In the case of Little Belt, the Putnams nor any of the other company’s principals, Tim and Carmen Sheehy, and Tim’s brother, Matt Sheehy, had any land management or agricultural experience before launching the ranch in 2020.
The Path to Little Belt
After graduating from West Virginia University, the Putnams, college best friends turned couple, left their East Coast hometowns for Idaho. Greg worked as a fishing guide and Heidi handled marketing and guest relations for a Rocky Mountain guest ranch. Among many other things, she had to learn to ride horses.
“All of his jobs have been lifestyle focused and we’ve both had to develop a skill set just to function,” said Heidi, who is a professional event planner. “He’s the innovator and I’m the adapter.”
Greg concurred, “I come up with crazy ideas and she makes them happen.”
Although both Putnams fell hard for life in the Mountain West and were succeeding in their careers, Greg wasn’t quite ready to settle down. Following in the tradition of other men in his family, he wanted to serve his country.
“Greg decided to become a Navy SEAL because everybody goes from being a fishing guide to a SEAL, right?” said Heidi, still laughing.
For nearly 10 years, Greg and Heidi embraced the military life that took them to Hawaii, California and Virginia. They started a family. As the decade-mark approached, the Putnams had to decide whether to make the military a permanent career or to pivot.
They turned. While careerwise they didn’t have a clear next step, the couple knew they wanted to make their home in Montana and raise their three girls in the wide, open spaces of the Mountain West.
Greg said, “There’s always been something about the West that just called to me.”
As a child in rural Pennsylvania, his favorite books were about cowboys and western explorers. As a fishing guide, he watched parents and children skiing, hiking, and camping together as part of their daily lives and he wanted that for his own kids someday. Heidi shared his vision for their family.
“It’s how we wanted our life to look—and we made it a priority,” Greg said.
“It was all new to us. . . But we aren’t afraid to jump in and just figure stuff out as we go.”
As fate would have it, Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and officer in Greg’s platoon, and his wife Carmen, who Heidi first met in Hawaii while they were both expecting their first daughters just days apart, had left the military two years earlier, moved to Bozeman, Montana, and started Bridger Aerospace and Ascent Vision Technologies. The Putnams and Sheehys reconnected over their shared love of Montana.
Greg went to work as the business manager for Ascent Vision Technologies. He quickly discovered that office walls and desk chairs were not his natural habitat. Seeking elbow room, head space and a jolt of adrenaline, he began helping friends and neighbors on their ranches in the evenings and on weekends. The work struck a chord.
“Growing up, I hunted and fished a lot—and always liked that connection to the land and food,” Greg said. “For me, ranching creates a similar connection between people, land and food.”
As fate would have it again, Tim sold Ascent Vision. Then, COVID-19 disrupted the world including the food supply chain. When beef became a scarce commodity even in ag-centric Montana, Tim and Greg recognized the market—and need—for high-quality, locally produced beef. The duo, along with Tim’s brother
Matt, hatched (well, maybe calved is a more appropriate word) the plan for what became the Little Belt Cattle Company.
The Business of Beef
From the beginning, the team’s approach was unconventional. When they couldn’t find a ranch large enough to serve as the headquarters, the Sheehys bucked the national trend of sub-division and purchased three smaller, contiguous ranches.
Tim said, “They aren’t making anymore land. It’s critical we preserve, improve and protect that which remains. Consolidating these parcels into one holding is the best chance to preserve them and their productivity.”
Today, the Little Belt Cattle Company, nestled at the foot of its namesake mountain range, encompasses about 20,000 acres of deeded and leased land. In 2020, the Sheehys partnered with the Montana Land Reliance to enact a conservation easement to keep the ranch open and working in perpetuity.
“It was all new to us—putting together a large land transaction, launching an agribusiness and running a ranch,” Greg said. “But we aren’t afraid to jump in and just figure stuff out as we go.”
They started with two clear, complementary goals: producing high-quality beef sustainably and leaving the land better than they found it. Then, they conducted research and sought out industry leaders such as Turk Stovall of Stovall Ranches to serve as mentors and collaborators. They also attended courses like Ranching for Profit, and they planned extensively.
“In the military, you can’t let the little doubts slow you down,” Greg said. “Instead, you focus on your goals, get a plan together, and put action to it. Once you start moving, the fear goes away. At that point, you just do it—and you don’t quit.”
Since the cattle company’s launch, the team has established a cow-calf operation using both Angus and Wagyu cattle to produce high-grade, grass-raised, grain-finished beef. Calving is timed for mid-April to coincide with spring green up which gives their cows optimum nutrition as they raise their calves.
“We do our best to work with Mother Nature, not against her,” Greg said.
They have implemented a rotational grazing system where pastures are periodically grazed and then allowed to rest and recover, which reinvigorates rangelands and increases plant diversity. Grazing decisions are made, in large part, on the condition of the plants.
“We have adopted an aggressive regenerative agriculture strategy, which is healthier for the land long term and will support generational improvements to the quality of our ecosystem,” Tim said.
Greg added, “It’s been rewarding because we’re seeing some positive changes on the land even sooner than we expected.”
