A New Brand of Beef
Ranching changes—and doesn’t—with the times.
By Sue Muncaster
“If this ground is as valuable as they say it is, there’s no way that I can see that our kids are going to stay here and keep ranching. I hope they are not that dumb. Us old fellows … we’ll probably ride it out, but the kids aren’t going to do it. I mean, they’re going to put her in the bank and go on down the road.”
– Earl Hardeman, Jackson Hole Guide
July 10, 1986
THE PICTURE OF farming in America, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, isn’t pretty. Between 2007 and 2012, America lost 95,000 farms—about 4.3% of the 2.2 million farms operating in 2007. Most of those farms were small—42% were smaller than 50 acres and 51% were between 50 and 499 acres.
Thankfully, the 1986 prediction Hardeman made in conjunction with his quote above—“in twenty to twenty-five years, there won’t be another mother cow raised in Jackson Hole”—is wrong. In spite of skyrocketing land prices, loss of grazing allotments, long, cold winters, price fluctuations, brucellosis, and an increasing number of predators, this valley still has fields dotted with cattle, and the horses, weathered barns, and giant loaves of golden hay that accompany the herds. Hardeman underestimated the passion for the land and the ranching lifestyle, the perseverance, and the creativity that a handful of longtime ranching families have shown they have. Despite how valuable property is in Jackson Hole, families here are still in the business of beef.
“I went on my first cattle drive when I was nine years old,” says Nikki Gill. “I rode my horse, Buck, next to my dad for two days in the shadow of the Tetons, just like my great-grandfather and my grandfather before me. While we no longer drive our cattle to summer range in Grand Teton National Park, much of our operation is the same as it was when my great-grandfather started the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch over eighty years ago.” Despite a severe allergy to hay and a good job with a startup in San Francisco, Gill returned to Jackson in 2012 to work her family’s ranch.
The Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch’s history dates back to at least 1898, when pioneer rancher, conservationist, and photographer Stephen Leek homesteaded his first eighty acres, where Jackson Hole High School sits today. In 1938, Gill’s great-grandfather, Bruce Porter—a pharmacist, the owner of the original Jackson Drug, and a rancher (he began raising a Hereford herd in 1926)—bought Leek’s land to add to other property he owned at Dog Creek near Astoria Hot Springs.
Porter’s estate grew and was eventually passed down to his grandchildren, Robert (Nikki’s father) and his sister, Elizabeth, who divided it into two ranches: Robert’s parcel to the west kept the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch OVO brand, and Elizabeth’s parcel to the east became Lockhart Cattle Company with a new brand (a heart with an L inside). In 2004, years of breeding a select bloodline—the same one that Porter got going in 1926—came to a tragic end. Brucellosis was discovered in the herd and every last cow was slaughtered, as required by federal regulation. The family started over.
THE GILLS RUN the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch as a “cow-calf operation.” They keep a permanent herd whose calves are sold on the open market each fall as twelve- to eighteen-month-old steers. Historically the steers would go to large cattle buyers and were shipped off by train or semitruck to feed lots.
Since the arrival of the Internet the Gills sell their livestock over DirecTV through Superior Livestock Auctions, where hearty cattle from this zone of the country demand top prices.
Nikki recently convinced her family that even better prices would come from keeping some of the meat here in Jackson Hole. “I wanted to get involved in doing local beef and decided to start with a beef CSA [Community Supported Agriculture]. This way, people have an option of buying local meat in more manageable quantities [rather than a whole or half a cow at a time, the amounts historically available directly from ranches],” she explains. These cattle are finished on spent brewers’ grain from local breweries. This produces a fattier product some consumers prefer over the leaner meat that comes from 100 percent grass-fed beef.
THE LOCKHART CATTLE Company is headquartered in the barns and white clapboard house Leek built in 1904 just south of the high school and is run by Elizabeth, her husband Kelly Lockhart, and their sons. After the brucellosis tragedy, raising hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed beef for local sale became the main mission of Porter’s great-grandsons (and Nikki’s cousins), Cody and Chase. Lockhart Cattle Company also continues a tradition of raising and selling registered Hereford seed stock bulls.
When asked when they started their grass-fed beef operation, Cody makes the point that grass-fed beef has always existed in Jackson Hole. It’s just that consumers have recently begun to be aware of what grass-fed beef is and how it differs from beef raised on a diet of grain. “We are doing things virtually the same as we were one hundred years ago—feeding Jackson grass to Jackson cattle,” he says. Grass-fed cattle take longer—anywhere from eighteen to thirty months—to grow than those fed grain. But the Lockharts think it’s worth it. The family started local sales small, selling whole animals directly to area consumers. And then Will Bradof, co-founder and chef at Jackson restaurants Trio and Local, put Lockhart beef on the menu. Business took off.
“In a traditional Wyoming cattle-ranch model the rancher raises the calves, they leave at twelve to eighteen months to go to feedlot, are then bought by one of the four giant slaughterhouses in the U.S., then go on to a distributor like Sysco, and finally make it to a grocery store or fast-food chain. A steak trades hands six or seven times before getting to the consumer,” Cody explains.
The ultimate goal for the Lockhart brothers is to be in charge of their cattle from field to fork. To this end they have learned about pricing, distribution, inventory, and branding—as it relates to marketing, not just keeping track of animals. Lockhart steaks, slaughtered and butchered a few miles down the road at Hog Island Meats, a custom processing shop they helped establish, never leave Jackson Hole.
