Specialty cattle herd in Montana serves niche market
TURAH, Mont. — A man as unique as the Highland cattle herd he manages, Wally Congdon, is an accomplished Montana attorney and the owner and operator of Big Sky Natural Beef.
From raising to finishing, Congdon does it all on his western Montana ranch, and has created a market for his grass-fed, all natural Highland beef around the U.S.
“It is a novel concept,” Congdon says. “That’s how we do it, and it works good enough. You don’t get rich doing agriculture unless you’re simple. It’s a custom culture here, and it’s a history deal in the West. It’s a custom, culture, heritage and history.”
Growing up raising cattle on his family’s ranch, Congdon bought his first Highlanders 25 years ago. With a peak of more than 1,000 head, today Big Sky Natural Beef has about 300 cows, with enough to kill 100 to 200 per year. Beef is processed at Ranchland Packing Co. in Butte, Mont., where meat is hung and aged for 28 days in a cooler.A history
One of the oldest breeds in the world, the unique variety originates in Scotland and boasts large horns and heavy coats that make them a hardy livestock during Montana’s harsh winters. Congdon raises and sells completely grass-fed, naturally-certified beef.
According to a study by the University of Glasgow, research demonstrates that Highland beef is shown to be almost 23 percent more tender than commercial beef. It is also significantly lower in fat and cholesterol and contains almost seven percent more protein and 17 percent more iron when compared to cuts from all beef. Because of their nature, Highland beef tends to produce larger loins, rib-eye steaks and New York cuts than other cattle.
The Quality Highland Beef Program is designed to support the growing Highland beef industry in the U.S. by assisting producers in developing local beef markets. According to its website, the QHBP is a promotional campaign available to individual breeders who market their beef of a local basis.
In order to be a member, breeders must sign a contract in agreement with the quality guidelines requiring animals be purebred or at least one-half Highland be raised and handled in a human manner with no added hormones, steroids or sub-therapeutic feed antibiotics. Animals are also slaughtered between 14 and 36 months with a minimum carcass weighing 450 pounds and aged a minimum of 14 days.
The beef product must be natural and cannot contain any artificial flavoring, coloring, preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. Currently, there are 15 QHBP-qualified Highland cattle members registered in the U.S.
“The whole point is that if you’re going to do it then be outside the box,” Congdon says of livestock production If you don’t like the rules then rewrite them.”
In addition to high-end restaurant clients, Congdon’s beef is in hospitals, care facilities, schools and available for people with Crohn’s and celiac diseases.
Big Sky Natural Beef is available through the Missoula Community Food Co-op or by special order.