Last summer, Little Belt had a surplus of grass. To take advantage of the bounty, the team incorporated a younger-age class of cattle into their program. Younger cattle, known as yearlings or stockers depending on their age, provide flexibility when it comes to stocking rates and marketing options.
“Some people view our lack of experience as a liability, but it can be an asset,” Greg said. “We’re not limited by the ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mindset, so we can try new things and keep those that work for us.”
The most recent innovation is the Little Belt Burger Bar, the ranch’s food truck and catering service based in Bozeman. Heidi manages the new venture. It is an interim step in the team’s distribution plan.
Currently, the ranch sells most of its cattle under the umbrella of programs such as Certified Angus Beef. Eventually, the teams want to sell the bulk of their beef directly to Montana consumers, but the state has a dearth of processing facilities. The food truck gives them a local outlet for the ranch’s ground beef and gets the company name into the marketplace. In addition, Little Belt operates an online merchandise store featuring hoodies, t-shirts and caps bearing the L–B brand.
“Ranching gets described as a lifestyle, but it’s really a business—and a career—with lifestyle components,” Greg said.
The Lifestyle Components
The ranch is located about 90 miles northeast of Bozeman. In good weather, it takes about 90 minutes to get there. During the winter, it takes much longer. The last half hour is on a dirt road, which gets tricky when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Greg manages the ranch’s day-to-day operations and is on-site most days. Ranching, like the military, is not an 8-5 job. It doesn’t give time off for weekends, holidays, vacations, or snow days. Days are unpredictable. Plans constantly change as machinery breaks, heifers struggle to calve, or grass runs out in a pasture prematurely. Ranch work can’t be put off until it’s more convenient.
Heidi and the couple’s three daughters, aged 5,7, and 9, maintain a home base in Bozeman. In addition to her responsibilities at the cattle company, Heidi runs her own event planning company. During the academic year, the girls’ schedule is dictated by the school calendar,
but the family gets out to the ranch at every opportunity. In the summer, they spend at least 90 percent of their time at Little Belt.
“Ours is definitely a hybrid life, but I can’t imagine a more magical upbringing for our children,” Heidi said.
A vast majority of the cattle work, about 80 percent by Greg’s estimation, is done with horses and dogs. While it’s a nod to tradition, moving the cattle with horses stresses the livestock less which contributes to higher quality beef.
According to Heidi, the girls love to be horseback and are now old enough to be “good help” as they gather and move cattle. The Sheehys’ four children are about the same ages. They help too. Everyone is best friends.
“Our kids are working alongside their parents, laughing with their best friends, and taking great pride in being truly helpful,” Heidi said. “That’s magic.”
Working on the ranch gives the kids experiences that most modern American children don’t have. On a recent branding day, the Putnam and Sheehy children were right in the middle of the chaos. Barking dogs. Milling cattle. Moving horses. Swinging ropes. Fire. Hot irons. Smoke. Medicine-filled syringes.
“The kids have to keep their heads, stay focused on the work and stick with it until the job is done, no matter the conditions or how tired they are,” Heidi said. “These are not made-up chores. There are lives on the line. And through it all, our kids are getting skills that will serve them well wherever they go and whatever they do.”
Greg agreed, “The ‘office’ where we work is a humbling place because the successes and failures of caring for land and animals are personal. On the land, people have a chance to grow and learn in a way that you can’t elsewhere.”
When they launched Little Belt, the team proudly included “established in 2020” as part of the company’s identity.
“It’s a misconception that if you weren’t born into this you can’t learn it, because where there’s a will there’s a way,” Greg said. “Granted, we’re strong willed, but if we can do it, anybody can do it.”
With that said, he is quick to point out the results they’re enjoying today are a direct result of all the “invisible” work they put in to get ready. They provided fellow ranchers with hours of free labor to master the foundational skills of working cowboys. They leased pastures and ran small cattle herds to learn the basics of stockmanship, marketing, and range management.
“You don’t have to do it all at once,” Greg said. “Start small. With a horse, a trailer, and some fencing equipment, you’re set to begin day working and helping neighbors. Find out if you have a passion for it.”
They also invested a lot of time in identifying willing mentors and absorbing their hard-earned knowledge.
“My best advice, whether it’s ranching or anything else, is to find really good mentors,” Greg said. “When I decided I wanted to be a Navy SEAL, it seemed impossible until I found an active-duty guy who told me, ‘If I can do this, you can, too—and here’s how you do it.’”
While they are still new to the ranching business, the Little Belt team is stepping up to mentor other military professionals who are looking for their next career. From their perspective, veterans and their skillsets are particularly well-suited to production agriculture and its challenges.
Little Belt has launched an internship program so veterans can try ranching firsthand, allowing them to make an informed decision before attending college or investing in livestock. Little Belt is also a host ranch for Bearhug Cattle Company, a non-profit that teaches transitioning veterans horsemanship and stockmanship skills. Bearhug provides a 10-week course to veterans interested in pursuing a career in ranching and Little Belt Ranch is one of their first stops.
“America needs food—and somebody has to produce it,” Greg said. “Don’t look at the barriers to entry and scare yourself out of it because ranching is not out of anyone’s realm. Instead, focus on the two big questions: What is the way forward and how do I do it?”
Learn more about Greg and Heidi Putnam at LittleBeltCattleCo.com