Farm-to-table beef relies on native grasses

A rancher focuses beyond his herds and gets to the root of sustainability.

 

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Montana whose new book is Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon.


After a tour of his ranch, Lon Reukauf sat restlessly at the front of a banquet room in Terry, Montana, waiting for the panel discussion to start. He was surrounded by experts from the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the World Wildlife Fund. The groups had combined to give Lon an environmental stewardship award and then invited a bunch of us here to see why.

Lon knew that most eyes in the room were on him, and — like most ranchers I know — the attention made him uncomfortable. He’s not a public speaker, doesn’t seek the spotlight and prefers to spend most of his time surrounded by cows, with their heads down and grazing.

“Sitting here in front of 50 strangers, I’m certainly out of my comfort zone,” he said. So he concentrated on what he knew best. He spoke about grass.

It’s the native grasses, in a healthy variety, that make for the best beef, he said. The soil does better by them too, he added, as do other species, especially the grassland birds that have been declining in population. Western wheatgrass, blue grama grass, green needle and the needle-and-thread grasses growing on his ranch offer a better spectrum of nutrients than exotic species such as crested wheatgrass, which was widely planted during the 1930s as a way to fight erosion. 

Cattle graze at the Lonesome Dove Ranch in Montana.

Like a chef showing off the qualities of marble in a steak, Lon could compare the characteristics of various grasses, noting, for example, how they differ in the timing of their period of fastest growth, which helps to show how they contribute to the quality of the final product. He could talk about which conditions make the grasses thrive and which leave them vulnerable to invaders. He seemed particularly pleased that the World Wildlife Fund had endorsed well managed cattle grazing, because for decades some environmentalists have clashed with ranchers over public-land grazing. At this get-together, though, all agreed that good grazing can promote good grass.

As he talked about grass, Lon relaxed. The spotlight was no longer shining on him but rather through him — onto the complex systems that he spends his life observing and nudging.

“The grasses and other plants are the foundation of everything we do,” he said. The cattle were just harvesters, and he was just trying, in one corner of Montana, to make that process a little more productive. He didn’t seem to care much for the word sustainability, but his humble view of that large process certainly brought the concept to my mind.

Indeed, his talk reminded me of those menu listings: What’s on your plate is part of a larger process here. Let’s push the credit upstream.

But why did I have to go to a ranch to learn about the role of grass in this process? When it comes to imparting a message of sustainability, isn’t it better for a menu to say that a certain steak is nurtured by, say, western wheatgrass than by the individual rancher who manages that grass? And likewise for vegetarians, that these particular lentils are nurtured by soil tillage, phosphorus levels, and — at the risk of completely turning the menu into a dictionary — Rhizobium microsymbionts?

Such a strategy would also keep the spotlight off a bunch of agriculturalists who would rather people knew about their struggles than recognized their names.

After Lon and some others talked, they asked for feedback, and a chef on our tour summarized how the day had changed his thinking. “We tend to focus on the animal,” he said, referring to his buying process and the qualities he tries to convey to diners, “but I’m learning that it goes back much farther and deeper.”

That was what I had learned as well, and what I wouldn’t mind learning from the menus of farm-to-table restaurants.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac