Launching branded beef from a ranch
Josh and Maggie Johnson got a slim start in the cattle business. They started ranching on their family’s outfit near Westby, Montana, in 2001, with just 10 heifers that were a gift from Josh’s grandfather. “Besides the money we made driving sugar beet trucks in the fall, the income from those 10 heifers was all we had to live on,” says Josh.
But the slim pickings made them savvy managers. And dreamers.
The beef herd today on their JLM Ranch numbers 400 cows, and their vision is to one day market all the offspring from the herd through their own company, Montana Branded Inc. With plans to process and market 20 head a month in the near future, they’re not far from reaching their mark. A blueprint for their own processing facility is in the works. (See “The Rancher’s Rail.”)
The couple launched Montana Branded in 2018 after having success selling quarters, halves, and whole carcasses to a handful of local customers. They finished the cattle in their own on-farm feedlot.
“It was a good way to market open heifers and those ‘odd’ cattle that don’t sell well at the auction barn, just because they might have lost their tail or froze their ears,” Josh says.
Adds Maggie, “Those beef sales went over so well, we decided to try to market more cattle through direct sales, giving local people the chance to buy beef from us by the package or in small quantities.”
The Johnsons also continue to market weaned calves and some backgrounded yearlings through the auction barn. “But we have found greater profitability in selling animals as packaged beef directly to consumers,” Josh says. “Our ultimate goal is to process and direct market all the cattle that we produce here on the ranch.”
Providing their community and region with a local source of beef is a motivating purpose as well.
“We believe it’s important to give our community another option for buying beef locally — a buying option where they have the opportunity to know the history of the animal and where they can trust that we’re providing a high-quality product,” Maggie says. “When we started Montana Branded, we began by processing and selling six head a month; that number grew to eight head a month. We never dreamed we’d have the opportunity to plan for processing as many as 20 head a month. But it’s because people are willing to buy a high-quality, home-produced product.”
Since launching their company, they have hauled cattle 80 miles to the nearest USDA-inspected processing facility in Williston, North Dakota. The USDA inspection at the plant gives them marketing flexibility.
“We can sell beef by the cut to individuals, institutions, and restaurants,” Maggie says.
Building a Business
In the beginning, they partnered in the marketing of the meat with Josh’s brother, Derek, in Florida. “The first time we went to Florida, we took packaged beef from eight animals,” says Josh. “We had the beef in freezers in the horse trailer we were pulling, and we put a generator in the trailer to power the freezers.” Derek sold the beef out of a walk-in freezer on his property.
To cover part of the cost of hauling to Florida, the Johnsons bought frozen shrimp to bring back to Montana for resale.
At home in Montana, the Johnsons also worked at building local and regional sales, focusing on consumers and outlets within a 100-mile radius of their ranch. They built a website and began selling beef at two local farmers markets. “The farmers markets are a great place for people to learn about our product and generate word-of-mouth sales,” Maggie says.
They also worked at building a customer base through Facebook.
Reaching out to local businesses resulted in the opportunity to set up and stock a freezer in a local hardware store and also in a local convenience store. “The businesses buy the beef from us at wholesale price,” Maggie says. “They resell at their own retail price.”
Two restaurants also buy beef from Montana Branded: Sagas in Williston, North Dakota, and The Bypass in Crosby, North Dakota. A regional public school is another of the Johnsons’ customers.
While most of their sales are local and regional, the Johnsons’ website also generates phone sales from buyers outside of the region. “We’ve shipped beef to customers as far away as Arizona and New Mexico,” says Maggie. “They’re willing to pay the shipping price on the beef.” The Johnsons ship the beef in coolers with ice packs via two-day shipping.
Filling Age Gaps
As beef sales continue to grow and as the Johnsons work at managing their own herd to provide a year-round supply of grain-finished carcasses from heifers and steers, they expect to buy cattle from local producers to provide their business with cattle of diverse ages. One of their management challenges is to figure out how to spread the calving season on their primarily spring-calving herd so animals can be finished and processed at optimal ages throughout the year. For now, buying cattle from others helps them fill in the age gaps.
Despite the challenges, the Johnsons view Montana Branded and similar local beef-supply businesses as a resilient food system that is free from the national supply chain issues that sometimes trouble the conventional beef marketplace.
For that reason, they champion local beef sales. Says Josh: “We tell people, ‘You don’t have to buy beef from us. But at least find a local rancher whom you can buy your beef from.’”
The Rancher's Rail
In addition to planning an expansion in their local and regional beef sales through Montana Branded, Inc., Josh and Maggie Johnson — along with partners Sheila and David Friedrich — are planning to build a USDA-inspected processing facility.
They are designing their facility, called The Rancher’s Rail, to process as many as 30 to 40 head a week and employ eight to 12 full-time workers. They plan to custom-process cattle as well as all the cattle sold through Montana Branded. The facility fills a need in their region for more livestock-processing facilities.
Besides providing greater processing accessibility to area producers, the new plant will reduce hauling stress on cattle. “Even just hauling 80 miles is hard on the cattle,” Josh says.
In developing the new facility, they’ve worked with state agencies to obtain grants. They’ve also reached out to local economic development groups for guidance.
“Our local community is dwindling away,” Josh says. “If this business is something that keeps a few people here, that’s worth something.”
Along with Montana Branded, the processing facility will add economic security for the Johnsons. “We have three daughters, and they’re all involved in the operation,” he says. “These businesses make it more likely that one or more of them can have a future on the ranch.”