For a man raised on a commercial cattle ranch, the challenge of selling beef directly to customers was not something Lamont Herman thought he would do. But since the business has grown into an operation that includes a storefront in Billings, Mont, he said it “makes perfect sense”.
“Putting on my best clothes and sitting at a stand on a side street in Billings selling beef wasn’t what I had in mind. I grew up with a horse and a tractor, but I like that our cattle don’t get stuffed with shots and travel 700 miles to forage grounds,” he said. “Commercial cattle come on trucks five or six times in their lifetime. There is a better way to do this.”
Montana Prime Meats sells seasonally at the Billings Farmers Market and they have also opened a store at 524 Liberty Street in Billings that is open seven days a week selling beef, pork and lamb to customers.
Lamont and his wife Jennifer, along with their three children Brooklyn, Jolene and Colton, live on a ranch south of Billings that was established by Lamont’s great-grandparents in the 1930s. The ranch had been a commercial cattle operation while Lamont was growing up, and although he went to Sheridan College for two years, he was desperate to return to the ranch.
“I always wanted to be in the country where I am today,” he said.
But looking ahead, Lamont knew something had to change if he wanted his kids to be part of the outfit. After many years in the cattle industry and 14 years of transporting livestock and forage as a truck driver, Lamont said he saw firsthand how much food stayed nowhere near its place or origin.
“For example, I would transport seafood from the east coast to the west coast. A lot of times we stuck wheels under something that didn’t need it,” he said. “But back then we did the same thing at home. We sold our live animals and then bought cheap beef in bulk from the store. At one point, Jennifer asked me why didn’t we eat our own beef, and if so, why didn’t we eat the best of it?”
Lamont said when they decided to eat their own beef and explore direct marketing, they tried a variety of methods, from grass-fed to grain-fed, and also took a close look at their Angus genetics.
“We’ve spent a lot of time studying our genetics for over 35 years to breed the best possible animal,” he said.
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One of the biggest challenges Herman Ranch faced when entering direct marketing was the time it would take them to store their calf harvest until they were butcher-ready animals.
“The hard part was timing to keep animals out of our revenue stream,” he said. “Rather than selling calves after they’ve been weaned for seven months, we wanted to keep the animals for up to a year and a half before they make money and are ready to be killed.”
To take the plunge, the Herman ranch sought to cut their costs, opting to hold back just 120 calves from the roughly 350-strong herd.
“We knew just from selling to family and friends that we could sell two, three or four animals at a time, but we really wanted to commit to selling more, so we tightened our belts and got through this transition period,” he says said.
Instead of selling the calves for £700, they kept the 120 head until they reached between £1,300 and £1,400 and made a butcher-ready animal.
Lamont attributes much of the business success to Jennifer’s marketing skills.
“Jennifer is a school teacher, but her family has been in sales for a long time and she has really helped market our proceeds,” he noted.
In the future, the ranch hopes to be able to sell its entire calf crop on the direct market – either by selling whole or half beef to customers, or cuts to be sold at the farmer’s market and retail outlets.
“We put a lot of effort into our cows and calves, and the butcher says he can see the difference in texture and fat content,” says Lamont. “We work to bring a good product to market and are proud that a Montana product stays in the state.”
Visit montanprimemeats.com for more information.