Grass, Water and Community
Jeanie Alderson and Terry Punt live and work at Bones Brothers Ranch in Birney, Montana. Together with Jeanie’s father, two sisters and their families, they own and operate Bones Brothers Ranch. Jeanie is a fourth-generation rancher.
“I’m really proud to be part of a family business. I’m grateful that my sons and nephews get to learn from their granddad. I am thankful that I get to work side by side with my husband. I’m especially grateful that my husband, Terry, loves this life, this place and this work. He works harder than anyone I know. It takes all of us. Running a family business is a challenge and a joy. Ranching is not just a job, it’s really our life,” said Jeanie.
Bones Brother Ranch is a cow-calf operation. “It’s a commercial operation. We sell feeder calves to order buyers. This means that in the fall of the year our calves leave our pastures and are put on semi trucks to a life in a feedlot, eating and growing quickly in an unnatural environment.”
Jeanie and Terry have their own separate herd of Wagyu cattle, a Japanese beef cattle breed prized for their rich flavor. Their Wagyu business is called Omega Beef. “We sell grass-finished Wagyu beef directly to customers. And we sell by the half and whole beef.”
Wagyu cattle produce a higher percentage of beneficial omega oils than any other breed of cattle. Omega oils help the body systems function normally, including skin, respiratory system, circulatory system, brain and organs.
Each business has its challenges.
“In the cow-calf business our costs keep going up while the prices we get for our calves fluctuate, depending on forces beyond our control. We’ve had some good years and then some harder years. In our cow-calf operation we don’t have much say. We have to take the price that is offered if we want to have income for the year. Staying independent is our biggest struggle in the conventional beef industry. Raising the cattle we want to raise and raising them the way we want to and selling them into a market that’s fair is a huge struggle.”
The lack of control Jeanie and her family have in their product is their biggest frustration in the cow-calf operation.
“We know how to raise healthy, great calves. We know how to live with this land and its limits and opportunities. We have done this for generations. So when we are told we can’t sell our calves unless we give them certain shots, it’s frustrating. And when we are told we have to pay the Beef Checkoff, one dollar for every animal we sell, to the Beef Council or the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, groups who actually work against us by advocating for bringing beef from other countries to our markets, work to abolish important laws like Country of Origin Labeling on beef, and other actions that benefit large corporate interests at our expense, it feels wrong. It feels like bullying.”
In their Wagyu beef business, Omega Beef, their greatest struggle is finding customers and getting their beef to the people that want it. “We can raise great beef, but getting it to the customer is challenging.” They have to load the frozen beef onto their truck and deliver the meat to customers, usually hundreds of miles away. “Rural areas don’t have next day services.”
In both businesses Jeanie and her family abide by their three pillars: grass, water and community.
“At Omega Beef we are guided by practices that are good for our animals and good for our land. We are also guided by flavor. We know that good practices are inextricable from great flavor. We live in the north and we sell a grass-finished product. Grass-finishing means that our cattle go directly from our pastures to the butcher. Our beef cattle are not fed grain or corn to finish. Grass finishing is an art and a science. When done well, it means you have a product that is healthier for land, water resources, and for the people that eat it. It means you have beef that is delicious, healthy and tender. Not all beef that carries the “grass-fed or “grass-finished” label has any of these qualities.”
Another factor that sets the Omega Beef product apart is that the Wagyu cattle are grass finished on rangeland as opposed to irrigated pasture. “This means our beef use less water resources and supports a diverse and vibrant prairie ecosystem and suit our climate and our ecology.”
“Eastern Montana has some of the best grasslands in the world. By working with this landscape, this climate and an amazing breed of cattle, we have a product that is unique and special.”
Jeanie and her family have a great appreciation of the importance of their rangeland. “Taking care of our range is hugely important, it’s our life.”
“I think grass is our most important crop. Grasslands support so much life. We now understand that our soils with grazing animals have the capacity to sequester carbon way more quickly and more efficiently than anything else. So I think keeping grasslands whole and intact is vital, and something that every one of us should care about.”
Although much of Jeanie’s other business, a cow-calf operation, is dependent on the feedlot system, she is aware of the strain that operation puts on the environment. “I think the feedlot system is not going to last, it takes so much land and water and confining animals and feeding them food they were never meant to eat, is unhealthy. Today consumers care more and more about what they eat and their health. Right now at this ranch, we are a part of the corporate beef industry. This is what pays our bills and keeps us here. But we are looking ahead to another way to raise food, and we are doing it with our Omega Beef Wagyu business. I think animals can be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Change takes time.”
Community is another pillar that is a big part of both businesses. “We still live in a place where we depend on our neighbors to get our work done. We can’t do all of it ourselves. At shipping time, our neighbors will come, they’ll haul our calves, and we will do the same for them. Throughout the year our neighbors show up for us and we do our best to lend a hand to them when we can.”
Jeanie and Terry’s grass-finished Wagyu operation relies heavily on that sense of community. “Our marketing is very much word of mouth. We give away a lot of samples; it’s important for people to taste our beef because it’s really hard to explain grass-finished Wagyu. Many people have had bad experiences of eating grass-finished beef. Grass finishing has to be done well.”
“Additionally, not many people have eaten Wagyu beef or they have seen it in places with a price tag that is beyond what most people can pay. We sell mostly to individuals one half-beef at a time. We don’t do a lot of marketing. We are really busy and neither one of us is great at promoting ourselves. We have a small website and a little social media presence, but mostly it’s word of mouth. It’s this amazing community of people, friends and family sharing with friends and family.”
Jeanie and her family’s outlook to the future is towards longevity.
“We don’t really use the word “sustainable” for our life here. We simply try to look ahead and think about future generations and do the best we can. Sustainability to us means longevity. You’re doing something that is going to last. I feel really grateful to the people that have come before me, to my grandad, my dad, the women in my family who all shared and passed on the ethos that you take care of this place. You belong to it way more than it belongs to you. It’s a privilege to grow up here and do this work. We were taught that if you inherit it, you pass it on in better shape than when it came to you.”
Producers and consumers will have to come together to make vital choices for their own health and the health of land.
“I think customers and producers need to work together. We’ve got to be willing to make choices for our health and our children; food is so linked to our health. In both of our businesses we work hard and take pride in caring for our land and animals and in raising healthy, delicious beef. In both businesses we face challenges, but what we really love about Omega Beef is knowing the people who put our beef on their tables. This gives our work so much meaning. I think our customers feel good knowing the people who raise their food.”