Samuel Widmer, a modern day Angus pioneer has established a thriving beef business in Romania. Rob Bryce went to meet him.
ROMANIA has vast rural hinterlands which have changed little, apart from the asphalt roads, in hundreds of years. Although in this technological age mobile phones are brandished by every caruta driver (horse drawn Romanian cart) around every Balkan village.
What is less visually obvious are the clusters of crumbling concrete buildings – remnants of post communist collectivisation, and the domination of Nicolaie Ceausescu, which punctuate an otherwise undulating lush landscape.
These 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
The little agrarian hamlet of Marpod, lies some 36km north east of the former Austro Hungarian city of Sibiu. This is the modern nerve centre of Karpaten Meat, owned by Swiss-born Samuel Widmer and his close friend Stefan Jung.
They first came to the area in 2008, as Romania was joining the European Union, when still in their late 20s. Mr Widmer and Mr Jung originally knew each other as school friends and during their many travels it was in South America that their business plans began to form.
Mr Widmer says: “We chose the area around Sibiu because of its agricultural potential and the derelict state of livestock farming, following the collapse of communism in 1989.”
Located in central Romania, the area is a route centre, with a rapidly developing modernisation programme, a vital aspect for the growth of their business ensuring easy access to markets.
He says: “We were surprised to discover Romania had little or no indigenous beef population, and to produce organic Angus beef for our target Swiss market we had to import and create a breeding programme from the outset.”
On the edge of the little farming village Nocrich, a few kilometres to the north of Marpod, they established their first farm by acquiring 102 hectares (250 acres) of pasture and crop land. An extensive renovation programme of old farm buildings was started as 120 Angus heifers from Germany were shipped in. That foundation stock was increased in 2009 with a further 200 head, and by 2012 which had risen to a total of 1,200 cattle.
Mr Widmer says: “Stefan and I drove tractors, built fences, and harvested crops and everything else that was required to get our business onto a firm footing, and we could only afford three employees in those early years.
“We were driven to create a system which would cover all stages of production; grazing, breeding and fattening cattle, slaughtering and beef processing.”
In Eastern Europe creating a new business or any business is not a straightforward procedure, in comparison to the West, and they faced many complex layers, and sub layers of bureaucracy in convoluted land acquisitions.
To be able to complete their system, the company started looking for partners for the development of an Aberdeen-Angus mother cow breeding production network and developed a scheme where local farmers could build up their own Angus herd, by purchasing breeding heifers over 12 months old, pregnant heifers and breeding bulls with top genetics from Karpaten Meat.
Mr Widmer says: “In return we offered our skills, knowledge, technical and logistical support, and fair prices. Robust contracts guaranteed the repurchase of weaned calves around the age of eight months to enter our own feeding and finishing units.”
Today, more than 400 livestock producers raise more than 12,000 pure Angus breed calves and more than 3,000 cross-bred Angus calves to the Romanian Simmental. This has evolved over the last five years and is showing massive potential for continued growth.
The company now produces 7,000 Angus cattle on 6,000ha (14,826 acres) of land, over mostly rolling grassland with the guiding principle of as little infrastructure, and as much pasture as possible.
These pastures are managed according to strict ecological criteria and to the EU regulations for EU organic status.
Mr Widmer says: “All our cattle are reared without the use of antibiotics, hormones or steroids. In winter, the animals are on pasture and not in stables with most being fed hay and grass silo.”
Each farm unit has its own veterinarians who are responsible for the health, welfare and management of the unit, and along with their unit team-leader they are also responsible for the implementation of the correct breeding system.
“Our target is to breed medium frame, harmonious, and balanced types of Aberdeen-Angus cattle, with excellent growth and carcass performance which we believe is the foundations of our sustainable beef production.
“We use Stock book management systems where data from each animal is uploaded about their breeding, weights, body shape, blood tests, vaccinations, and other genetic evaluations.”
Developing their herd using only the best breeding cows and bulls that meet all genetic standards, feeding processes and with the help of the Aberdeen-Angus Romania Association and Breedplan, they compute all data to optimise results and output. The entire emphasis is on efficacy and the management of cattle in health and safety standards.
Heifers and steers are sold about 20-22 months old, with slaughter weights at 300-350kg and a fat level of 3-4. Customers in Western Europe are the key market, however over the last two years, Romani beef consumption is increasing and market share on the rise, with many clients in the retail, hotel, restaurant, and catering sectors. Beef processor interest is also increasing.
Mr Widmer says: “We are really delighted Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, and Montenegro are rolling out our business models and our Angus Group is actively transferring its expertise, and is the driving force behind the expansion and development of long-term partnership networks in these countries.”
During the first five months of 2017 more than 800 Angus females have been exported to Eastern Europe a trend, which is on an exponential curve through the last decade according to UK livestock companies and represents great opportunities for Angus breeders in the UK now and post Brexit.
Produces 7,000 Angus cattle on 6,000ha (14,826 acres)
All reared under EU organic status
Finished cattle sold at 20-22 months old at 300-350kg dw and fat level 3-4
Key market is Western Europe with home consumption growing
Samuel Widmer will be speaking during a workshop on Eastern European prospects at the World Angus Forum technical conference in Edinburgh on Sunday, June 25 and Monday, June 26.