While the consolidation of the beef industry has kept prices relatively low for consumers, it has also drastically changed how cattle are raised and what goes into the meat we now eat.
Steaks you'll find in most major supermarkets today bear little resemblance to steaks cowboys grilled on the range a century ago. Before World War II, when Jarrett's grandfather ran the ranch, it generally took most ranchers three to five years to grow an animal from an 80-pound calf to a 1,200-pound steer on the open range with a natural diet of grass. Today, commercial steers typically pack on that weight in 18 to 20 months ― half of it gained in huge industry feedlots where penned animals are "corn-fed" a diet that includes corn, "protein supplements" (which can include chicken feathers), and, as a matter of course, antibiotics. They're also injected with growth hormones.
Proponents of "natural" beef claim that meat from grass-fed animals grown without hormones or antibiotics (except as needed to treat a sick animal) is healthier for consumers. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, grass-fed beef is typically leaner than corn-fed and contains slightly more omega-3 polyunsaturated fat and a higher amount of conjugated linoleic acid, which has been shown to have cancer-fighting properties. Cattle that are grass-fed also have much less potential for being infected with mad-cow disease.
The morning after the cattle drive, Montana cattle broker Steve Christensen stops by for coffee. With help from Jarrett and a few other like-minded ranchers, Christensen has started the Montana Branded Beef Association. "I'm seeing the market for natural beef growing 25 percent to 30 percent a year," he says. While the cooperative was still working on its marketing plan at press time, Christensen's biggest challenge is "finding a packer and distributor who will process our beef separately from all the factory beef."
A growing number of ranchers in most Western states have found ways to accomplish this, producing small quantities of all-natural and organic beef. The challenge for consumers is finding it ― and deciphering the words on the package labels (see below).
Later that morning, farrier John Cosgriff stops by to shoe horses that ― along with most of the cattle ― will soon be trucked up to Jarrett's summer grazing leasehold in the Gallatin National Forest on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. While wolves have become a problem there ― in 2003 Jarrett lost a 500-pound calf to a pack of 12 wolves ― the supply of abundant grass on the summer lease is a vital part of his operation.
Jarrett watches as Cosgriff carefully taps on a new shoe. "It's not just money," Jarrett says. "Cow camp is a part of our heritage ― it's the most romantic thing we do. The mountains there are so pristine, and there's so much wildlife ― working up there just brings out the inherent goodness in people."
After adjusting the irrigation on the upper pasture (Jarrett insists he's "really more of a farmer than a rancher"), he pauses to watch 16-year-old stepdaughter Saundra training a horse in the old log corral near the barn. She gently works the 2-year-old gelding, trotting bareback around a massive snubbing post sunk deep in the packed earth.
"My grandfather used to break colts here," he says. "This corral has seen everything over the years, from brandings to family rodeos; there's a lot of history here, a lot of living."
As determined as Jarrett and his neighbors are to keep on ranching, ultimately the biggest threat to their survival may not be the price of beef, the weather, the wolves, or even the beef industry's favorite scapegoats ― environmentalists and government regulators. It may be themselves.
The town of Big Timber, once the region's largest wool producer, today has only 1,700 residents, but Montana State University Extension agent Marc King, who works with both farmers and government agencies in Sweet Grass County, says the face of that population is starting to change. "Most every ranch in this county has been in the family for at least three or four generations," explains King, "but as those families are forced to sell, new owners are taking the land out of production."
Last spring, for example, an out-of-state partnership including former anchorman Tom Brokaw and actor Michael Keaton purchased a 640-acre ranch for a reported $8 million, creating a private hunting and fishing preserve. Members of that partnership now own at least 12,000 acres of ranchland in the heart of the region.