Located near Birney, Montana, the Bones Brothers Ranch, home of Omega Beef, Inc., has been worked by the Alderson family since the late 19th century. Today, Jeanie Alderson and her husband Terry Punt oversee the ranch. They raise purebred, grass-finished Wagyu cattle — the same breed that produces world-famous Kobe beef. I sat down (virtually) with Jeanie to learn about the joys and challenges of keeping family tradition alive.
Your ranch has been family-run since the late 1880s. What was it like growing up in a ranching family, and is this what you’ve always wanted to do?
In many ways, growing up on a ranch is just as idyllic as it sounds. My sisters and I played in the hills, rode horses, did chores. We had the kind of freedom that all children deserve, but so few seem to have. And with that wonderful freedom also came an understanding of responsibility. I grew up knowing that ranching took a huge amount of work. Mostly, this was work I loved. We also grew up with a land ethic that taught us that we belonged to the place as much as it belonged to us and that we had the responsibility to care for it and hold it together. I always had the sense that the land was who we were, and this fostered both a deep love and also a very weighty sense of responsibility. And I also learned very early that keeping a ranch and a piece of land together takes more than hard work; it takes imagination and creativity and a willingness to try new ideas.
I always felt tied to this place and this life, but there was a time when I thought I was supposed to want something different or that I was supposed to be someone else. I was really fortunate to get to leave the ranch to get an education and to work and travel to other places. But in my late 20s I realized that I would never quite fit in anywhere else and that I couldn’t quite shake homesickness. I came home for good. I am blessed to get to choose this place and this life.
And I would maybe not still be here if I hadn’t met my husband, Terry. Amazingly, I met Terry here in Birney. Terry was teaching at our country school part-time and working part-time on our friend’s ranch. Finding a partner who shared my love for this place and this life and all it takes to keep things going and who was also willing to work to protect our land and water will always be one of those things that feels like grace — one of life’s true blessings. It is all a huge amount of work, but it is a life full of beauty and connection and value. It is a great place to raise children. And I feel grateful and blessed to be here.
What are your thoughts on the commonly held belief that raising and eating meat is resource-intensive and environmentally unsustainable?
I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to this question. As others have pointed out, it is “not the cow, but the how,” meaning how beef is raised, how cattle and land are managed, are what determine whether cattle are part of a system that is environmentally harmful or a part of healing and regenerating life on our planet. There are many aspects of industrial-scale agriculture that are completely unsustainable, and there are costs from this to our environment and our health that are being paid for by all of us in this country. There is such a lack of understanding of land, water, and animals. A huge percentage of land in the country is not at all suitable for farming, but it is suitable for grazing and raising animals. These are grasslands, hills, and prairies that have always been grazed by cloven-hooved animals. Some of these are public lands and others are ranchlands. We will need ranchers on these lands to help solve the climate problems. How cattle are managed on land is what matters and what we should be talking about. We are now recognizing that our planet’s survival depends on these soils and grasslands, and if we are going to sequester carbon at a rate that will heal our climate, it is going to take animals — lots of them. Cows really are a part of the solution.
Most people do not understand the difference between industrial livestock production and beef that is raised and finished on a ranch like ours. At Omega Beef our Wagyu cattle spend their lives grazing hills and pastures. We feed hay in the winter and a little supplemental feed when we wean our calves. As my dad says: “Cows are magic animals. They turn sunlight, rain, and grass into protein.” I wish that more people understood that most beef in this country comes from ranches like ours. Right now, most ranches raising cattle that do go into the industrial system are locked into this system and do not have a fair market for their cattle. At Omega Beef we took a leap; but not everyone can do what we have done by going directly to customers. I really wish that more people would follow the science involved and look honestly at the life cycle of different foods. To answer this question, we really need to look at all foods that are raised in a factory setting and see how very different the impacts of this way of managing land and livestock is from the practices on most small or mid-sized ranches and farms in this country.
The concentration of animals in feedlots, the concentration of power and money in our agribusiness system, concentration at all levels is the essential problem in our food system. It is threatening land and water, ranchers and farmers, and consumers. We really need consumers’ help to reform the food system in our country. And this is hard because consumers are faced with such a flood of information and marketing and increasing costs for food, and scarcity of good food in some places.
It’s not enough to simply buy organic or grass-fed beef at the store. These labels tell us really very little about where the product comes from or how it was cared for or raised and managed. Getting to know the people that raise our food is the best way to know what you are eating. We have to look to buying beef directly from ranchers and farmers we know so we can ask questions about how the beef has been raised and processed.
And this is why we need a book like There is a Cow in My Freezer. It really helps people distinguish between meat that is a part of saving our planet and meat that is a part of the problem for our environment.
What makes the Wagyu breed of cattle you raise so special?
We love our Wagyu cattle, and they really do produce delicious beef. Wagyu is a breed of cattle that originated in Japan. Wagyu cattle are naturally predisposed to marbling. This means not just putting on fat on their back but marbling within the muscle. So Wagyu beef is more tender and has a very special taste. Most Wagyu beef now available is actually a cross of Wagyu cattle with other breeds, mostly Angus. Very few of us raise full-blood or purebred Wagyu. An even smaller number of us finish Wagyu cattle on grass. For one thing, there really aren’t a lot of Wagyu cattle in the world. And almost no one finishes Wagyu on grass because Wagyu take a longer time to grow to finish weight. Like in many businesses, time is money; raising grass-finished Wagyu takes time. But we think it is worth it. The other thing we have discovered about Wagyu cattle is that they are really amazing range cattle. This means they do well on our rangeland. Our Wagyu cattle move to parts of our pastures that our Angus and Hereford cattle simply don’t go to. They are good mothers and most of our Wagyu cows have horns, so they can protect their calves from predators. They have good feet and they are hardy and adaptive. Our Wagyu are gentle cattle but they are also very athletic; you want to handle them quietly or they will simply jump a fence to get away or out of a pen. They are wonderful cattle to raise and we think they produce really great beef.
