WESTBY, Mont. – There is nothing better than Big Sky beef, and consumers in Florida seem to agree.
Recently, two fourth-generation brothers and their wives decided to open Montana Branded, Inc., on JLM Ranch near Westby.
Josh Johnson, and his wife, Maggie, operate the commercial cow/calf operation and the Montana Branded business at the ranch in northeastern Montana, while Derek Johnson, and his wife, Chelsea, operate Montana Branded in Naples, Fla.
Even before COVID-19 caused meat shortages, Montana Branded was staying busy dealing with increasing demand for their beef. Customers continued to return for the high-quality product.
“Sales have been great for Montana Branded. While we’ve seen more demand for our beef in the last few months due to food shortages, we were doing really well before that, and we are proud of our product,” Derek said.
Commercial Black Angus/Gelbvieh cow/calf pairs on the ranch are getting ready to head out to summer pastures – the start of the summer grazing program on the ranch’s native prairie grasses.
The steers are born, raised and developed on the ranch. They go into a feedlot in the fall after weaning and are later finished with grain. The ranch is licensed to process the beef on the ranch.
“Our beef is grass-fed and grain-finished to improve marbling for the increased flavor, and afterward it is dry-aged for 21 days to further enhance flavor and tenderness,” he said.
Customers have told them the beef is tender and delicious, perfect for grilling steaks and hamburgers in the summer or for fall and winter beef stews and ground beef casseroles.
The families believe it helps their business that customers know where their food comes from and how it is grown and processed.
“The community is getting to know our new business and we have a lot of local support,” Derek said. “The demand has been high enough to where we are getting ready to hire one or two employees.”
In Florida, folks have heard how good ranch-raised Montana beef tastes and have been anxious to buy it.
“It sells well in Florida; people love it here,” he added.
In fact, the business has been so successful that the brothers are preparing to go nationwide soon.
“We do plan to begin shipping nationwide within the next couple of months as we have received several inquiries from people ranging from North Carolina, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Hawaii,” he said.
Their beef has no hormones added to “ensure consumer safety and maintain quality standards.”
JLM ranch was founded by Josh and Derek’s great-grandparents. It was passed down to their grandparents, then their parents, and Josh and Maggie operate the ranch today.
“After high school, Josh wanted to stay on the ranch and I decided I wanted to become a physical therapist,” Derek said. “I earned my degrees first at Carroll College in Helena then my doctorate at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.”
After moving to Florida, Derek realized high-quality beef wasn’t always easy to find.
“A couple of years ago, I thought about branding our beef from our Montana ranch and selling it in both places, and Josh liked the idea, as well,” he said.
Montana Branded began in December 2018, but it caught on with a blaze of orders for their product in 2019.
“Last year was really good for us, and the last 3-4 months have been phenomenal,” he said.
People can purchase individual steaks, tenderloin filets, roasts, ground beef and other cuts of meat, or they can order beef by the half or whole.
They have beef at their ranch and it is also available at Plentywood Hardware in Plentywood, Mont., and Al’s Meats in Westby, Mont.
In Florida, it is sold at the Vanderbilt Farmers Market in Naples, Fla.
In recent months, the Johnsons realized they needed a walk-in freezer to expand their retail beef sales. The project is funded in part by the Montana Department of Agriculture’s “Growth through Agriculture” program.
“We tore down an old shop to put up a building with our walk-in cooler in it. FedEx delivered it in a semi to the ranch. It is going to help us have the room to expand that we need,” Derek said.
Derek and Chelsea have two kids, Brooks and Brody, while Josh and Maggie have three kids, Lindsey, Landree and Layne.
“We didn’t plan naming our kids with the same letter together as brothers. We just realized recently we both named our kids that way,” Derek said, with a laugh.
For information by phone, Montana customers can call 406-385-7014 or Florida customers can call 406-489-1516.