Regenerative Ranching Festival Sprouts

Montana Ranchers Hold Music Festival to Highlight Regenerative Ranching, Direct Beef Marketing

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A group of about 80 people took an early hike Saturday, June 24, at the Old Salt Festival on the Mannix Ranch in Montana outside of the small town of Helmville. The Old Salt Co-op is an LLC formed by four Montana ranches to direct market their beef to consumers. The ranchers created an inaugural three-day music festival this past weekend to promote their efforts. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

HELMVILLE, Mont. (DTN) -- After a night of thunderstorms, about 80 people began the morning of Saturday, June 24, with a short hike on the Mannix Ranch in west-central Montana to talk about ranch history, regenerative agriculture and conservation easements for ranchers.

An idea that began with a small group of legacy Montana ranchers frustrated over cattle prices during the peak of the pandemic led to a weekend music festival on a family ranch tied to events that promote regenerative ranching practices and direct marketing.

Hundreds of people from across Montana came and camped for the inaugural three-day Old Salt Festival, while hundreds of others showed up throughout Saturday as the skies cleared, the country music roared, and the pit bosses spent the day smoking beef and lamb.

Old Salt Co-op is a direct-marketing limited liability corporation formed by four ranches in the Blackfoot Valley area. Cole Mannix, founder of Old Salt Co-op and whose family ranch hosted the event, said he was working remotely in 2020 when he decided to promote the idea of area livestock producers coming together. Mannix said he had been stewing over how ranchers could gain a premium for the stewardship that goes along with their beef.

"That's already built into those guys. Soil, water, wildlife, a sense of landownership that we don't ultimately own this, but it's in its right place. We're going to be dead, but it will be here for posterities. Nobody owns this," Cole Mannix said.

Cattle producers across the country who hadn't taken a hard look at direct marketing began to rethink that strategy in 2019 and 2020 when a fire at a Tyson plant first caused live cattle prices to crash while boxed beef prices for packers soared. That spread between live cattle and boxed beef became even greater during the pandemic, as packers had to slow down their processing because workers were ill and some processing capacity had to briefly idle.

"The fragility of the beef industry really showed itself, and we really started scratching our head about how we could make a more resilient food system that funnels the dollars back down to the land and the ranchers," said Cooper Hibbard, president of Old Salt and part owner of Sieben Live Stock Co. in Adel, Montana.

Hibbard, speaking to the festival crowd about the business, said he and other members of the group were frustrated with industrial agriculture and how it can extract from the soil, land, wildlife, livestock, and people. Hibbard said Old Salt looks to market itself as tying the ranch back to the wildlife.

"Those of us who are ranchers, we're already doing the work of building soil, growing more grass and restoring riparian areas, and the only reason that is happening is because of people," Hibbard said. "That earth needs us. And in order to create this model that we hope succeeds, we need you guys. We need you guys as much as you need us. If you care about all those open, wild landscapes, we think this is how we can do it."

The festival was aided by cool weather and the valley's lush conditions. While the Midwest and eastern Plains are dry, much of Montana has rebounded from three years of drought with higher-than-normal rainfall across a large swath of the state. Montana's landscape right now is a tapestry of varying shades of green prairie grasses.


Members of the Mannix family led a group of early bird festival goers on a walk up one of the foothills to lay out the foundation for the fifth-generation ranch founded in 1882. The ranch has about 60,000 acres, one-third owned, one-third leased from government entities, and one-third leased from private landowners. The ranch has about 1,250 cow-calf pairs and another 1,250 yearlings.

The ranchers highlighted grazing management changes over time and the need to rotate pasture to let it rest. They also highlighted intensive grazing practices on irrigated ground that allowed them to eliminate fertilizer and reduce water usage on the fields. The ranch also is adjusting its calving season to reduce hay use.

Tying in the importance of pasture to producers, Logan Mannix -- Cole's brother -- explained how the ranch is gaining more value in direct marketing their cattle versus selling calves to a feeder or at auction.

"What direct marketing does is help us bring more money back per bite of grass," he said.

Logan Mannix then discussed the importance of creating conservation easements with different organizations to help with wildlife habitat. A vast majority of the ranch has some form of a conservation easement. The easements have allowed the ranch to grow.

"We were able to buy land only by signing conservation easements on the land that we own and the land we are buying," Mannix said.

Lesli Allison, chief executive for the Western Landowners Alliance, talked about the ways private ranchland improves the landscape for wildlife habitat and more producers are looking for opportunities to link stewardship to the marketing of their livestock.

"The conservation movement we are trying to create today is about adaptive management," Allison said. "Often private lands are the best lands. That's one reason they were settled. Private lands in the West are often some of the best lands that we have." She added, "How do you get compensated for your conservation and stewardship?"


Old Salt is building a larger processing facility in Helena -- about 60 miles from Helmville -- that will be USDA-inspected for grass-fed beef and will process for other area livestock operations as well.

Old Salt received a $422,180 USDA grant last year under the Local Food Promotion Program to develop a "meat-share program" that will work with 10 other ranchers and sign up at least 4,000 subscribers to buy directly from the company. The grant highlighted that a key selling point is a marketing effort to increase interest in local meat that comes from animals "raised with integrity."

The processing plan also was awarded a $150,000 Montana state grant in 2022 under funds from the American Rescue Plan.

As part of its direct marketing locally, Old Salt is planning to open both a butcher shop and a charcoal-fired grill restaurant in Helena.

"The plan is mostly meant to be a relationship builder -- in-person marketing. And hopefully it will kick off enough income to be stable while we're still working to grow the meat brand," Cole Mannix said.

Cole Mannix said he thinks consumers have lost a personal connection with their meat products as more grocery stores have phased out their own meat-cutting operations. "The butchers knew where the carcasses were coming from, and the butchers knew about the cuts," Mannix said. "Now they just bring the meat in and put it down."

As far as Montana consumers, Mannix said people know the main landscapes of the state, such as the Blackfoot Valley. He said that helps create a closer bond for their meat products.

Hibbard, Old Salt's president, said he didn't know if the ranchers will repeat the festival, but they were pleased with the crowd on Saturday.

"It will be a big discussion among the board. We will see how it goes and decide in this next month if it is something we want to do again this next year. We have certainly gotten a lot of positive feedback. A lot of people want to see us do this every year."

As Cole Mannix talked to DTN about Old Salt's next steps, two friends, each holding a beer in each hand, came up to tell him just how much they were enjoying the festival. Asked about what led to the idea of a music festival to promote beef, Cole Mannix said, "I just think in-person relationships is more powerful and word of mouth is more powerful. I'm sick of the digital world in my own personal life, and I think a lot of us are. It matters for us to get together." He added, "There are a lot of good American values at this event."

To watch a video about the event, visit….

Old Salt Co-op:…

USDA on June 29 announced a new round of funding to expand meat and poultry processing capacity. See the story here:…

Also see "USDA Expands Working Lands for Wildlife Initiatives" here:…

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton