Lockharts raise, slaughter, sell beef from iconic South Park ranch.
Kelly and Chase Lockhart and ranch dog Spud go looking for a Hereford steer that wandered into the wrong place on the Porter Estate in South Park. Lockhart Cattle Company provides beef to several restaurants in Jackson that serve steaks just a few miles from where the animals graze, grow and are processed. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Richard Anderson, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 21, 2012
Click here for a gallery of photographs of ranch operations at the Lockhard Cattle Company.
As much as Jackson Hole has changed over the past century, one thing has stayed pretty much the same: cattle ranching on the Porter Estate.
Homesteaded in the 1880s by Stephen N. Leek, the ranch was purchased by Bruce Porter in the 1930s and has remained in the family ever since.
Today, Porter’s great-grandsons, Cody and Chase Lockhart, run the Lockhart Cattle Company, their brand a heart with an L inside.
“The basic nuts and bolts of the ranch are the same as they were 100 years ago,” Cody Lockhart, 29, said, chatting in a garage that serves as the ranch office. “It’s Hereford cows eating Jackson Hole grass.”
They’re the same breed Jackson’s original cattlemen brought here in the 1880s.
“They won the West because they handle the harsh climate,” he said. “They’re hardy suckers.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed in Jackson is that cattle ranching is challenging work. Few operations remain in the valley. In an effort to make ranching economically viable, the Lockhart brothers have taken the enterprise in a new direction. Instead of shipping cattle out of town, they raise them, slaughter them and sell them here in the Tetons.
“Our steaks have never left Jackson,” he said. “They are born and butchered in South Park. It’s good marketing for us, and it’s convenient. Putting beef in a trailer and driving over the pass in February, that’s tough.”
The timing for selling Jackson beef to Jackson customers couldn’t be better. People are interested in eating locally, giving rise to community-supported agricultural ventures like Cosmic Apple and Blue Flax farms. Local beef is a logical step.
What’s more, these days grass-fed beef is in vogue. It’s far leaner than corn-fed beef or other meats.
So it not only makes economic sense to develop a local market for their cattle, it’s good for the environment and good for consumers’ health. They also don’t use antibiotics or hormones on their herd.
“We’re trying to sell people half a beef to put in their fridge,” Cody Lockhart said. “It’s cheaper to do that than to buy hamburger from the grocery store, and you’re also getting the best steak you can buy in the country.”
Feed-lot cattle are ready for market by about 18 months; grass-fed beef takes a bit longer, about two years. They’ll reach 1,000 to 1,500 pounds before going to slaughter. After it’s been stripped of its hide, head, hoofs and guts, the carcass will weigh about 500 pounds. At $4 a pound of hanging weight, a family will pay about $1,000 for a side of beef, which, minus bones, will yield perhaps 150 pounds of meat.
“The butcher is gonna call you to find out how you want it cut,” Cody said.
It’s been interesting, the brothers said, to learn the art of butchering. People from various places are used to different cuts. Hispanic families like it one way, while a guy from Romania the Lockharts met asked for it a different way. Such custom butchery is another advantage of buying locally.
In addition to selling meat to families, the ranch has for the past five months been supplying beef to the Town Square restaurant Local.
“We’ve been through eight or 10 whole cows,” said Will Bradof, co-owner and co-chef at the restaurant.
All of Local’s burgers — more than 15,000 sold so far — are made from the Lockharts’ Herefords, and they always have steak specials on the menu that feature the homegrown beef.
“We can’t go through enough cows to keep up with the demand for New York strips or filets,” Bradof said, so they also offer non-Jackson steaks. “But the relationship is just in the beginning stages. We’re working on trying to get even more of their beef on the menu. It’s a work in progress.”
The response from diners has been positive, he said, and the restaurant staff is also into it.
“We’re excited to be part of buying beef that’s born, raised and slaughtered all within six miles of our kitchen,” he said.
It reduces the operation’s carbon footprint and has allowed the kitchen staff to wade into in-house charcuterie, or custom butchering, and whole-animal eating, using the beef’s marrow in dishes, for example, and boiling the bones to make stock.
“It’s fun to work with,” Bradof said, “right up our alley. … These are great skills to bring back into the kitchen, and it helps with all sorts of things like food costs.”
