COVID-Inspired Pivot Leads to New Territory
William & Justine Kougl completely transform traditional cattle ranching business.
William (Cheyenne River Sioux) and Justine Kougl had been operating their cattle ranch on the Crow Reservation in Montana for several years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. With processing plants shutting down, cattle prices dropped, and meat on supermarket shelves became sparse. This experience for residents of agricultural areas was nothing short of surreal. Consumers would walk into the grocery store, be limited on the number of pounds of ground beef they could buy (if it was even in stock), and then walk out of the store to see pastures full of cows. When a major processor backed out on a processing date for hundreds of their friends’ fat steers, the Kougl’s saw an opportunity to create local food supply chains.
“People couldn’t get meat, so we had three businesses working together to butcher 32 head of cattle that summer,” says Justine.
The meat sold just as fast as they could get it cut and wrapped. The next year they sold 40 head of butcher beef. This success caused them to take a sobering assessment of their cattle ranch.
“We really had to look at our operation as a business and look at the money we were able to bring in on butcher beef,” explains Justine.
As long-time FSA borrowers, the Kougl’s annual loan payments eliminated opportunities for growth within their traditional cattle operation. This was something they struggled with. They had started working with Akiptan to secure more patient financing and reduce their debt, but the butcher beef venture inspired them to completely change their business model.
In the summer of 2021, the Kougl’s put their ranch up for sale. In the meantime, they became one of the first borrowers to be approved for Akiptan’s new land mortgage product. Less than six months later, with solid financing support in place, they were moving onto their new property.
“There’s no way we’d be able to do what we did without Akiptan,” exclaims Justine.
She adds, “There’s something to be said about their customer service, in addition to the financial support. You can get real feedback about your ideas in an honest way, and they check in with you throughout the year because they care about your success.”
The Kougl’s reduced their entire operation by 75% to officially start their direct market beef operation, MR Beef, which stands for Montana Ranch Beef. Expanding their product offering beyond half and quarter beeves, to include individual cuts, the Kougl’s have recently completed a state certification process. Justine admits it has been a crazy transition. There is a lot of work to be done on their new place, especially in the way of fencing and outbuildings, but for the Kougl’s it’s worth it.
“We’ll be able to provide better for our family, and financially we’ll be ahead of where we were before. It does give us hope that our kids will be able to continue in ag,” affirms Justine.