MILLER CREEK — Paying attention to poop is paying off for Bart and Wendy Morris and their Oxbow Cattle Company.
Standing in a lush field of green grasses, yellow clover and a few splotches of purple knapweed, Bart Morris is in his element, explaining how soil health principles and the continual rotation of cattle is rejuvenating the land they’re grazing. He apparently knows his stuff, having recently received the Missoula County 2019 Land Stewardship Award.
“Missoula County wants to recognize you and thanks you for what you have done out here with the stewardship of the land and the care of the animals,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said on Wednesday, moments before handing an honorary plaque to the Morrises as about 25 other people involved in land conservation practices applauded.
Vickie Edwards with the Five Valleys Land Trust added that the Morrises set the standard for stewardship, including how they raise their cattle, using them to help restore the land.
“I appreciate their connection to the land,” Edwards said. “They are thoughtful about how they affect this landscape and how what they do will affect the future of the land. That thoughtfulness makes them the perfect individuals for the stewardship award.
“And they grow great grass for delicious cows.”
Part of their formula for the future of the land and business involves paying attention to details, right down to the dung beetles that feed off of the cattle poop, which in turn helps feed the landscape, which then feeds the cattle.
“I get excited about dung beetles,” Bart Morris said. “When we started, we poured insecticide on the back of the cow to kill all the worms in the gut and lice in the hair. But here, we believe in working with nature and allowing our cows to be part of nature.”
So they stopped using the insecticide. The first year, the cattle were miserable. But by the second year, using natural products like apple cider vinegar, they killed the worms in the cattle’s guts and also got the nice cow pies with the consistency of pumpkin pie that are easily digested by bugs and are better for the landscape.
“We watch our cow poop a lot because it tells us so much about the land and the animals,” he added with a laugh.
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That’s all part of the balancing act the Morrises are practicing on the ranch. The Oxbow Cattle Company’s business is to provide natural, grass-finished beef to customers.
But they know it’s not possible without turning a profit. “No margin, no mission,” Bart Morris says he was once told, and they’re adhering to that creed.
“That’s the reality of agriculture and of life,” he said. “If you can’t make a living doing it, it doesn’t matter if you have the best mission or ideas. They have to pay for themselves. We always let people know there is an economic piece to this, and that’s what makes this work.”
But they also work with local organizations to protect the land from urban development by placing a conservation easement on 168 acres. They’ve installed wildlife-friendly fences that keep cattle in but allow the free movement of the 200 deer and 200 elk that range on the ranch. They’re building healthy soils by using cover crop seed mixtures and that intensive rotational grazing.
They’re encouraging riparian area conservation by working with groups to plant cottonwoods and willows, and installing protective fences along Miller Creek to see if cooler ground temperatures from the shade might let it flow once again above ground during the summer months.
They also provide educational workshops with local organizations and frequently host volunteers, students and community visitors on their land.
The Morrises are quick to humbly note that all of their efforts wouldn’t pan out if it wasn’t for the community support, which comes from a wide range of volunteers, the state Natural Resources Conservation Service, Five Valleys Land Trust, Bitter Root Water Forum, MPG Ranch, Ecology Project International, Community Food & Agriculture Coalition and several University of Montana departments.
“It comes back to this community and the awesome place we live that’s accepting something like this. It gives me hope,” Bart Morris said. “For me, this (award) is one of the most overwhelming things that we’ve ever been given. We take major pride in what we do and get a lot of self-satisfaction, but for other people to value it — to me, it’s just a nice step that goes beyond my wildest dreams.
“But we can’t do it without our partners.”