Uncommon Beef: A Female Rancher is Called to the Land
Only 8 years ago, the Department of Agriculture assessed that roughly 14% of all cattle ranchers were women - and that number was on the rise. In 2017, that number of female ranchers in the United States grew about 15.5%, with female-led cattle ranchers totaling a whopping 229,000 of around 810,000 individual cattle ranchers counted in the USDA’s census. In 2020, Montana gained another woman-owned and ran cattle ranch among the few and far between, Uncommon Beef in Big Timber.
The Big MOOve
About 45 minutes away from Gallatin Valley in Sweet Grass county, Catherine Kirchner lives with her very cute family, 15 head of cattle, and a sweet old dog named Boe on their ranch outside of Big Timber. Pictures from Instagram (@uncommonbeef) narrate the new beginning of this principal-turned-rancher’s new lifestyle as she decided last year to resign from her 5-year tenure as Principal and follow her dream working with animals and the land in this beautiful place that teaching had brought her to.
Derrick, Catherine’s husband, is a full-time teacher in Big Timber and her number one supporter. Close behind him in the support-department is Annie, age 7 - a spunky little blond that is quickly learning the tricks of the trade and can already sell a cow-pattie popsicle to a lady wearing white gloves, proof of which were the 4 or so transactions at the Farmers Market she exclusively handled with ease as her mommy answered questions. William (4), and Elizabeth (1) also love helping with the cattle but are too young to accompany big sister and mommy to market.
Reading about and listening to Catherine’s philosophies and practices with her own ranch would lead you to think she’s been doing this her whole life, but surprisingly she was not raised farming. Her mom was a nanny, and her family moved around a lot. She went to school for Theology and Education, coming to Montana to first teach Religion at a Catholic school on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation before moving into a Principalship for St. Mary’s Catholic School in Livingston. After 10 years in Education, Catherine started feeling something very common in the teaching profession.
“I could feel myself burning out,” Catherine said. “...over the summers I would ranch while school was out, and I just felt this call to the land.” So she listened to that call, buying a big truck with a hitch, a cattle trailer, setting fences up, and picking out baby cows. Catherine toured other local ranches, learning about their specific operations, how they raise, feed, and age their beef, what slaughter, butchering, and meat processing entails and educating herself on the way she wanted to raise and sell beef.
Where’s The Beef?
Uncommon Beef has a rather simple, traditional approach to cattle rearing; trusting the land and animals to know what’s best in terms of feeding and nurturing the herd, plus agricultural practices that are humane and sustainable to develop healthier, more flavorful high-protein products. A huge passion of Catherine’s is making sure local families have access to affordable “Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished” beef, which is why she has embraced a few outlets for accessing her products, including a business website, having tables at Big Timber and Bozeman Farmers Markets, and creating an additional small business called DoorstepFarmFoods, where Catherine partners with other local food producers to provide farm-fresh meal kits delivered to local Big Timber and Livingston residents doorsteps. Selections and schedules vary depending on availability, but there are always plenty of choices - including a plethora of beef cuts, ground beef, beef bone broth, tallow (refined kidney fat cooking oil), and even opportunities for quarter, half, and whole beef shares.
Catherine explained that grass-fed, grass-finished beef is a healthier protein than grass-fed, grain-finished practices many bigger cattle producers tend to use. The main effect the diet of the cattle has is in the difference in Omega 3 fatty acids versus Omega 6 fatty acids the meat contains; grass-fed, grass-finished cattle have proven to have higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which humans need more of than the latter. Her breeds of cattle have differing finishing times, (when their meat is optimum), but until they go to be finished, they are named and raised from babies with close care from Catherine and her family.
A LegenDAIRY Pairing
Open Range, Bozeman’s Brasserie-Inspired Steakhouse, recently reached out to Catherine via email after coming across her website. Interested in buying “half a beef” (roughly 175-185 pounds of meat) to use for a new “snout-to-tail” menu, Chef Bobby spoke Catherine’s language - an uncommon approach to accessing, preparing, enjoying, and talking about delicious, local, sustainably-farmed foods.
“He wanted to make specials out of it as he saw it, like an artist sculpting a masterpiece out of a big stone. He wanted it as big as we could leave it,” she chuckled,” which we were trying to figure out how to transport!” If you can imagine trying to fit half a cow, lengthwise, into a truck - the thought made both of us laugh. So Bobby Thoits, Executive Chef at Open Range, got as big of pieces as they could transfer reasonably. Catherine admitted she didn’t set out to partner with restaurants - her real goal is to connect with the actual consumers, but something about the way Bobby had such creative, clever ways to utilize the whole cattle, his approach to working with the beef, and his passion for educating the restaurant patrons about where their food is coming from really excited her. “Our philosophies are really in sync”, she said. Bobby has integrated Catherine’s beef into dishes including “Uncommon Weisswurst” (a beef sausage dish) and “Braised Montana Oxtail” (served with parsnip grits and poached & pickled apples), among many others.
In thinking about the future for Uncommon Beef, Catherine acknowledges she has some obstacles ahead of her. “Processing is tied up until the end of 2022,” she worried. Due to larger meat processing plants closing down due to Covid-19, smaller, local meat processors are overloaded with more business than their facilities can handle.”[So we are] planning ahead for processing.”
Catherine also looks forward to passing down not only her knowledge but also the business one day to her children. She wants to “be a good role model” for her girls and little boy - to teach them that you can chase your dreams no matter what your background, education, or otherwise. Here she was with life experience in education, following her heart to work with animals and the land. “You’re not guaranteed your life,” Catherine asserts after explaining how a good friend passed away unexpectedly, waking her up to the reality of how fragile life really is. “Pursue your dream.”
The fact that there aren’t many of Catherine’s kind of boss lady doesn’t phase her, she works with another woman full-time at a bigger ranch in the Big Timber area and says she feels so privileged to be able to live her dream. Catherine agreed as she interpreted what defines Uncommon Beef. “There are not a lot of women ranchers. It fuels you.”
A big thanks to Catherine Kirchner for participating in our Women’s History Month Issue, bringing light to the amazing things women are doing for Gallatin Valley. To find Catherine’s Uncommon Beef products, please visit www.uncommonbeef.com, www.doorstepfarmfoods.com, or attend Big Timber or Bozeman Farmers Markets!
Another big thanks to Bobby Thoits of Open Range for sending in great information! Stop in to Open Range to enjoy awesome food prepared from Uncommon Beef! www.openrangemt.com