Missoula groceries, restaurants shift to locally raised beef

Wally & Buck founders Travis and Kelsey Walnum opened a new modern diner on Front Street last month in hopes of providing Missoula unique, grass-fed burgers. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

When Travis and Kelsey Walnum opened Wally & Buck in downtown Missoula, they knew that local, grass-fed beef was the only option for their burgers. Luckily, Oxbow Cattle Co.’s green pastures are nearby.

“We were looking for a local rancher and someone with good ethics for animal welfare, environment, and just their general business practices,” Travis Walnum said. “We solely use it for all of our burgers that are beef. Since Day One, we’ve made a commitment to just using Oxbow. We believe in what they’re doing. It really does taste great.”

Oxbow cattle are grass fed on Miller Creek pastures tended by ranch owners Bart and Wendy Morris. They believe in “mob grazing,” a more intensive type of rotational grazing that keeps the grass and soil healthy.

“What we hear from people is that they love our product,” Bart Morris said in an interview with Missoula Current. “The other thing is, they can trust in us and know where their food is coming from. They know that we’re taking care of the land as well. That’s our marketing scheme, but that’s also what we believe to our core. So it’s really easy to market when you believe it so thoroughly.”

Wally & Buck’s most popular burger, the Wally, made with bacon jam and their signature Wally sauce. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The Walnums’ restaurant opened in February on Front Street, and offers 10 items, including burgers with bacon jam and the famous Wally sauce.

They use a leaner beef, which makes for a juicy burger, and only season the patties with kosher salt.

“It stands alone,” Travis Walnum said. “It tastes really good and does very well. We’ve been very happy with it.”

The restaurant brings in about 250 pounds of beef every two weeks. It’s more expensive than commodity beef, Walnum said, but he makes sacrifices to purchase Oxbow meat by offering counter service instead of having a full-service restaurant.

“Whether people know it or not, if they’re eating Oxbow, for example, then they’re supporting a business that has made a commitment to the environment,” Walnum said. “(Oxbow Cattle Co. is) treating their animals very well and it’s keeping money local. All of those things are really important, especially for a small community like Missoula.”

Good Food Store meat and seafood manager Russ Kubisiak said that Oxbow beef has been sold at the counter since the ranch started selling meat in 2014.

The store buys an entire animal three times per month, and provides cuts by customer request. The Good Food Store focuses on quality and tries to steer clear of corn-fed commodity beef. Oxbow beef has a different flavor and is healthier than the alternative, Kubisiak said.

“They have a much deeper flavor, that’s for sure, than commodity beef, which has a much milder flavor because of the grain and corn that they add to the feed,” he said. “You have to cook it differently. It’s leaner and higher in omega-3 because of the grass diet.”

Oxbow Cattle Company co-owner Bart Morris and employee Caroline Caldwell talk about ranch work on Tuesday. Paddocks are placed around the cattle to keep them grazing in one area. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Most stores and beef suppliers don’t know where their meat comes from or how the cows are treated and fed, he said. The Good Food Store only carries Montana-raised beef that isn’t derived from a feedlot.

“That’s the great thing. We can say, ‘Well, I know this beef, I’ve got the ear tag number and I’ve been to the ranch. We can drive up there,’ ” Kubisiak said. “The great thing is, we know where it’s raised and how it’s raised in each case.”

Whether it’s a burger from a restaurant in downtown Missoula or a cut of meat at a grocery store counter, buying locally raised beef like Oxbow’s is a growing trend.

“It’s a high-quality beef raised by people who really care about the lives of the animals and that translates into good-quality meat and food,” Kubisiak said.

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.

Oxbow Cattle Co. treats land, animals, customers with respect