How Does a Young Ranch Family Make it Today?
Winter 2021 Issue Written by Cyd Hoefle Photography by Stu Hoefle
Seven-year-old Anna Todd sat up straight as she looked over the steering wheel. Too short to reach the pedals, she was concentrating hard on keeping the truck going straight as her dad and brother pushed hay off the back of the flatbed. Hungry sheep bunched up behind the truck, excitedly diving in as the broken bales fell off. Even though she was driving across a wide-open, level field, doing less than a mile an hour with her mother sitting beside her, Anna’s grin showed she felt the importance of her job.
Her brother, Garrett, 9, felt it too and took his role seriously as he cut the twine on the bales with his pocketknife and carefully pushed a part of each bale over the end of the flatbed. Watched closely by his father, Gary, Garrett did most of the feeding himself. As soon as the feeding was done, he pointed out the beginning of his flock. George, the first sheep to the truck and by far the tamest, was introduced with pride.
“He was a bum,” their mother, Heidi, explained. “He’s as gentle as ever. The kids bottle fed him, so they are pretty attached. We have sheep because Gary has the love of sheep in his blood. His grandparents were huge sheep ranchers here in Sweet Grass County.”
Heidi and her husband Gary are the parents of Garrett, Anna and 3-year-old Emme. In addition to sheep, they also run cows, both on tracts of leased land outside of Big Timber. As young ranchers they have high hopes for their future and the future of their children. The idea of owning their own ranch is a reality that seems far into the future, but the young couple are determined to see it happen.
It’s not easy being a rancher today. Fluctuating markets, consumer habits, mother nature and costs of materials are only a few of the variables that affect the bottom line. Add to that increasing land prices and it is nearly impossible to pencil out a profit just raising cows.
But like so many young ranchers, Gary and Heidi Todd have a dream, one that they are passionate about. They want to secure a future for themselves and their children in agriculture. It will take a lot of work, perseverance and determination, but these two seem a perfect fit for the job. And, they believe, they have found a niche with their new business, Todd Family Meats.
The aim of Todd Family Meats is to provide-ranch raised beef and lamb, delivered from the pasture to the consumer’s dinner table. The difference in what the Todds offer is that they have a hand in every step of the process, starting with select breeding, through the birth and growth, to finishing and finally butchering of the animal.
“Gary has an extensive meat background,” Heidi said, “and mine is in genetics, so we make a good team.”
Fifth-generation Montanans, the Todds aren’t afraid of hard work. Gary is a full-time butcher. He was involved with collegiate carcass and meat judging and spent years as a state meat inspector and USDA beef grader before joining Pioneer Meats in Big Timber as their head butcher.
Both were raised in Sweet Grass County and attended high school together, where they were sweethearts before marrying 14 years ago. Heidi was raised on a ranch and works from home for the Simmental Association, in addition to raising the children. She loves opportunities to educate consumers about protein sources and agriculture and believes that everyone in the ag industry needs to work together to ensure its survival.
“The idea for our company evolved when we realized that consumers wanted more education about their food sources,” Gary said. “Especially this year when things became so crazy.”
As with most ranches, to make the economics work, the Todds knew they had to diversify beyond just selling their calves.
“You have to in this industry,” Gary said.
Still, what they are trying to accomplish is a lot of hard work. A typical 8-to-5 schedule means little to these two as they care for their livestock and work on their new business while still working full time with their other jobs.
Gary takes his lunch hour to race outside of town to feed hay to his cows pastured along the Yellowstone River. He then heads to his sheep at another location and drops bales for them before heading back to work. The couple also trade ranch work for pasture on Heidi’s parents’ place.
“There’s not much free time,” Gary said. “But we love what we’re doing.”
As often as possible the three children are along too.
“We’re trying to teach our kids to love and respect the lifestyle that we’re trying to give them,” Heidi said. “We expect them to help out.”
Earlier in the day, Garrett pointed out his cows while they were feeding. His generous grandfather earmarked a young heifer calf for the children to jumpstart their own herds. He now has two cows mixed in with his parent’s herd.
“The kids help us feed and care for the animals,” Heidi continued. “They don’t know anything different than being with us, no matter what we’re doing. We’re raising them the way we were raised.”
Back at the processing plant located just East of Big Timber, Gary proudly showed off his first whole beef, cut up, wrapped, labeled and ready for delivery. The trays of clear-wrapped packages showed beautifully marbled, deep red meat, enough to feed a fortunate family for quite some time.
“It’s all been such a process,” Heidi said. “And we’re proud of each step we’ve accomplished. Just look at these awesome labels!”
Offering packages of a quarter, half and whole beef carcasses, the Todds are taking orders now for March to April delivery. They have plans to add lamb to their selections and hope by late next year to offer packages of meat cuts for consumers who want less than a quarter, or a specific cut.
Though Gary does all the butchering himself and is the source of the meat, Pioneer Meats will handle the transactions for now, and with the near completion of Pioneer Meats retail location in Big Timber, customers will be able to choose any cut directly and conveniently.
“We’ll keep evolving as our calves are ready to butcher and our customer list keeps growing,” Heidi said. “We want to fill a need for people who want to know where their beef came from, how it was raised and treated and how it’s cut up. And we want to raise our kids helping us every step of the way.”