Determined to keep their family ranch, Wyoming brothers Cody and Chase Lockhart have created a Jackson Hole niche: local beef.
Bruce Porter’s descendants imagine their ancestor gazing out at the Teton Mountains from the piece of earth he purchased in the 1930s, their family land in Jackson, Wyoming. For Porter’s great-grandsons, Cody and Chase Lockhart, the bounds of that rooted landscape motivated a new model of ranching.
When the youngest brother, Chase Lockhart, graduated from college in 2009, the family ranch pastures — bordered by Jackson Hole Community School, Smith’s Food and Drug, and Snow King Mountain Resort — were devoid of cattle. Five years earlier, in 2004, the family’s Lockhart Cattle Company was forced to euthanize its entire cattle herd because of brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can be contracted from elk, swine, or bison, among other animals.
“We lost close to 900 animals,” Chase recalls. “We had to file nonuse, because we had no cattle to put on our grazing permit in Grand Teton National Park. My family held the last remaining permit in the park, and our nonuse of the permit provided a reason for the park to close entirely to livestock grazing.”
Losing their grazing lease compelled Cody and Chase’s parents to reevaluate how to best use the family land. First, they chose to lease it out to other ranchers so the land would not stand idle. A few years later, hearing their sons’ request to run the ranch, they decided to hand over management to the next generation.
Initially, the brothers followed the agriculture model they knew: Raise registered Hereford cattle, grow quality hay, and sell bulls.
“It became clear that our small ranch would not be profitable doing this,” Chase says. “So we looked around at Jackson’s tourism industry. If half of the 5 million tourists eat hamburgers while they’re here, and if we could sell them a fifth of that hamburger, that’s still a lot of hamburger.”
Lockhart’s parents were skeptical that Lockhart beef could be sold solely direct to consumers within the valley.
“I think my parents’ doubts were merited,” Chase says. “Cody and I were young, and while the idea sounded fun, we didn’t know how to do it. Also, selling a ranch’s entire output of grass-finished beef to local customers hadn’t been done here.”
“It’s not like we ranch differently than our great-grandfather,” Cody adds. “The part that’s different is that we wanted to run the food supply chain at the end of the product cycle.”
Jackson is not known for manufacturing, but resident ranchers do produce beef. “It always seemed crazy to me that we raise beef here and ship it out for other people to eat, then we ship in beef for us to eat,” Chase says. “So we decided to sell Lockhart beef — that is born, raised, and butchered in our valley — for us to eat here.”
“Our ranch is in town,” Chase says. “I live in the main ranch house and it’s really convenient to our neighbor Smith’s grocery when I run out of coffee. We figured our location would help sell beef.”
Chase and Cody’s initial marketing plan was simple: Get people eating Lockhart beef. To do this, Chase and Cody hoofed around town giving free beef to restaurant chefs, holding taste tests at the farmers market, and inviting groups to the ranch for tours. In every conversation the brothers emphasized not only grass-finished beef’s flavor and quality, but also how Lockhart cattle never leave the valley from birth to butcher. Chase and Cody took any order for beef, no matter how small or difficult to fulfill.
“We would get an order for 50 tenderloins for a wedding next weekend,” Chase explains. “To get 50 tenderloins, we need to process 25 cattle. For a long time, I would tell people yes, and then get off the phone and swear.”
Now, eight years later, increased beef production allows the Lockhart brothers to keep a frozen inventory to meet such requests. Most customers want specialty cuts, like the restaurant that weekly purchases 30 pounds of high-quality beef — sirloin, tenderloin, eye of round — for tartare. One of the contracts that solidified the financial success of selling local was Signal Mountain Lodge, a concessionaire in Grand Teton National Park.
“The lodge sells an absurd amount of hamburgers,” Chase says. “The lodge orders 12,000 pounds of one-third-pound burger patties a year. I’m like, ‘36,000 patties coming up!’ ”
Lockhart beef is also sold at Jackson Whole Grocer & Cafe, which orders beef from an entire steer every week. The Lockharts have yet to secure a chain grocery store as a customer, though.
