Home on the range

Colter DeVries talks about the Wagyu cattle he is raising near Roberts on Thursday.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff photos

When neighboring ranchers first saw Colter DeVries lead a Wagyu bull into his pasture, they gave him some long looks. 

"They told me, 'You better make sure those fence lines are all secure,'" he said.

The wiry, horned Japanese bull stands out in Angus country and DeVries knows it. Part of him relishes it. The 29-year-old DeVries is eager to push back against the traditional ranching practices of his forebearers and make his mark on the family business.

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Colter DeVries' Wagyu cattle

DeVries is raising Wagyu crossbred cattle, known for their rich, marbled beef. His goal is to create "the best steak in the world" and, for now, make a better beef stick.

That desire pushed him from his family ranch, which has been operating for the past 111 years outside Roberts, and led him to find his own way forward. He likes the unconventional and firmly believes it will lead him to success. 

"I want to produce the best steak in the world," he said. 

That will take years and he's ready to invest the time. Meanwhile, he knows he has to turn a profit. So while he figures out the best way to breed the marble-rich beef that makes Wagyu cattle world-famous with his more traditional Angus stock to get the world's best steak, he's focused on making a top-of-the-line beef stick. 

They're called Montana Chop Sticks, and they're made from the Wagyu beef DeVries is breeding with his own cattle. He's launched a Kickstarter campaign to help him cross the finish line. 

"We're building a better mousetrap," he said with a smile. 

DeVries sees Montana Chop Sticks as the craft beer to the regular beef sticks' supermarket brew. "We've put a crafty touch on it," he said. 

In short, he's made it something he wants to eat. 

"I'm a foodie," he said. "I love steak, love food trends. I love to cook."

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Working ranch

Colter DeVries closes a gate on the ranch land where he's raising Wagyu cattle near Roberts.

'Strong-willed'

DeVries is part of a growing trend of millennial entrepreneurs who have left the family business to pursue a career closer to their hearts. 

Millennial entrepreneurs typically are motivated by their aspirations — that thing they dream of doing or creating — and by having independence. Making money usually comes second to that, said Patricio Mori, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and an expert in small family business innovation at Montana State University Billings' College of Business. 

"If you work in your family business, you're not going to be independent," Mori said. 

DeVries is the fifth generation on his family's land. Working the ranch, he saw changes he wanted to make to help the ranch be more profitable while being gentler on the land.

He wanted to pursue different types of grazing land so that the ranch would be less reliant on hay. He wanted to move calving season from early spring to early summer, when it's less expensive to care for new calves. He got nowhere.

"I felt like I was chasing my tail," he said. 

And then one day he had a realization about the ranch.  

"This isn't my land," he said. "I don't have to be here taking care of someone else's asset."

So DeVries pulled out. He took his head of cattle and placed them on ranch land he leases south of Roberts and threw himself into creating the kind of progressive, holistic ranch that he had tried to impose on his family's operation.

He acknowledges that he likely damaged some relationships the way he handled it. 

"In my desire to improve, I was very strong-willed about it," he said. He guesses his family was ready to see him go when he finally left. 

Time has softened hard feelings. The family has been "very supportive" of his new venture and his Kickstarter campaign, he said. 

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Colter DeVries' crossbred cattle

Colter DeVries is raising Wagyu crossbred cattle. 

Family business can be fraught with complicated relationships, Mori said. The patriarch is eager to see the next generation take up the mantle, but he's often reluctant to give up control. 

"They don't want to lose the power of having the last word," he said. 

That dynamic plays out in specific ways among millennials and their parents, Mori said. Their children, now in the 20s and 30s, have grown up with disruptive technology that they've completely integrated into their lives. 

Their parents have not, and they struggle to keep up with the newer technology and they struggle to understand it, Mori said.

Meat marketing 

New technology, specifically tools that allow DeVries to market his beef sticks online specifically to targeted, niche demographics, is like a second language to him. It's lost on his parents.

Much of the work behind the Montana Chop Sticks Kickstarter campaign is to establish the brand online, where Devries plans to sell the beef sticks exclusively. He has mined data to learn which words and search terms tie directly to those who would be most interested in a high-end beef stick.

He's purchased targeted ads on social media to build an audience that he hopes to convert into a customer base. 

"I was little naive in my millennial thinking that (the Kickstarter campaign) would blow up and go viral," he said. 

It didn't. But it's still been successful, reaching the halfway mark a couple weeks after it launched. 

He hopes the beef sticks will be his base source of revenue while his Wagyu cattle fatten up for the slaughter. It's a two-year process from when the calf is born to when it goes to slaughter. 

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Wagyu cattle

Colter DeVries is raising Wagyu crossbred cattle near Roberts. 

Angus beef is typically rated "choice" by the USDA. The marbling found in Wagyu beef usually rates "prime," making it a premium cut of meat, which sells at a higher price than "choice" cuts. 

The higher quality beef means DeVries can push back his calving season to early summer. Angus calves are birthed in the early spring to give them more time to fatten up as much as possible. They're sold by the pound.

A summer calving season is cheaper and with Wagyu being a premium meat, weight isn't as important when it's sold. It's all about the marbling and the quality of the beef, DeVries said. 

He gets a better price for his beef and "I've done nothing extra other than bring in an extra bull," he said. 

He's now a year into the process; his Wagyu cattle will be ready for slaughter at the end of 2018. And so far it's worked out well. 

"I've got big calves," he said. "Bigger than I was expecting. I'm really happy about it."

C&K Meats in Forsyth is his processor. They're the one producing his meat sticks and they'll handle the slaughter of his Wagyu beef next year. 

"They've got it all figured out," DeVries said. "They're great at what they do."

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Riding the range

Colter DeVries, driving in his truck with Hank, talks about the Wagyu cattle he is raising near Roberts. DeVries wants to create the perfect steak and make a better beef stick. 

DeVries is excited about his venture and he's eager to see it take off. He's proud of the road he's taken. 

"If I like it, I'm going to pursue it with more passion," he said. "And that's what I'm doing."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.