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

“What we hear from people is that they love our product,” said Bart Morris, Oxbow Cattle Co.’s head rancher. “The other thing is, they can trust in us and know where their food is coming from. ” (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Bart Morris’ day goes from dawn to dusk as head rancher for Oxbow Cattle Co.

On Tuesday, he began the day helping two of his cows give birth, then started putting up paddocks and irrigating the fields.

Later that warm spring morning, Morris picked up Tiny Brown Dancer, a premature calf born a week earlier, and moved it into the shade. Because the calf’s mother developed an infection during the birth, Morris feeds Tiny by bottle throughout the day.

All of this is in the name of creating good, honest beef for Missoula.

“What we hear from people is that they love our product,” Morris said. “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.”

Morris and his wife Wendy believe in agriculture and in taking care of their animals and wildlife. Using “mob grazing,” a more intensive type of rotational grazing, keeps the soil nutrient-rich and the grass healthy. Morris moves his cattle every other day.

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)

The cows are grazed on the sub-irrigated fertile remnants of ancient Bitterroot River oxbows.

Besides grass, the cows are fed hay saturated in apple cider vinegar during the winter, which supports digestion and gut health. The animals are processed at Superior Meats once they reach a healthy weight and age.

“With grazing, we try to mimic the herds of buffalo when they come through, impact an area, and then move on and really rest the area,” Morris said. “Then all their manure and urine fertilizes it. It feeds our soil and we have healthier animals that aren’t dependent on chemicals or pesticides. It’s healthier for the consumer. I mean, it all works together.”

Morris owns about 240 acres in Miller Creek between Missoula and Lolo. About 160 acres of that is permanently protected through a conservation easement monitored by Five Valleys Land Trust. In all, the company leases about 5,000 acres for its cattle.

Miller Creek gurgles through the land, as Morris’ four-legged ranch dogs Zu, Bitt and Addi trot along at his side. As part of the new easement, Morris and his team partnered with the Bitter Root Water Forum and planted 450 chokecherry trees, willows and cottonwood trees along the creek.

The property is also home to a Farm 2 Market store, where Morris sells burger, stew meat, ribs and more. Customers can leave money in a locked drop box and be on their way. The Morrises have raised cattle since 2014.

Construction is underway on a hillside adjacent to the ranch. Morris said that about 700 housing units will be built in coming years, but the Oxbow land will remain untouched and green for generations to come, thanks to the conservation easement.

“We know that there will never be any homes on this land, and it’ll always be in agriculture,” he said. “It’ll always have the opportunity to be in agriculture, which this close to Missoula is huge in our opinion.”

Tiny Brown Dancer was born premature and its mother contracted an infection during birth. So the calf must be bottle fed several times each day. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Morris met his wife at the University of Wyoming, where he studied and pursued a career in wildlife biology for 16 years. Wendy Morris became an anesthesiologist after her family’s ranch, which operated for four generations, was no longer sustainable.

“We want to make this sustainable, and the only way it’s sustainable is if it can pass onto the next generation,” Bart Morris said. “It has to be a money-making business. If you make money from the land, you have to take care of the land or you can’t make money.”

Her family’s farm in Colorado was different from what Oxbow is today. The Oxbow’s owners, along with their two employees, want other ranchers to learn from them, rather than to be their competitors. Ranching should be sustainable and respect livestock, they said.

“The door opened to start down this road in a very nontraditional way,” Bart Morris said. “The way Wendy was raised, it was the opposite. She had a feedlot out her back door in Colorado. This is the total opposite, and we feel good about it.”

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