“We’ve tried,” Chase says with a shrug. “I even have a friend that works the meat counter at Albertsons. Corporate management doesn’t want to mess with me, wearing muddy cowboy boots, bringing whatever beef we have available. And at Smith’s, when our cows get out, they’re standing in that grocery store’s parking lot, which you would think would help marketing.”
He admits that it is harder for big customers to deal with small suppliers. If vacuum seals fail on a batch of meat, the Lockharts can’t immediately replace the order. “We’re not the Sysco truck with 60 more packages sitting on a shelf,” he says. “As a small business, we need to make sure that our quality is worth the extra effort.”
To add product value and pocket slim profit margins, the Lockhart brothers decided to control the whole supply chain. They learned of a wild game processor located 7 miles down the road from Lockhart ranch headquarters. The plant’s owner wanted to expand from a wild game processing business to a state-inspected facility for livestock. Lockhart Cattle Company purchased a partnership in the business to fund expansion, which also bought dedicated processing time for the company’s cattle.
This arrangement worked for a time. Increased demand for Lockhart beef meant cattle needed to be processed five days a week in the facility, which bumped other processing customers. Last year, Lockhart Cattle Company bought out its meat business partner. Now the constraint is that the Wyoming Department of Agriculture can only provide an inspector two days of the week, which limits the number of cattle handled in the facility.
As the business grows, Chase and Cody are continually reminded that ranching is the easy part. Now they must consider food safety regulations, shelf-life tracking, packaging, and labeling along with their needs for equipment such as the refrigerated trailer for beef deliveries.
“I still have trouble getting the label-maker to talk to the computer,” Chase says with exasperation.
“I’m the front office,” Cody jokes. “If it involves a phone or a computer, it’s my department. If it involves a horse or a John Deere, it’s normally Chase’s department.”
The Lockharts must have cattle ready to process every week of the year to provide fresh beef to customers. But Lockhart cows only calve once a year, in the spring. It takes at least 18 months to finish a bovine on a grass-only diet in a climate where winter lasts five to six months. There are often three generations of cattle grazing Lockhart pastures at once: the mother cow and its 2018 unweaned calf, the calf from 2017, and the 2016 model almost ready for processing.
“It takes significantly longer to grow a beef on grass its whole life than it does to finish a steer on a grain diet,” Cody says. “It’s a frustration to us that some ranchers finish their cattle on corn the month before processing but still market the beef as grass-fed. This is misleading marketing, and there’s no one to police that except for the consumer.”
To continue growing their ranch business, the brothers initially considered purchasing more cows, leasing more pasture, and breeding batches of cows to calve twice a year. “But we already spend a lot of time cowboying,” Chase says.
They nixed the idea because a bigger herd would mean hiring more hands. Instead, the Lockharts reached out to other small ranchers in the valley with a proposal: Lockhart Cattle Company would commit to purchase their calves at weaning if they are born and raised in Teton County with all-natural methods — no hormones or antibiotics — and on grass-only diets. Several ranchers have accepted the offer.
"It would be really easy to go buy 18-month-old cattle out of California, stick them on green grass here for the summer, and then sell them as local beef,” Chase says. “But we want our customers to drive by [the ranches] to watch the cattle and their whole life circle go around.”
The Lockhart brothers’ experiment to raise beef and sell it locally for neighbors and tourists to eat has proven to be a feasible model of ranching. While their family applauds and supports it, they know there are continuing challenges for beef producers in Teton County. The valley maintains a high cost of living, and employment wages are inflated by tourism. Land values continue to rise, and with the increase comes pressure on the Lockharts to develop their ranch for uses beyond agriculture. Developers have visions of skating rinks, soccer fields, community colleges.
“Jackson is rapidly growing and running out of places to put things,” Chase says.
He has no desire to take the money and start a ranch somewhere else with more room, though. “Jackson is where I grew up. My family and friends all live here. It’s home,” he says. “It’s where I want to hunt, fish, and ski. If I couldn’t ranch here, I’d probably quit ranching to continue living here.
“And as a lifetime Jackson local, I want us to find a way to protect open spaces that are quickly being developed. Agriculture seems like the best way to do that. I think open spaces are less likely to get developed if they aren’t just a scenic vista, if they’re actually a living, breathing benefactor to the community by producing food.”
From the June/July 2018 Issue.
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