In addition to selling beef, the Lockharts also sell bulls and heifers to other ranches. They carefully monitor the traits of their animals, shooting for what Cody Lockhart called “premium genetics.”
“As a result of that, we have a super-high-end cow herd,” he said, “which in turn produces good steaks.”
The Lockhart Cattle Company is headquartered in the complex of buildings just off South Highway 89 that includes the white clapboard house that Leek built in 1904 — the first home built in the valley using lumber instead of logs — and the red barn he built shortly after. Leek ranched until 1938, when he was about 70 years old, then sold out to Bruce Porter.
Porter came to Jackson in 1914 as a pharmacist. He owned Jackson Drug on Town Square. But he had grown up around agriculture, Cody Lockhart wrote in a lecture he presented to the Jackson Hole Historical Society, so in the mid-1920s he began to put together his own ranching operation.
Porter had great success on Leek’s land. It is one of the temperate areas of the valley, with the snow melting faster than most places. In the summer he grazed his Herefords along the Snake River and on an allotment in what became Grand Teton National Park.
Porter died in 1961 and the ranch passed to his daughters, Jeannine and Roberta, who carried on pretty much as their father had. In 2004, however, several cows in the herd tested positive for brucellosis. The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s remedy for brucellosis infection is that the entire herd be slaughtered, and so the family’s 80-year-old line of cows was destroyed.
“As ranching has gotten less support in this valley, our family has had to take head-on some of the largest issues facing Western ranchers today,” Cody Lockhart wrote in his lecture. “We have had significant depredation by wolves and grizzlies, we have lost our grazing allotment, contracted brucellosis … and dealt with development issues from a growing and expanding community.”
All of which made the brothers’ efforts to rebuild the herd and make ranching economically feasible all the more impressive. They plan to ranch as long as they can make a living, preserving the open space south of Smith’s.
A tour of the spread starts in the barn, built without a single nail, using wooden pegs instead. Chase Lockhart, 26, who was the living picture of the laconic cowboy in the office-garage, turned downright loquacious out in the barn and fields.
“We do most things by horseback,” he said, showing off the tack room. “It’s the best way to get around, and it stresses the cows out the least.” It also means fewer machines to repair.
Outside were four or five 18-month-old animals ready to be taken to slaughter at Dee J Rammell’s Hog Island Meats, a few miles down the road. Some of April’s calves that had just been weaned wandered in a pasture. At six months old, they already weighed about 650 pounds.
A November wind gusted across the field, carrying a chill that suggested what it might be like out here in January. The Herefords showed no sign of discomfort. Getting closer to the animals, you can see they are suited for Jackson’s climate. They’re squat, with short legs, and downright shaggy.
Central to the operation is growing and harvesting grass. These fields typically melt out in late May to early June. A network of ditches cross the fields, carrying water diverted from the Gros Ventre River to Flat Creek, which flows through the ranch. In six weeks, the grass is hip-deep or higher, and haying season starts — three to six weeks of cutting, curing, baling and stacking.
The bales weight 1,700 pounds each, Chase Lockhart said. He preferred not to say how many there were — it’s like asking how much money a man has — but there were hundreds, piled four high. The bales are tight. Ripping into one, Lockhart reveals still-green grass beneath the tawny exterior.
He has to know how many bales he has because that’s what will get the herd through winter and spring. Each cow will eat about 3 percent of its body weight a day, so about 30 pounds for an 18-month-old, more in calving season.
Next, Lockhart leads the way out to a field full of pregnant cows.
“This is our pride and joy,” he said, casting an appreciative eye around the pasture. He’s had these animals for six to eight years as the company has been rebuilding its herd. “We don’t supplement the herd,” he said. “It’s not like we have a new crop of cows every year.”
Bulls impregnate cows in late June, and the calves begin to come in late March and into April. Most are born in the snow. By May 1, about 90 percent of them have arrived.
“It’s better to have a late calf than no calf,” he said.
Things get pretty busy in April when the calves start coming, but then there’s always something to be done on a ranch.
“This is fully a family operation,” Cody Lockhart said. “Chase is the foreman, he does 95 percent of the real labor. I consider myself the front office. And my parents” — Liz and Kelly Lockhart — “are 100 percent supportive, a part of this as much as anyone. … When stuff needs to get done, it’s family that does it.”
Click here for a gallery of photographs of ranch operations at the Lockhard Cattle Company.