Ranching may seem like a romantic business. Images of “Big Sky country” are conjured up, along with Clint Eastwood riding his horse and cattle grazing in fields full of wildflowers. In reality, ranching is not quite as romantic as one may think. It’s a blood, sweat and tears kind of business, and one that Brian Bean and his wife, Kathleen, embarked on in 1999.
They had been looking for a property that had some economic flavor and potential. After they came across an offering for the Cottonwood Ranch, the rest, as they say, is history.
"We bought the ranch from the Purdys—legendary Idaho ranchers. We watched and learned from them for years—and still do,” said Brian.
“We converted the ranch from cattle to sheep after purchasing some neighboring sheep ranches, and it became the Lava Lake Lamb that you see today,” said Brian, about their family-owned ranch southeast of Sun Valley, where the Pioneer Mountains meet the northern edge of the Snake River Plain. “We are committed to protecting the land we use and catalyzing conservation actions in the Pioneer Mountain region.”
Lava Lake’s sheep graze on nearly 1 million acres, traveling about 200 miles each season, from April through October, from the high desert to the mountains and back. Sheepherders, along with dogs and horses, care for “bands” of sheep. Two to three border collies help herd the sheep, and two guard dogs, an Akbash and a Great Pyrenees, are always on the lookout for predators. One or two horses accompany the band on their long trek. Herders spend months living in traditional sheep wagons, and each herder is in charge of about 1,000 ewes and their lambs. “We are proud of our dedicated crew of sheepherders, led by foreman Pedro Loyola,” Brian said. “Their animal husbandry skills are unsurpassed.”
Lava Lake Lamb has played a leadership role in sharing information with ranchers across the world. This past June, for example, Lava Lake Lamb participated in the first International Seminar on Rangeland Management, hosting about a dozen ranchers from far-flung places, including Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, all of whom came to learn from Western ranchers. They walked the ranch and discussed the marketing of agricultural products, public lands grazing challenges and how Lava Lake, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and National Resources Conservation Service partner in managing lands characterized by complex ownership. They also discussed predator and livestock interaction. “It was a terrific two weeks,” said Brian, adding, “The thirst for knowledge these guys had about ranching and how we operate was incredible.”
Lava Lake is keenly aware of the animals they share the landscape with. In June of 2008, members of Lava Lake’s Science and Conservation Advisory Board camped in the Boulder Mountains north of Ketchum, rising before dawn in the hope of seeing wolves known to be in the area. “We share this wild country with a host of wildlife species, including elk, pronghorn, moose, bear and wolves,” Brian said. “Protecting wildlife migration routes and following predator-friendly practices are key components of our conservation work in the region.” In fact, in 2012, Lava Lake Lamb partnered with agencies like The Nature Conservancy and the Idaho Conservation League to study the pronghorns. They collared and tracked about a dozen pronghorn to document their migration path and see what perils they run into. Data from the study has helped federal agencies and private landowners minimize impacts on pronghorns and maintain viable migration routes.
Lamb sold under the Lava Lake Lamb brand is 100 percent grass-fed, is never given antibiotics or hormones and is never placed in feedlots. Period. Because they drink mother’s milk all their lives and graze on wild rangeland, their meat has a distinctive flavor that has been praised by chefs across the country. In fact, Mark Lapico, executive chef of Jean-Georges restaurant in New York City said, “The taste of Lava Lake Lamb was floral in a way I could not describe, until I walked the pasture the lambs grazed on. I could smell the taste of the meat.” If you’ve ever tasted a complex glass of wine, where layers form in your palate, you know what Lapico is talking about.
“Brian and his team are doing something genuine and real,” Lapico said. “If we are ever going to change the way we eat in this world, people like Brian must be applauded for their efforts to preserve such beautiful land and raise animals with integrity. Lava Lake Lamb exemplifies the type of food I seek out to put on our menu, and I am truly thankful to have been a part of this year’s Ranch Tour.”
“We believe we’re the largest domestically-produced, nationally-distributed, 100 percent grass-fed lamb brand out there,”Brian said. “There are a significant number of benefits to eating grass-fed meat, including: lower fat content, more Omega 3’s, more Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA’s) and the Omega 6-Omega 3 ratio is low.”
Then he added with a laugh, “And it’s just delicious!”
When asked his favorite recipe for lamb, Brian smiled and said, “A full leg of lamb butterflied, seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled. The flavor of the lamb just shines. Sometimes, simple is best.”
Maybe ranching isn’t as romantic as the movies portray, but the Beans’ hard work and all the blood, sweat and tears are worth it every time they hear praise and kind words about Lava Lake Lamb and the company’s conservation efforts.