BILLINGS — In Montana, it’s rare to go a day without spotting a cow or two. With more than 2 million cows statewide, it’s clear Big Sky Country is a hot spot for cattle ranchers. And some are making a bigger effort to sell homegrown beef in Montana restaurants.
Montana is a cattle capital, home to millions of cows.
"There’s definitely more cows in Montana than there are people," said Turk Stovall, a Montana rancher, on Wednesday.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Montana had 2.16 million cows in January, nearly double the state's population.
But how much of that Montana-raised beef is staying in the Treasure State?
“What a lot of people don’t know is a lot of the cattle in Montana get exported,” Stovall said.
Stovall knows a thing or two about raising premium beef.
“My family’s been in it a long time," Stovall said. "I’d be a fifth-generation Montana rancher."
At Stovall's Yellowstone Cattle Feeders in Shepherd, it's a family ranching business—raising, feeding, and processing thousands of cattle.
"When you’re involved in it from generations, you can share stories with your children of, ‘Hey, you see that fence over there? My dad and I built that fence in the early '90s. This over here, my dad and his dad built that road.’ And it really ties you back to the land and it ties it back to the purpose of what we’re really trying to do,” said Stovall. “We’re really just trying to not only raise good products, but we’re also trying to raise great kids and be a real asset to our communities."
Montana beef through and through: something the Montana Stockgrowers Association loves to see.
"Our responsibility is to protect and enhance ranching in Montana,” said Monty Lesh, a regional director for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, on Wednesday. “We’re the longest (running) producer organization in the state of Montana for livestock. We’ve been around since 1884."
This week in Billings, the annual Montana Stockgrowers Association conference is underway with a special dinner Wednesday that highlighted the Montana Stockgrowers Foundation Cattle Drive Program.
"We get steers donated to us from producers. And then we also have other businesses that donate money and we buy more cattle. Those cattle are fed at Yellowstone Cattle Feeders with Turk, then they are sold to different restaurants and individuals in the state of Montana," Lesh said. "To try to get that meat into retail outlets, like the High Horse, so that Montana people can enjoy Montana beef."
The program is in its sixth year and aims to match Montana born, raised, and fed cattle with local restaurants. Ranchers can donate calves to the foundation that will be transported to Yellowstone Cattle Feeders. There, they will be put into the program and fed to an ideal market weight. The cows are then matched with a local restaurant or retailer in their region.
One of those restaurants is the High Horse Saloon in Billings.
"Reid, graciously, has bought two steers from us and he’s featuring Montana beef in his restaurant,” Lesh said about Reid Pyburn, the owner of the High Horse.
Pyburn says Montana beef is where it’s at.
"The best beef on the planet’s, like, right here," Pyburn said. "We are going to release a new dinner menu after the first of the year that is steak-driven. We are really focused on having locally sourced beef filling the requirements of that menu as often as possible."
Keeping it local—a win for both the ranchers and restaurants.
"Montanans, especially all of us as ranchers and farmers, we love feeding people and we love taking care of people," Stovall said. "There’s nothing better than taking care of your neighbor and being able to keep that right here."
To learn more about the Montana Stockgrowers Association, click here.
To learn more about the Cattle Drive Program, click here.