What’s your favorite cut of beef and how do you like to prepare it?
The hardest question! Of course I love a grilled New York steak (especially if Terry is at the grill), but I really think a simple chuck roast is my favorite. I love these roasts cooked low and slow — in a good pot in the oven or in a slow cooker — with root vegetables. Something about the meat from this cut is so very nourishing, and the taste is always amazing.
What life lessons has ranching taught you?
Humility. Ranching teaches you to always be able to look for another way to do something. There is so much we cannot predict or plan for; we have to be able to adapt. I never quite get this lesson, as I really like to have a plan. But ranching teaches you to watch nature, to pay attention, to slow down, and to have a sense of humor. Cows and horses will teach you a lot if you let them.
What’s the most challenging part of running a small family farm?
One might think that the answer would be that the physical work is incredibly demanding, often dangerous, and constant. But we love this life and the work is part of it. The hardest part of running a small family farm or ranch is staying in business. The reality for most small farms and ranches is that the costs of raising livestock are generally more than what we can make selling our product. Most small farms and ranches do not support the families it takes to run them. Many ranchers have off-ranch jobs or other sources of income, and this is hard. It really shouldn’t be this way in this country. We shouldn’t have farmers and ranchers going broke, we shouldn’t have people hungry and not able to feed their families, and we shouldn’t have farm workers and packing plant workers struggling.
What’s a typical workday look like for you?
The great thing about ranch work is that every season has very different work days. Most days Terry heads out the door at dawn to start feeding animals and other chores of the season. I work on Omega Beef business and correspondence and things that keep the household going. While Terry does most of the day-to-day work on the ranch, there are some times of the year when it’s all hands on deck and we’ll all spend our days horseback, moving or working with cattle. There are some seasons when both our ranching businesses demand a lot of time and work. These days are long.
Also, Terry and I both work with the Northern Plains Resource Council. Northern Plains is a grassroots conservation and family agriculture organization. I am currently chair of the board of directors so I often have calls or meetings in the day and most weeks one of us has a conference call or Zoom meeting.
A lot of ranch work depends on what comes up. And you drop what you are doing and fix something, go gather cattle that got out, or help neighbors. Often projects come up and plans change. Our boys are in school, but when their schedules allow they help with work that comes up.
Even when we are busy, we eat dinner together as a family. Family dinner is something we really value. Now that our boys are busy teenagers, I am so very grateful that we started when they were very small and made it a priority to sit down for at least one meal a day. It’s a time to connect, go through the ups and downs of the day. It’s a time to make plans, talk about nothing and everything. And having a freezer full of great meat makes this vital family routine so much easier!
When it comes to buying a whole or half animal for the first time, what’s the most common question or concern your customers have?
As you point out in There’s a Cow in My Freezer, a lot of people are simply overwhelmed by the whole idea of buying a half or whole beef. Most people ask how much it costs and then they ask how much freezer space they would need and how long it will last. In this country we have gotten so used to just stopping by the store for things as we need them. The idea of buying a year or two’s worth of meat is a huge leap. The biggest question (or, really, concern) I hear is that people want to buy locally but they don’t think they will be able to eat a half beef. And I have found it does take people some time to figure out what they want and how much they need.
It is so great to have a book where they can think through their concerns and worries in a neutral context. It is hard for people who have never bought this way to understand all the ways that having a freezer full of beef will enhance and benefit their lives. People have to hear from someone they know or can relate to, or someone who has really researched the whole concept of buying in bulk. It’s really hard to convince people that they will be surprised by the fun and ease they will discover when they have a supply of great beef. Until they experience it, they don’t really know that a freezer full of beef can even bring a hectic, busy family together. It’s hard to believe that having or sharing a half or whole beef will bring you into a great community. These are things I tell people but it’s so great to have a book like this to help people think through such a big expense and commitment, and also find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.
Some of your customers do “cow pooling.” Can you explain what that is and what the benefits are?
We have found that the best way to keep everyone’s costs down and to give customers the most choice and variety is to sell only by the half and whole beef. For small families or single people this can be simply too much beef at one time. For these people and those who are very new to buying in bulk, “cow pooling” is a great option. By sharing a half or whole beef with others, customers with fewer mouths to feed or unsure of the amount, cuts, and taste and flavor of pasture-raised beef can try a few cuts without the huge commitment of freezer space and money. We have some wonderful customers who organize and arrange “cow pooling” efforts and bring people to Omega Beef. For each half or whole we sell, we ask that even if a group is sharing, only one person be the contact with the butcher for going over cutting and packaging instructions. We have several customers who buy a whole beef every year with the same group of friends. In other cases, the group changes a little every season. We have other customers who began buying Omega Beef as a part of a “cow pooling” effort and now buy their own half or whole. It is really fun to see how people gather when we deliver beef. There is such a special community that comes from sharing in a harvest.
What’s on the horizon for Omega Beef in 2021 and beyond?
The continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for drought could bring us big challenges this year, but we will continue to find our way. We just hope we are blessed again this year to get great Omega Beef Wagyu out to our amazing customers!
Be sure to check out Omega Beef on Facebook and Instagram for farm updates, stunning photos, and information on cooking grass-fed beef. Want delicious Wagyu but don’t live in Montana? Shipping is an option for large orders.