ROLLINS – Woolly Bully eats well.
His diet is natural and protein-rich. And at 2,200 pounds, he has almost no fat but a lot of shaggy hair, which is exactly what rancher Ed Jonas likes.
Jonas uses the big Scottish Highland bull, among other bulls, to cross-breed with Italian Piedmontese cattle to create what he calls HighMont cattle, which provide low-cholesterol, low-fat beef. Jonas, a big-city-trial-lawyer-turned-cattle-rancher, says the beef is 92 percent fat-free, all natural and good for the heart. In the past few years, he has dedicated his life to raising and promoting it.
“We’re trying to raise the absolutely healthiest beef you can find,” Jonas said. “We call it buff beef.”
When Jonas moved to Montana in 2001 he originally had only horses on his 43-acre Blacktail Mountain Ranch tucked away in the mountains around Rollins. But, as both a health advocate and a meat-hungry man who didn’t have the opportunity to eat many steaks as a single father bringing up three boys, Jonas developed a dream: tasty yet healthy beef. Two years later he had a Highland bull and a handful of Piedmontese heifers. Today he has 85 cattle.
Piedmontese cattle, accustomed to scaling the foothills of the Alps, are known for having lean meat. Highlands are also lean, yet stocky, from generations of enduring the rugged mountain regions of Scotland. But just as importantly, or more so, is the Highlands’ thick, shaggy coat, a feature that allows the cattle to stay warm without growing a big layer of external fat. The result of the experimental breed, of which Jonas is the originator, is extremely lean cattle that can maintain that leanness even in the cold of Montana.
Eve Gillespie, a cardiologist at Rocky Mountain Heart and Lung, thinks the beef is a breakthrough for the world of coronary disease treatment. She said she has contemplated the benefits of breeding low-fat cattle ever since she was a student at Rutgers University in the 1970s. So when she heard about Jonas, she immediately looked into it. Now she says she fully believes in the benefits of HighMont beef. For that reason, she’s trying to get a grant to fund a study that would detail those benefits.
“The bottom line is that doctors have been saying ‘Don’t eat beef, it’s bad for your heart,’” Gillespie said. “Now we can say that this beef is good for your heart. I’m very much in favor of the product.”
Besides the health value, Gillespie says the taste isn’t too shabby either.
“It’s the best beef I’ve had,” she said. “It’s really, really good. That’s no joke. You wouldn’t know it’s good for you.”
Jonas bases his efforts on two guiding principles: People should care about healthy eating and they should focus on local buying. He said the two go hand-in-hand, as he believes there are inherent health advantages to knowing where your food comes from. People usually have no idea what is in the food they buy at the supermarket or most restaurants, he said.
“Come on down, we’ll show you what we feed them,” Jonas said.
To ensure that his beef is all natural and healthy, without antibiotics or hormone-altering substances, he puts great care into his cattle. He treats them like pets, occasionally bemoaning the fact that he’ll have to kill them someday. They all have names and run to him when he calls them. He feeds them protein-rich Provena oats and flax seed, in addition to an expensive mineral substance that is set out like a saltlick. The cattle’s water comes directly from a natural spring located on his property. He works seven days a week.
But buying from local ranchers and farmers doesn’t just make sense health-wise, Jonas said, it’s also economically viable from a community point of view. Shopping for all-natural local food might put a larger dent in the wallet initially, he said, but the money eventually trickles back to consumers because it stays close to home.
“If that money stayed here,” Jonas said, “it would be buying buildings. When it stays, it’s reinvested.”
Jonas concedes that HighMont beef is more expensive than regular beef. A ribeye at the supermarket might go for $10 to $12 a pound, while Jonas’s ribeye sells for $15.99 per pound retail. But he thinks that’s a small price to pay to keep your body natural and your heart healthy. A 2006 study by Warren Analytical Laboratories found, by examining a variety of different cuts, that HighMont beef has only 8.8 grams of total fat per 100 grams of meat, about half – or almost one-third depending on the study – of regular beef and even chicken.
“This is premium beef,” Jonas said. “I’m not going to apologize and say my prices are too high.”
Business is growing, Jonas said, though it’s still difficult. Many restaurants and distributors are wary about a new product, not to mention the price. He doesn’t expect the beef industry to support him, but he’s fine with being a trailblazer, even if it means being patient. But already a variety of restaurants, stores and hospitals buy his beef, as well as private consumers, both in-state and out-of-state. Withey’s Health Foods in Kalispell carries the beef, and restaurants like the Cornerhouse in Whitefish and others serve it.
He hopes to eventually have a “major operation,” with 500 to 1,000 cattle. In the meantime, he’ll continue the same slow-growth approach, using the help of his partner Connie Roberts, and take advantage of his revenues as best as possible until more customers take interest.
“We’ll make it,” Jonas said, “because we have a product no one else has in the United States.”