to 10 million by 2020 but currently has only about 1 million head.
"There's no one state that can handle the cattle that this market needs," she said. "It is so huge and growing so fast...."
The Russian influence has been seen in bull sales in Idaho this year, said Idaho Cattle Association Executive Vice President Wyatt Prescott.
"It's an exciting opportunity," he said. "It's like finding a whole new frontier."
During a USDA trade mission to Russia in December, ISDA Director Celia Gould experienced the demand for U.S. cattle first-hand.
Gould said she was aware Idaho was exporting a lot of cattle to Russia before that trip "but we didn't quite understand the magnitude of it. There is huge potential there."
Gould, who will return to Russia later this year as part of an Idaho governor's trade mission, said that nation's hunger for U.S. cattle isn't limited to beef.
"We're shipping a ton of dairy heifers to Russia also," she said.
Earnheart told ICA members that Russian buyers are paying premiums of as much as $500 per head for U.S. cattle and she said Black Angus and Herefords are the preferred breeds but interest isn't limited to those breeds.
She said Russia is also getting a lot of cattle from Australia and has just started purchasing some from Canada.