Bi-Rite Partners with Climate-Conscious Ranchers
Meet rancher Dan Probert of Lightning Bolt Cattle and Country Natural Beef, who’s rounding up with a hundred small ranchers and riding into the Bi-Rite butcher case.
By Becky Duffett
With the sad news that our longtime partners the Swickward family of Five Dot Ranch are winding down wholesale operations, Bi-Rite had a big void to fill in the butcher case. Our team’s committed to working directly with ranchers who take good care of their animals and land, while serving our guests high quality, affordable beef.
After thoughtful consideration, Bi-Rite’s excited to announce a new partnership with Country Natural Beef. Now you can’t miss their steaks, roasts, and ground beef in the Markets, and not a moment too soon for grilling season.
Beef is a big decision. From wildfires to erratic weather, many have growing concerns about climate change. The tough facts: Cattle require pastures that could otherwise remain forests, and they burp and fart methane into the atmosphere. Beef contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than any other food source, according to the United Nations. Yet Americans still love cheeseburgers, eating 56 pounds of beef per person per year, as reported by the USDA.
But some small and family ranchers are working together to turn the herd. Take Dan Probert, fifth-generation rancher of Lightning Bolt Cattle in Oregon, and a longtime cooperative member of Country Natural Beef. A cowboy with an interest in ecology, he has a unique story.
First of all, he partners with an environmental nonprofit. Probert grew up in the small town of Joseph (population 1,154) in Wallowa County, the far northeast corner of Oregon. After ranching elsewhere across the state, he was only able to return to his hometown thanks to a conservation easement from the Nature Conservancy. He now manages about 23,000 acres on the Zumwalt Prairie, the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America.
Per that legal agreement, he’s only allowed to run cattle, and will never plow this soil. “Our ranch will always be a ranch,” Probert promises. Hawks float overhead and elk wander through. “It’s a beautiful piece of country between the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon.”
They’re joined by 1,200 pairs of cows and calves from May through October. Those are prized Red and Black Angus, sometimes crossed with white Charolais, so you might spot a few “Smokies” in pretty pale tans and grays. The cattle spend the summer munching on grass up there in the Wallowas, before wintering in the warmer Columbia Basin. There, instead of the usual hay, they polish off leftover crops like corn stalks.
Probert or someone on his team saddles up to move cattle nearly every day, imitating the natural movement of bison or antelope. While traditional ranches might move large herds every couple of months, Probert moves tight bunches every one to three days, rotating them through 90 different pastures. That prevents the cattle from cropping grass to the quick or hard-packing soil under their hooves, giving the land a chance to recover.
“Our management philosophy is that we believe grazing is necessary to maintain the health and vigor of grass plants and soil,” Probert says. “So as much as possible, we try to mimic how those herds would have interacted with the grasslands for tens of thousands of years.”
Probert uses the term “regenerative” ranching, because “sustainable” simply isn’t good enough anymore. “Sustaining something that’s in bad shape, that’s not what we want to do,” he says. “We want to make it better.” And while Lightning Bolt Cattle is just one ranch, Country Natural Beef has started rolling out regenerative practices across many more.
The cooperative originally kicked off with a dozen families in 1986, but it’s grown to more than 100 ranches across nine states, ranging from Northern California to Washington and Idaho, for a total of 6.5 million acres. They recently launched a new program called Grazewell, partnering with the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest to develop grazing plans and measure results. They’re testing the carbon in the soil, water quality and infiltration, biodiversity of plants, and percentage of covered versus bare ground. A third party, Northway Ranch Services, has already tested a third of the ranches, and they plan to get baseline measurements for all by 2024.
Of course, there’s no denying that even the happiest cows still burp and fart. But these ranches hope to offset those emissions by sinking carbon back down into the grass and soil. The intention is to become carbon neutral or carbon negative. “We don’t want to make any claims until we measure,” Probert disclaims. But he proactively started testing his own soil six years ago. He’s seeing results in the top layer and patiently waiting for more data.
But you don’t have to take his word for it. Last year, Grazewell first received a $500,000 grant from a charitable trust. Then another $10 million grant from the USDA, as part of their Climate Smart program. “It’s a big undertaking,” Probert says. He feels incredibly proud that “they looked at what we were doing and believed in it enough to invest in it.”
When you step up to the butcher case at Bi-Rite, you might pick up a pound of ground beef from Lightning Bolt Cattle. It’ll be labeled as Country Natural Beef, along with beef from his fellow ranchers and coop members. Grass-fed but grain-finished, it’s an affordable option. It’s not technically organic, because many ranchers lease federal lands. They do still finish their cattle on grain, but not in a traditional feedlot, Probert explains. He uses irrigated circles, where the cattle still have room to roam, in addition to chewing grain from a feed bunk.
Labels never tell the full story. Behind this one, it’s promising to see a hundred family ranches teaming up to care for their animals, their land, and our climate. Reaching out across the rural and urban divide, Proberts says he’s incredibly grateful to thoughtful meat eaters in the Bay Area. “I would like to thank the Bi-Rite customers for supporting our good work on the land out here,” Probert says. “Because we can’t do it on our own.”
Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.