WALHALLA, N.D.-Edwin Jonas III said there are no cattle on earth like his.
In the rolling hills of Walhalla lies the Blacktail Mountain Ranch Co., where Jonas keeps his 40 head of fluffy, cream-colored, horned creatures. Each morning he drives to the tree-protected pasture to find his cattle grazing on green grass, and with buckets full of a special grain mix and a high-pitched call, the cows and their calves come running over the hills and through the trees for their morning meal.
"This is Opie," he said as one calf followed him around before he poured grain into a pan. The calf didn't seem to care that others around him were present as he enjoyed his oats.
The cattle Jonas raises are a special breed. He has spent more than a decade raising HighMont cattle, a cross between Scottish Highlands and Piedmontese, in an effort to provide healthier beef for his customers.
Dubbing the cattle "buff beef," Jonas and his wife, Connie, claim their HighMont are the first of their breed, not knowing of anyone who has tried what they have.
Until a year ago, the Jonases raised their cattle in Rollins, Mont. After land and hay prices went up, the operation was moved to a ranch near Walhalla, where Connie's daughter lived and hay prices are much more bearable, he said.
"We have been here a year and if my cows could talk, they would say they love it here with the sunshine, green grass from May to November and the local oats, flax and minerals they are fed," Edwin Jonas told the Herald.
With the exception of the Midwest, the couple serve customers in all parts of the country-from New Jersey to California. But even now, residents in North Dakota are starting to come to the Jonases for steaks, roasts and hamburger, Connie said.
Now Jonas looks after his herd with care and fondness as the cattle roam the pasture near the Canadian border, with the hope his beef will help others.
"I love what we are doing. I think it is important," he said. "If we can help save a life, then it's worth what we do."
First of their kind
Jonas remembers growing up and watching his mother cutting the fat off meat. While recovering from an injury he suffered while serving in the military, his health became important to him.
He noted he has had cuts of beef that were so fatty he couldn't eat it, and he wanted to find a breed of cattle that produced a healthier alternative.
"So I talked to an old farmer ... who said, 'Yeah, I heard these Piedmontese are pretty low in fat,' " he said, adding when he tried it, it was tender but had no taste.
Piedmontese are white, slick-haired cattle that originated in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy and are known for their muscular appearance and meat that is low in fat.
After not being satisfied with the taste of that breed, Jonas traveled to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, an event where hundreds of livestock breeders gather to showcase cattle, horse, sheep and other farm animals. He was invited to a dinner that featured Scottish Highlands, a breed from Scotland that is known for its long horns and fluffy or long coats of hair. The meat from Highlands was flavorful but tough, he said.
"What would happen if I crossed them?" he asked himself.
He asked breeders-he even traveled to Italy to talk to specialist-to see if anyone had bred a Piedmontese to a Highland, but he is unaware of anyone who has attempted to do that, claiming he is the first to do so.
His son suggested trademarking the name HighMont, and now it is a federally recognized brand.
Beef often gets a bad reputation for being unhealthy and high in cholesterol and fat, but that is something Jonas wanted to change.
"We wanted to do something different," he said. "We wanted to be that one little niche for people who care about their health and don't want to have high-cholesterol beef or high-fat beef."
Nutritional tests have shown HighMont beef has 30 milligrams of cholesterol, compared with 74 milligrams in choice cuts of beef, 62 milligrams for bison and 70 grams for chicken, according to its website. HighMont meat also has about 120 calories less per serving than choice beef, with a third of the fat calories that beef has.
The cuts of beef have received several endorsements from health experts, including a cardiologist quoted on the ranch's website.
HighMont beef must be cooked at low heat for less time than typical beef since it is leaner. This will prevent the meat from getting too dry.
The Jonases take custom orders and watch butchers to make sure their meat is cut correctly, with Edwin saying their business wants to provide the best customer service possible.
The beef meets U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, is vacuum-packed and shipped to customers.
"You can't get that done anymore," he said of custom cutting from markets. "We think what is missing in this world is service."
The Jonases seem to have an attachment shared by most ranchers who care for their cattle. Edwin names each animal, carefully printing their names on their ear tags. He checks on the cattle at least once a day, sometimes on multiple occasions, to make sure they have everything they need.
He also makes a special mix of feed that features flax, oats and minerals that keep the meat lean. He keeps the cattle on grass and hay, and he doesn't use chemicals or GMOs.
"You can't go anywhere for these," he said. "You can't go anywhere else for these. We're it."
Future of the breed
It's uncertain if the Jonases will expand their business. That will depend if the demand for HighMont beef will continue.
Jonas would like expand with his sons' help. They are working on a website to increase advertising.
"They are going to try to get investors," Connie Jonas said. "They have a plan thinking we can maybe make this be bigger and get out there more."
If someone came along who would help or take over the business, Edwin Jonas said that person would have to maintain the customer service presented by the Jonases and keep the meat to their standards of health and leanness without using chemicals or GMOs. The Jonases hope people who start a breed with HighMont cattle would do the same.
Jonas said he can't force people to be healthy or buy and eat HighMont beef, but he hopes he can educate customers and help them make the choice to care about their well-being.
"We hope that we can serve a need," he said. "We think we are doing a service."
For more information, go to www.blacktailmountainranch.com.