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
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...