When Bart and Wendy Morris made the decision to open Oxbow Cattle Company in 2014, they knew it came with an uncertain trajectory; but they knew that the biggest gamble was not taking the gamble at all.
“I knew I’d have to strike out on my own so we’d have a chance to have an impact on Mother Earth,” Bart told me. “We needed to accelerate the timeline for making positive changes, to strike a balance for healthy soil, clean water, for grazing lands for cattle, wildlife, plants and yes, people.” Bart, who grew up working on ranches in Wyoming, and is a wildlife biologist by training, left his steady job with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to devote himself full-time to the ranch, all with the goal of producing the healthiest grass-finished beef possible.
Fast forward nine years and their leap of faith is paying off. “We’ve seen quick improvement on the land—with both flora and fauna– from our intensive grazing practices,” explained Bart. “We mimic the natural grazing behaviors of the ruminant animals that co-evolved with grasslands by rotating our cattle frequently, often daily, and providing ample recovery time for each pasture. This practice provides our soils with sufficient fertilizer, disturbance through hoof action, and organic matter from dead grasses trampled down to cover and protect bare soil.”
“Our livelihood depends entirely on the health and resilience of the land where we graze our cattle. The struggle to maintain a balance between environmental sustainability and economic sustainability is the ever-present risk,” noted Bart. “We’re a very small operation in contrast to most other operations.”
Wendy, who is a practicing anesthesiologist, is equally committed to the ranch’s philosophy. Wendy was raised on the Tenny Ranch in northeastern Colorado; cattle, horses, and the ranching lifestyle are deeply engrained in her. She weaves together these two aspects of her life; a physician with a passion for health and wellness, not only for people, but also for the horses, cattle and other assorted critters that call the ranch home. Oxbow is also supported by Natalie Berkman, an alumnus of the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program, Kara Stanhope, the current apprentice, and Amy O’Hoyt, who spent years managing her family’s ranch. Together, the Oxbow team create a vibrant human community.
“IF THE WORLD IS TO BE HEALED THROUGH HUMAN EFFORTS, I AM CONVINCED IT WILL BE BY ORDINARY PEOPLE, PEOPLE WHOSE LOVE FOR THIS LIFE IS EVEN GREATER THAN THEIR FEAR.”– Joanna Macy, Active Hope
Bart and Wendy understand that maintaining a thriving ecosystem is required to make a successful go at ranching. “Healthy lands breed healthy cows,” explains Bart. “We’re lucky to graze our cows on some of the best terrain Montana has to offer, with so much variety. Hills of native grasses, river basins, we’re working our land to benefit and strengthen its biodiversity, resiliency, and habitats for all of its inhabitants, the cows, the wildlife, the water, native plants and grasses.” Wendy and Bart are striving to be stewards of the land, the wildlife, and of their community. At Western Landowners Alliance, we see this stewardship in action across the West regularly, but Wendy and Bart’s generous approach still stands out.
Dani Howlett, Western Landowners Alliance’s membership and outreach coordinator, lives in Missoula. She stops by Oxbow Cattle Company’s Farm 2 Market store on a regular basis. The first time she went she couldn’t believe her eyes. “The store is open 24/7 and operates on the honor system! Seriously, there is rarely a staff person in the store, just instructions to leave cash or a check in the box, or Venmo them.” Bart explains that they run the store in this way because it returns the trust their customers place in Oxbow to raise a healthy and regenerative product. “We trust our customers, they trust us. It’s that simple. The sacred trust we place in our ranch and nature includes the interdependent web of our customers and partners.”
Wendy and Bart have been taking this openhearted and innovative approach to risks each and every day. They told me that it’s the most rewarding adventure they’ve been on—helping to restore balance to their beloved ranch and in the process creating the healthiest beef for their loyal customers. Next time you bite into a juicy grass-finished steak (see the recipes to follow!) recall Wendy and Bart, and ranchers like them working the land throughout the West. They are healing the earth, “the ordinary people whose love for this life is greater than their fear.”
Photography by Rebecca Stumpf.