"The fact is that working ranchland here is more productive for wildlife than nongrazed lands," says King. "Ranchers here have been good stewards, providing for wildlife, keeping exotic weeds under control, and restoring watersheds to improve water quality. I can't say that for a lot of the newcomers. Taking the land out of production increases fire danger, degrades the habitat for wildlife, and endangers native grasses."
Still, the rising price of land makes it more attractive for ranchers to cash out. "The way things are going," King says, looking Jarrett straight in the eye, "I'm having a hard time believing ranching will continue to be a mainstay in our county."
The next morning, the Jarrett clan heads over to the Terland Ranch to help Terry Terland with branding ― still the only foolproof way of determining cattle ownership. In this close-knit community, where neighbors help each other, branding is a seasonal chore that's an excuse for a party.
Parents lean on the top rail of the corral and gossip and laugh as boys and girls in cowboy hats, boots, and chaps try to rope the hind hooves of skittering calves. By the time the dust has settled, everybody's hungry.
Down by the creek, in the shade of old cottonwoods, Terland's sister, Sheryl Richert, has platters of baked beans, biscuits, and beef kabobs stacked on the fold-down tailgate of her chuckwagon. Among the families digging in are a couple of out-of-state visitors. Ten Sweet Grass County ranches have started Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations. "It's not a dude ranch," explains Karen Searle as she serves up blueberry cobbler. "It's for families that want to experience firsthand what life on a ranch is really like. Even a few days give people a genuine appreciation of the value of the small Western rancher," she says.
Later, Jarrett sips a cup of camp coffee down by the stream. "The truth is, the economics of ranching up here really don't work anymore. Most of us are too ornery to admit it and too stubborn to quit, so we have to find ways to pull together to survive."
As he watches the older kids showing the younger ones how to skip stones, his voice softens. "We have to make it work. We're not just businesses, and for most of us, selling isn't an option. We don't look at the land as something we inherited from our fathers. It's like a trust--we're really borrowing it from our children."
INFO: Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations www.montanaworkingranches.com, 406/932-6719, or 406/222-6101
What do beef labels mean?Most beef sold in markets comes from animals that spent much of their life packed into feedlots, being fattened quickly on grain. The resulting "corn-fed" beef is marbled with fat that carries the flavor we've come to love. But shoulder-to-shoulder feedlot conditions and the fact that grain is an unnatural diet for cattle ― it makes them sick ― require constant doses of antibiotics. And the desire for quick profits calls for the use of growth hormones.
Alternative beef is increasingly available. Here's what the labels mean.
• Free-range Not regulated, but generally means that the animal was not confined to a feedlot. Doesn't preclude hormones or antibiotics.
• Grass-fed The animal's main diet was grass, not grain. Grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed; it has less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids. The grass-fed claim on a label is not independently verified, however, and producers may "finish" the cattle on grain (usually without the hormone and drug additives).
• Natural Officially ― that is, according to the USDA ― all raw beef is natural because it's minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or preservatives. In practice, though, most producers of all-natural beef avoid hormones, antibiotics, and animal by-products; some finish the animals on grain (without additives) in a feedlot.
• Organic Federally regulated since 2002. Indicates that the animals were raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, had access to a pasture, and were fed organically produced, plant-based feed (could be grain or grass). Vaccines are allowed.
Sources for alternative beef