Raising Steaks on Local Grass

By on July 20, 2016

160720DiningGuideBannerThe Lockhart Cattle Company keeps cows happy and the community healthy.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “Summer is always the perfect storm,” says cattle rancher Chase Lockhart of the constant juggling he does to get everything done on the ranch each day. It’s 7 a.m., his horses are saddled up, and he’s retrieving a few bulls to take out to summer pasture to visit their girlfriends. He murmurs to them softly as he walks alongside the enormous horned animals into the horse trailer.

Lockhart and his brother Cody own and operate the Lockhart Cattle Company, a cow-calf operation just south of town in Jackson that has been in his family for five generations. After graduating from Montana State University, Chase came straight home to the ranch to get to work.

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(Photo by David Stubbs)

Following a busy spring of calving, with more than 200 healthy babies added to the herd, Chase has a primary focus. For the next few months, he will be consumed with keeping the animals fed on fresh grass, maintaining the irrigation system that brings in spring-fed water, and putting up hay for the long winter.

We head out to one of the ranch’s six properties used for rotational grazing; when the cows are done feasting on the tender grasses in one place, they are moved to another pasture nearby. Chase does this the old-fashioned way, on horseback, with blue heeler Spud along to help herd. “I prefer horses to four-wheelers when I need to get work done,” he says. And the work seems never-ending. Besides haying, irrigating, and herding cows, there’s equipment to maintain, orders to fill, phone calls to make, and trips to the slaughterhouse.

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(Photo by David Stubbs)

Incessantly checking the herd for health problems, Chase likes to lay eyes on each cow pretty much every day, looking for any sign of illness or infection. To say these animals are humanely raised would be an understatement—Chase cares for his herd like a large brood of children. He speaks softly, moves slowly and deliberately, and is always conscious of keeping the animals from getting stressed.

Studies now show that meat is more healthy if it comes from animals raised in low stress environments. When livestock are under duress, during life or upon harvest, they crank out catecholamines—those stress hormones required for “flight or fight.” Lactic acid pours into the muscles and hormones seep into the meat. When ingested, these substances kick off a cascade of inflammatory reactions with negative effects on our guts, our coronary arteries and our brains.

For the Lockharts, keeping the herd calm and happy is part of their business plan. They like to avoid the factors that stress out a cow: being confined to a pen, loud noises, excessive heat, being separated from the herd, long trips in the back of a trailer. On slaughter days, the animals are escorted on the short trip down the road to Hog Island Meats by the people they know best—either Chase or his trusted ranch hand Joey Budge.

As a group of calves start to romp and play running from one pasture to another, it occurs to me that these must be some of the happiest cows on Earth. Chase agrees. “The beef are what they eat,” he has said. “Just like us. In Jackson we are all so lucky to have an awesome quality of life, access to good food, and open space to thrive in. Animals deserve the same.”

The Lockhart brothers are committed to bringing a totally unique product to market: beef that is fed only grass, born, raised and slaughtered entirely within the confines of Jackson Hole.

“It’s more expensive to keep them in Teton County their whole lives,” Chase explains. “Cold winter months mean cows need to be fed lots of hay, and they don’t put on weight as fast as they would if they were warmer, so it takes longer to raise them.” He says these additional costs are worth it if the animals can live a less stressful life.

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(Photo by David Stubbs)

Not only are the cows spared the stress of being shipped from place to place, a grass-only diet has its own health benefits for the meat. Those grasses are packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamins E and B12—all powerful antioxidants. Beef from animals that are fed only grass have a healthier fat profile than those supplemented with grain.

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(Photo by Annie Fenn, MD)

Yet finding a local market for their beef has been an uphill battle. Building the business is “just like breaking out of Alcatraz,” Chase says, “chip by chip.” In the last eight years since Chase returned from college and he and his brother teamed up to build up the herd and sell locally, perceptions about how people buy and consume beef have changed. Ten years ago, it was rare to see locally raised meat in the grocery store and on restaurant menus. Now the Lockharts are selling more beef to locals than ever—keeping the Jackson Whole Grocer meat counter stocked, selling whole beef broken down into quarters to the Aspens Market and Local Restaurant & Bar, providing beef for Teton Science Schools’ cafeterias, Signal Mountain Lodge and for a handful of chefs who have come to appreciate the robust flavor of grassfed beef.

With almost a decade of sweat equity into the family business, Chase feels fortunate to be partnering with his brother, working outdoors every day, and spending his time with the animals. “I’ll admit not everyone has a gift with cows. I’ve always had it,” he said. “I probably bitch and complain more than I should, but there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.” PJH

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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