THE LOCKHARTS ARE not the first valley ranchers to sell local. Ten years ago, Kate Mead, who owns Mead Ranch Natural Beef with husband Brad, suggested their traditional cow-calf operation along Spring Gulch on land homesteaded by Brad’s great-grandfather, P.C. Hansen, in the early 1900s could be more humane and more profitable. When Kate presented her idea to sell grass-fed certified Angus cattle locally, Brad recalls, “I thought it was ridiculous.”
Still, he sold Kate twelve calves from the herd. Kate’s plan was to sell them at the Jackson Hole Farmers Market, which itself was just starting at the time, and to local restaurants and grocers. Today the Meads raise about 350 calves a year; they sell 250 as natural beef through video auction in the fall, and keep about 100 to sell locally and breed.
“There’s an emotional component to doing it this way,” Brad says. “The cattle all end up as beef, but they never go to a feedlot, and Kate never feeds them corn, something that ends up giving them abscesses on their livers [requiring antibiotics].” The Meads, like Nikki Gill, fatten the cattle on spent grain from Snake River Brewing. Kate can also be credited with the wildly successful ideas of selling dog bones at the farmers market and hosting farm-to-field events. (The Meads annually host an Outstanding in the Field dinner at the ranch.)
“AGRICULTURE TODAY, WHETHER you are in Chile, Montana, or Wyoming, you have to use your resources, be creative,” says Snake River Ranch manager Lance Johnsen. “We’ve evolved like any business, by learning by mistakes and successes. We don’t do it ‘just like grandpa did.’ ”
One of the valley’s largest ranches, the Snake River Ranch was founded by Stanley Resor. Beginning in 1929, after making his fortune as president of one of the world’s most prominent advertising agencies, the J. Walter Thompson Company, Resor bought land north and south of Wilson. The ranch passed down to his grandchildren, and Johnsen, a Montana native who isn’t related, has been instrumental in helping the family develop what he describes as a successful “forward-thinking agricultural enterprise that operates a traditional business in a twenty-first-century setting.”
The Snake River Ranch avoids the high cost of feeding hay to cattle during the long winters by running a natural “yearling cattle operation” with their “year” beginning in the fall when they buy five-hundred- to six-hundred-pound “natural” calves from ranches in Oregon, California, and Nevada that receive no hormones or antibiotics. These cattle are kept on leased pastures in California until spring, when they arrive in Jackson and spend the summer foraging on irrigated pasture. Beginning in September the animals are weighed and sorted, and three hundred to five hundred per day are shipped to “natural beef” programs around the country like Meyer Natural Angus, Tyson, or to restaurants and grocery stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans. The ranching operation is further supported by guided fishing and hunting on its lands and renting pastures out for special events like weddings.
And then there are Bob and Kate Lucas, who ranch the U Lazy U. All the ranches mentioned above evolved with the local food and natural grass-fed beef movements and rely on off-ranch income from other professions. The Lucases, whom all of the ranchers interviewed have an almost-hero worship for—run their operation as they always have. According to Bob’s high school buddy, Brad Mead, this couple “are the real deal of ranching in Jackson Hole” because they continue to ranch the U Lazy U, a traditional cow-calf operation that fronts the Snake River south of South Park, entirely on their own. (It’s no wonder Bob was too busy to interview!)
Various other remaining family ranches, like the iconic “bread loaf” Walton Ranch just east of the Snake River Bridge in Wilson, continue to run either cow-calf or yearling operations for sale on the wholesale market entirely through hired hands while the family members enjoy other professions and the ability to come and go from Jackson Hole.
ANY REMAINING RANCHER in Jackson Hole could have traded freezing March mornings snipping umbilical cords on newborn calves for a lifetime of powder days or surfing in Hawaii, had they developed their prime real estate. In order to maintain the ranching lifestyle and be able to pass down land to heirs, many have turned to conservation easements—innovative deals contracted between landowners and organizations like the Jackson Hole Land Trust or government agencies—whereby a landowner sells or donates a piece of land with voluntarily restrictions for future use. In return, they get federal tax incentives and, for tax purposes, the land put under easement is valued as not developable, rather than taxed at its unrestricted value.
In the Greater Yellowstone region, which includes Jackson Hole, 140 properties totaling nearly 25,000 acres have been protected by conservation easements. Over 8,000 of these acres conserve a portion—or all—of a property still in ranching or agricultural use. This doesn’t just help ranchers’ bottom lines: for wildlife, it creates a mosaic of prime habitat; for people, it preserves scenic views.
The Meads attribute their ability to continue ranching in Jackson Hole to the efforts of the Jackson Hole Land Trust. “If it weren’t for the efforts of the Land Trust, Earl Hardeman would have been right. Their efforts to protect land in perpetuity make it likely that family ranches will continue to operate,” Brad says.
Where to Buy Local
– Lockhart Cattle Company –
Liquor Down South Market
The People’s Market, 5-7 p.m. Wednesdays at the base of Snow King Mountain
Signal Mountain Lodge
Whole and half animals can be ordered online
– Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch –
CSA subscription available online
Jackson Hole Farmers Market, 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays on the Town Square
– Mead Ranch Natural Beef –
Jackson Hole Farmers Market, 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays on the Town Square
Pearl St. Market
Snake River Brewery
Snake River Grill