Ravalli Republic via Associated Press
VICTOR, Mont. (AP) -- It's been more than a century since longhorn cows were the cattleman's breed of choice.
But don't tell that to the Morton family of Victor.
Their Indian Prairie Ranch is stocked with the iconic breed that jumpstarted Montana's cattle industry back in 1866 after a tough cattleman named Nelson Story drove 1,000 of the rangy animals into the state from Texas.
The longhorns were a cross between feral Mexican cattle and the eastern breeds that early Texas settlers brought along with them as they staked out new ranches along the borderlands.
The breed nearly died out in the 1920s when ranchers turned to breeds of cattle that could put on weight more quickly. A small group of Western history enthusiasts saved the breed from sure extinction.
"They are a piece of American history that was nearly lost," said Donald Morton, as he strolls through his herd of the long-horned beasts that are focused on the new sprigs of green grass sprouting up here and there.
Today the longhorn's longevity, resistance to disease, easy calving and its ability to survive on marginal pasture has revived the breed as a viable beef producer.
It was those traits and more that attracted Morton and his family into buying their first longhorn cows about six years ago.
"We thought of it as America's beef," he said.
"They are also extremely low in fat and cholesterol," said Morton's wife, Alexandra. "Initially my husband just loved the western allure of the longhorn. The kids knew more about it than I did at first."
The family learned their new herd was easy on the landscape and didn't require a whole of daily maintenance, even during calving season. Since the Mortons wanted to sell all-natural, grass-fed beef, the fact the cattle did not need antibiotics to stay healthy was plus.
Today the family has 65 head of older cows that make up their breeding stock. This year, they have 33 yearlings that will eventually be sold for beef.
Despite their ferocious looking horns, there are many animals in their herd that are tame enough to walk right up to and give a pat.
"You just don't want to get in between the moms and their babies," Donald said.
The Mortons have found their niche in selling their beef directly to customers with a health-conscious eye and desire to know the origination of their food.
Montana State University Extension Service beef specialist Rachel Endecott said the Morton family isn't alone in looking for new niches in the cattle market.
"In challenging economic times, people do tend to become more willing to try new things," Endecott said.
While the downturn in the economy slowed the demand in many places for more expensive certified natural grass-fed beef, Endecott said general cattle prices are currently at unprecedented highs.
The high prices are the result of ongoing drought conditions in some parts of the country, which has forced ranchers to sell off portions of their herds. As a result, there is a smaller supply of beef for the marketplace.
"It's a supply and demand issue," she said. "Supplies are very tight ... we don't know what's going to happen. We've never really seen anything quite like this."
At the same time, Endecott said consumers are asking more questions about the origin of their food, including beef.
"They may not be willing to pay more, but they do want to know how the animals are cared for," she said. "In the industry, we call it story beef. Can you tell a story about the beef that you raise?
"Farmers and ranchers in this state work very hard and care very much about their livestock," Endecott said. "They have a great story to tell."
On the Morton ranch this afternoon, there's a story unfolding in a nearby corral where a tiny brown-spectacled Texas longhorn calf is desperately looking for something to fill its belly.
The calf is making the rounds among the Morton family members gathered inside a corral. One by one, it stands next to each person and looks upward in hopes that a bottle filled with milk will come from the sky.
Indian Prairie ranch manager Tom Gingerich has other ideas.
He was slowly working a mother cow with a full udder toward the squeeze chute on the other side of the corrals.
With a quiet patience that comes from years of experience spent around domestic critters, Gingerich eases her into place. The cow turns its head sideways to allow the four-foot span of horns to fit through the iron catch plates.
The young calf isn't paying a bit of attention to Gingerich as he prepares its evening meal.
The calf was born prematurely and its mother didn't yet have enough milk to feed it. So Gingerich's plan calls for giving the baby a chance to drink from the foster cow that has more than enough milk for it and her own calf.
It takes some time, but Gingerich eventually has the young calf lapping up a hearty meal from its foster parent.
"That's what we like about our longhorn cattle," said Donald Morton. "They are easy to keep."
Montana Stockgrowers Executive Vice President Errol Rice said many Montana ranchers are looking to develop local markets.
Polls conducted by the Montana Stockgrowers show that today's consumer wants to know their food is raised in an environmentally stable manner and that livestock is raised with high standards for its welfare.
Growing global markets also demand that accountability from livestock producers.
A vast number of Montana ranchers are looking to export their cattle into overseas markets, which have their own demands, Rice said.
To be able to ship beef into the European Union marketplace, ranchers have to be able prove they have not used any hormones. Japan and North Korean markets have age restrictions on imported beef from the United States.
Ranchers wanting to enter those markets are using technology that tracks their animals through a small radio frequency identification tag which allows their animals to be identified from farm to market.
Ranchers looking to be part of the domestic grass-fed or naturally certified marketplaces have adopted the same tracking methods.
"We are really striving to get out ahead of the curve and provide certification to the consumer to meet those standards," Rice said.
Angus seems to be the breed of choice for most Montana ranchers, although there are also plenty of Herefords, Charolais, Simmentals and Gelbvieh scattered across the state.
On the Indian Prairie Ranch, the Morton family is content with the breed of choice.
"They aren't really all that choosy about they eat. They don't eat nearly as much grass as other breeds," Alexandra said. "And their fat content is lower than a skinless chicken breast. That's hard to beat."
As they gather around to watch the young baby calf begin to nurse, the mother cow slowly tilts its long set of horns sideways as it twists around to take a look at all the commotion.
It doesn't kick. It's doesn't hardly even move.
Donald Morton can't help but smile.
"We just love these cows," he said.
Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.