By Martha Mintz
The sweet smell of hay, cattle and damp earth tickles the nose as the sun peeks over the jagged Grand Teton mountains, sending golden spikes of warmth through a chilly March morning. It’s bull sale day at the Riverbend Ranch near Idaho Falls, Idaho, and the stars of the show are taking advantage of the flattering morning light to strut their stuff for potential buyers previewing their options.
Hundreds of Angus bulls mill about in their frost-bedazzled enclosures, occasionally showing one of their pen mates who’s top dog. Ranchers peruse the pens armed with sale catalogs packed with critical data, sizing up each bull to determine which among them has the stats, fits the budget and would make a complementary match for the ladies of their herds at home.
A little rain has the drought-plagued cattlemen in high spirits. Jovial chatting aside, they know picking the right bull to fold into their herd is a critical decision. Unlike choosing a truck or some other farm tool, the herd sire purchases ranchers make today will have impacts that ripple through their calf crops for generations. Buyers take this seriously. Fathers, sons, daughters and wives converse together as they walk their favorites around the pen, checking for soundness and making sure their physical attributes equal their on-paper stats.
“I’m not here looking for the bargain bull,” says Barry McCoy of McCoy Cattle LLC, Dillon, Montana. “I’m here to look for a bull that will add value to my program.”
Value can come in many forms, but it boils down to quality and performance. Quality and performance in the pasture, in the feedyard and on the plate. And that’s just what Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager, Frank VanderSloot, owner, have worked hard to deliver.
“We’re in the seedstock business because we think genetics make a difference. What we’re offering is substantiated and documented to be able to produce better beef and at the same time produce cattle that add profit and value to our customer’s bottom line,” Harrison says.
Going all in
Riverbend Ranch isn’t what most would consider a classic seedstock operation, or classic cattle operation of any kind for that matter. Instead of specializing in one area, as is the norm, they’ve taken an active role in pretty much every facet of livestock production.
Their multi-pronged business includes a 1,400-head registered Angus herd that produces around 450 elite bulls to market each year and a 4,000-head commercial herd. They background about 8,000 stocker calves annually and feed out around 12,000 head in partnership with Simplot Livestock. The common vein running through all of these enterprises is Riverbend genetics.
In every situation in livestock production short of processing, Riverbend Ranch is both the seller and the customer. They produce the bulls that sire their commercial calves, which are backgrounded ontheir pastures and fed on their dime. It’s in the ranch’s best interest at every turn for Riverbend genetics to perform to perfection. This all-in investment in the beef industry shifts their outlook a bit as seedstock producers and benefits Riverbend bull-buying customers.
“In my mind it’s all about having cattle that work in the real world,” says VanderSloot. Riverbend Ranch managers takes full advantage of their many business fronts to identify what works about their genetics both in their own commercial herd and feeding endeavors and through the close relationships they’ve formed with their customers. They then take that data back to their breeding program to produce customized bulls packing genetics that will work for themselves and their customers.
“Essentially we’re running our commercial cow herd as a test unit to prove out the ability of our registered genetics in the real world,” Harrison says. And their real world isn’t all lush pasture and shade trees. “Our customer base is comprised of big, arid, high desert ranchers. They demand cattle that can go out and work, travel and stay sound in some of the more rugged conditions you can find in the country.”
Their goal is to produce cattle that can deliver a quality carcass and a desirable end product. However, for the commercial herds, biological type and cow productivity is important, too.
“We’re trying to blend that cow type and cow productivity in with cattle that have gainability, feed conversion and grade and yield in the feedyard,” Harrison says. “And we need to do it in a package that’s moderately framed and fits in our environment.”
Stewarding the genetics
“Quality cattle are the proverbial three-legged stool,” Harrison says, ticking off top genetics, proper management and good nutrition as the support structures need for a sturdy foundation. “A big part of management is a sound vaccination program and a sound herd health program.”
Riverbend Ranch managers have a close relationship with their veterinarian to help keep them on the right track.
“We annually review what our procedures and protocols are in terms of our health program and we follow his recommendations down to the detail because healthy cattle are more profitable, better performing cattle,” Harrison says.
They draw a proactive line with herd health, working with suppliers and their veterinarian to identify new, and more comprehensive, products. Their goal is to stay current and utilize new technologies to aggressively stay ahead of herd health problems.
“Anytime you have to doctor cattle, not only do you have to worry about morbidity and mortality, you’re talking loss of performance,” Harrison explains. “With the dollars that are in play with today’s high prices, that equates to significant dollars.”
Through genetics and management, Riverbend Ranch also strives for uniformity in the calf crop. They artificially inseminate 1,400 commercial cows and 700 replacement heifers per year using only a select few sires.
“This strategy helps us build the genetics of our commercial herd,” Harrison says. “We’re big believers in AI. It has allowed us to build a very consistent, very uniform cow herd that has a lot of depth and base to its genetic merit.”
He explains that by multiplying an excellent sire over more cows he can more quickly advance his weaning weight and other genetically influenced production goals. AI also consolidates his calving season, resulting in more calves born in the first 21 days of calving season.
“This all equates to pounds, consistency and uniformity,” he says. It also adds up to a quality reputation that clings to Riverbend genetics everywhere they go.
“Our cattle are making a premium at pretty much every sale. If after paying a premium the feedlot can take those genetics and make even more money on them, then we feel like we have a complete package where everyone wins: the commercial cattleman, the feedlot and certainly the seedstock producer.”
After a long day full of seemingly endless chatter of auctioneers, bid spotters and teasing of customers that double as friends, 422 of Riverbend Ranch’s finest bulls have been assigned new homes. The carefully bred and developed sleek-looking sires now have to venture out into the real world, prove their merit and live up to the Riverbend reputation.