Balkan Black Gold

Is it just me, or have you noticed the word “canny”  – origin late 16th century Scots – seems to be loosing its currency, amidst the onslaught of our all consuming, narcissistic, “selfie”, social media-culture, and its associated homogenised global language?


It’s a word I’ve always associated with my Grandfather and Father, from my Perthshire farm days – which they used sparingly – when describing the deep respect held for a colleague or friend who had worked slowly, with great stoicism and diligence, to build a successful livestock business.


In my travels around the globe visiting Aberdeen Angus breeders, cow calf operators, and feedlot owners in the foothills of Montana, the plains of Colorado, the Pampas of Argentina, Patagonia, or the Snowy Mountains in Australia it’s a very necessary trait, which I have come to recognise in varying degrees amongst all cattlemen and women.


On a recent journey into the heart of Eastern Europe, to meet a modern day Angus pioneer, as I drove across the verdant northern pasturelands, at the foot of densely forested Carpathian Mountains, I wondered what sort of individual could travel so far from his western European homeland, to establish a thriving Angus cattle operation here?


In it’s vast rural hinterlands which one feels little changed – apart from the asphalt roads – in hundreds of years, however, even in this seeming rural idyll, one is brought   back to the 21st century with a technological thump, as the all pervasive mobile phone is brandished by every caruta driver ( horse drawn Romanian cart ) in and around every Balkan village I pass through.


On closer inspection of the countryside one also becomes aware of clusters of crumbling concrete buildings – remnants of post communist collectivization, and the domination of Nicolai Ceausescu. They punctuate an otherwise undulating verdant landscape like sombre, unexplainable relics, from a former apocalyptic phase of human history.


These austere greying skeletons were once exceptionally large agricultural buildings housing millions of poultry, pigs, dairy cows and dairy beef, across the entire country, and exported as reparation following the end of the second World War, with most of the Romanian population having to survive on a frugal, harshly controlled diet, by the authorities.


Eventually I arrive at my destination, the outskirts of the little agrarian hamlet of Marpod, some thirty six kilometres north east of the former Austro Hungarian city of Sibiu, which is the nerve centre of Karpaten Meats, owned by Swiss born Samuel Widmer and his close friend Stefan Jung.


They first reconnoitred the area in 2008, just as Romania joined the European Union, when still in their late twenties. Samuel left his job as a key account meat buyer with a large Swiss retailer, and has never looked back. Samuel and Stefan originally knew each other as school friends, are former butchers, and during their many travels it was when in South America that their business plan began form.


They chose the area around Sibiu because of its agricultural potential and the derelict state of livestock farming, following the collapse of communism in 1989. Situated within central Romania, the area is also well served as a route centre, with a fast developing modernisation programme. The integrated communications network of rail, road and air was integral to their new business foundations to ensure easy access to markets.


Their original plan was to produce organic Angus beef for the Swiss market but to their astonishment they could find little or no beef animals in Romania and an import, and breeding programme had to be created immediately. 


Their first farm was established in Nocrich a few kilometres to the north of Marpod where they acquired two hundred and fifty acres and began renovating old farm buildings, and imported one hundred and twenty Angus heifers from Germany. They increased their foundation stock with another two hundred head head in 2009, and by 2012, had a total of twelve hundred cattle.


During those early years Samuel and Stefan drove tractors, built fences, harvested crops and did everything that was needed to get their business onto a firm footing with only three employees. Complacency had no place in their drive to establish a system that would cover all stages of production; grazing, breeding and fattening cattle, slaughtering and beef processing.


However creating any business in Eastern Europe is not a straightforward procedure and they faced many complex layers, and sub layers of bureaucracy and complex land acquisitions.


To be able to complete their system, the company started looking for partners for the development of an Angus mother cow breeding – production network – and created a scheme where local farmers could build up their own Angus herd, by purchasing, breeding heifers over twelve months old, pregnant heifers and breeding bulls with top genetics from Karpaten Meats.


In return Samuel’s company offered their knowledge, technical and logistical support, and fair prices. By contract, they guaranteed the repurchase of the weaned calves around the age of eight months to enter Karpaten’s own feeding and finishing units. The price paid is based on the quality of animals.


Today 400 livestock producers raise over 12,000 pure Angus breed calves and more than 3,000 crossbred Angus calves with Romanian Simmental, for Samuel


This development has occurred in the last five years and the trend is showing huge potential as many requests for opening an Angus operation are registered every day.


Today the company itself produces seven thousand Angus cattle on fifteen thousand acres of owned or leased land, over mostly rolling grassland with lower ground fields utilised for growing fodder crops. The guiding principle in their Angus beef production is as little infrastructure, and as much pasture as possible.


The pastures are managed according to strict ecological criteria and work is underway at the farms, according to the EU regulations for „EU ORGANIC“ status.


The fodder for the cattle is self-produced and all the Angus cattle are reared on fresh grass swards, and are out all year round. This natural growth method, along with the suckling mother cow system, represents the largest part of the growing cycle and is optimal for both animal and environmental health.


Cattle are grown without the use of antibiotics, hormones or steroids. Even in winter, animals are on pasture and not in stables. Most of the breeding cattle population in winter are fed with hay and grass silo.


Each of the farm units has its own veterinarians who are responsible for the health status and management of the unit and along with their unit team-leader they’re also responsible for the implementation of the correct breeding system.


The heifers and cows are crossed using only their best Angus bulls for reproduction. The goal is to breed medium frame, harmonious, and balanced types of cattle, and the target is Angus beef cattle with very good roughage, growth and carcass performance. These are the foundations for a sustainable Angus beef production unit with Karpaten Meats


Each animal on the farm is registered in their Stock book management system where data is uploaded about breeding, weighing, body shape, and blood results from tests, vaccinations, and other genetic evaluation tests of each animal.


With this data and the help of the Aberdeen Angus Romania Association and the Breedplan, they have developed their herd using only the best breeding cows and bulls that meet all genetic standards and optimizing processes and infrastructure and feeding processes.


The entire emphasis is on efficacy and on the management of cattle in health and safety standards.


Present company policy is selling heifers and steers, about 20-22 months with slaughter weights between 300-350 Kg and a fat level of 3 to 4 and primarily to customers in Western Europe, but over the last two years Romania has also become an important market for beef consumption, with most clients in the retail, hotel, restaurant, and catering  sector and  beef processors.


The business model created by Samuel is now being adopted in other Eastern European. Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, and Montenegro have started replicating their systems and his Angus Group is actively transferring its expertise and is the driving force behind the expansion and development of long-term partnership network in these countries.


These new markets are creating great opportunities for Angus breeders in the UK. In the first five months of 2017 over eight hundred Angus females have been shipped out to Transylvania; a trend which is on an exponential curve through the last decade according to UK livestock companies


Karpaten Meats who are a sponsor of the 2017 Aberdeen Angus World Forum says the Society under former CEO Ron McHattie, and the present Board of Director’s have created a “milestone” for their company with it’s extensive support.

Samuel Widmer is one of the keynote speakers at the World Forum conference in Edinburgh this summer and I believe this canny quiet modern day Swiss pioneer will have a rapt and attentive audience.


As I left Maripod I remembered another old Scot’s word, “gumption”, which I hear less of these day’s, and thought my Grandfather and Father would also apply this to Samuel; someone with innate common sense, resourcefulness and initiative.