MOA 2020 Farm Tour: Aspen Island Ranch

Mark and Jane Smith Host Annual MOA 2020 Farm Tour

Certified organic grassfed cattle, Aspen Island Ranch, Lavina, MT. Photo Credit: Jamie Lockman
Certified organic grassfed cattle, Aspen Island Ranch, Lavina, MT. Photo Credit: Jamie Lockman
Photo Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
Photo Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
Photo Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky
Photo Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

Mark and Jane Smith hosted the 2020 MOA farm tour at their Aspen Island Ranch on June 13, 2020. Due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the tour only included eleven participants, including Montana PBS videographer Abbey Wenger and professional photographer Alexis Bonogofsky, East of Billings. Videos of the MOA Farm Tour are available on the NCAT/ATTRA YouTube Channel: MOA Farm Tour 2020

The Aspen Island Ranch is located about five miles west of Montana Highway 3, halfway between Lavina and Broadview in Golden Valley County. The ranch is small-scale with 65 certified organic grass-fed cow-calf pairs and long yearlings awaiting harvest. The tour required ATVs to cross four contiguous sections from north to south. Pat Hatfield, Ph.D., Montana State University, Range Management, Wes Henthorne, B Bar Ranch, and Montana Organic Producers Co-op (MOPC) facilitated Mark's discussion. Sam Schmidt, MOA Farm Tour Chair and Organic Advisory and Education Council (OAEC); Becky Weed, MOA Chair; Jamie Lockman, MOA Executive Director; and Jeff Schahczenski, Economist, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) also participated in the tour.

Mark and Jane turned to organic after Jane, a retired pediatrician, suffered severe health issues due to household mold exposure. Other family members also experienced health difficulties, and the family turned to organic food to remedy their compromised health. As their health improved, the Nevada family began searching for a solution to live healthily and raise the beef they sought for their consumption. They looked at ranches in various Western states, finally buying their ranch, located south of the Musselshell River and west of the Bull Mountains, in the mid-2000s. The Smith's went straight into organic ranching, obtaining certification in 2007.
The Smith's have a holistic strategy centered on nurturing land, grass, water, and cattle in harmony to produce healthy and tasty all grass-fed beef. They seek to manage the ranch so that it is not brutal to the cattle, the environment, or people.

The scale of the certified organic operation, the size, number, and temperament of the cattle, allow Mark to steward the land to improve its vitality and to know every aspect of the operation intimately.

Mark, Jane, and their three sons have all weeded portions of the ranch by hand. Mark hand seeds alfalfa using a broken shovel as a modified furrow hoe. He knows the trouble spots where weeds like cheatgrass, Russian knapweed, and hound's tongue are likely to pop up and can target those areas for extra care. There is a marked contrast in the quality and diversity of grass species between his operation and the neighboring non-organic cattle operation. Mark owns extraordinarily little equipment and accomplishes most of the ranch work using four-wheelers and pickup with a cattle trailer. He has his hay custom-cut by a neighbor, so he does not own the usual mower, swather, bailer, grinder, and other equipment. This freedom from equipment also frees up time and reduces his expenses by not dealing with equipment breakdowns. The scale of the operation allows Mark to be nimble and adjust as the weather and conditions change.

The tour group trekked from the house to the winter-feeding pasture, hayfields, springs, and range areas on the ranch. Mark described his rotational grazing scheme and hayfield improvement that relies partially on hand interseeding alfalfa. The Aspen Island Ranch has excellent water, and thanks to developed wells and developed, and natural springs that serve to both irrigate and water the cattle. Mark uses solar power to pump water at the two wells, one of which he discovered was used by bootleggers during prohibition, the other well has over 1 ½ mile of a gravity-fed pipeline to dispersed water stations. He generally supplements his year-round grazing with hay for about three winter months. His calving dates are later, avoiding wintry weather that is hard on the cows and calves. He has four Angus X Tarentaise bulls and is considering adding a new bull for genetic diversification. The cattle are crossbred Angus X Tarentaise and range anywhere from Full Angus to 3/4 Tarentaise.

The average crossbreeding of this year's calves was 5/8 Angus X 3/8 Tarentaise. In addition to being smaller and easier to handle, Tarentaise genetics improves utter and foot conformation. Mark notes he hasn't had a foot rot case in ten years. He markets his beef directly and through the MOPC. COVID-19 has brought increased demand for Aspen Island Ranch Grass Fed Beef. Montana has six certified organic meatpacking facilities, including Pioneer Meats in Big Timber and Stillwater Packing Co. at Columbus. However, demand is hindered by the limited available meat processing workers in Montana. The Smith's reinforced their mission to produce healthy organic beef humanely and wisely with a delicious hamburger lunch. The Smith's note they value their customers' lives and health and that their products' quality reflects that care.

A big thank you to Smith's for their warm hospitality. Thank you, Mark, Wes Henthorne, and Joe Nelson, for providing transportation and Abbey Wenger and Alexis Bonogofsky, for documenting the tour. Thanks to Pat Hatfield for sharing his expertise and good humor. Thank you, too, Jeff Schahczenski and NCAT for covering the costs of the videographer and video editing. Thanks to Sam Schmidt and OAEC for help planning the tour.

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