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A steak and stake in every skillet

By Martha Mintz

Steam rises from a Riverbend Angus bull as it peers through frost covered pen number. Riverbend sells approximately 450 bulls at the annual bull sale in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Steam rises from a Riverbend Angus bull as it peers through frost covered pen number. Riverbend sells approximately 450 bulls at the annual bull sale in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (Journal photo 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.

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Circling back to home

By Martha Mintz

Riverbend Angus General Manager Steve Harrison (second from left) visits with bull customers on the day of the 2014 sale. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Riverbend Angus General Manager Steve Harrison (second from left) visits with bull customers on the day of the 2014 sale. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

When Riverbend Ranch bulls lumber their way into trailers and are chauffeured to their new homes and the ladies waiting for them there, it may be goodbye to Riverbend Ranch for them, but that’s not necessarily the case for their offspring.

The Riverbend Ranch team spent years sorting data, determining need and applying good old cowboy ingenuity to carefully craft bulls that will sire cattle up to the rigorous task of performing in their customers’ challenging high-desert environment. And they didn’t stop there. Those same cattle have to continue on to earn top marks through backgrounding, the feedlot, processing and, maybe most importantly, the table. The Riverbend team thought they could get more out of those carefully forged genetics than a shiny resume for a bull they’ll likely never see again?

Their solution is their Customer Investment Program. Besides being a seedstock operation, Riverbend Ranch also owns a commercial herd and backgrounds around 8,000 stocker calves per year on grass. They don’t want to background just any old mishmash of calves, though. They want calves that are uniform, high quality and offer the performance predictability of a shared genetic link. Who better to provide those calves than their own bull customers?

The program is simple, says Steve Harrison, general manager of Riverbend Ranch. “If a commercial cattleman buys bulls from Riverbend Ranch and then lets us know when and where those cattle will be for sale, we will be there to bid on those cattle.”

Illuminating quality

An extra cowboy hat nodding away in the buyer’s seats on sale day is always a welcome sight for a commercial producer. While Riverbend can’t buy every calf sired by their bulls, the ranch can certainly help ensure customers get the premium those calves deserve by throwing in a bid or two and lending credibility. A Riverbend bidder in the crowd is a bright flashing sign, announcing loudly to other potential buyers the calves on the block have a quality genetic base and can be counted on to perform from the moment they’re purchased through harvest.

While previewing bulls at the Riverbend Ranch bull sale, Karl Lind, Elko, Nevada, noted he uses both artificial insemination (AI) and bulls to breed his 600-head commercial Angus herd, but he knows he’s gaining an extra advantage by buying bulls at this sale. “While I like the AI companies, they don’t bid on your calves,” Lind says.

Lind buys around five bulls from Riverbend every year and has for the last 10 years. Some of his AI sires also have Riverbend heritage. He says the extra support from Riverbend bidders and the reputation of the genetics have earned him $0.20 to $0.25 per pound more on sale day in most circumstances. And, in his case, Riverbend has won the bid for the last four years.

Those Riverbend bids may not always earn them cattle, but they do usually earn them loyal customers, opening a deeper level of dialogue with those customers than most seedstock producers are afforded.

All in the family

It’s not just having a spare bidder in his corner that keeps Lind and others coming back for more. It’s the quality and performance along with the dialogue that is opened when seedstock producers have a vested interest in the calves their sires produce. Everyone opens up a bit more. And when the data and information is freely flowing, everybody wins, especially those looking forward to a juicy, tender treat from the grill.

“We correspond with our buyers and get feedback from them,” says Frank VanderSloot, owner of Riverbend Ranch. “We get to see how our genetics work in the real world. We look at what works, what doesn’t work, and then we try to produce more of those that work. We want to get a little better every year and make the food source in the world a little more tasty, a little more cost effective and a little more reachable to the average person.”

Riverbend often flows carcass and feedyard performance back to the cow/calf producers-something a feeder might not normally do because that information means they have to dig deeper in their pockets to win top-performing calves in the future. Cow/calf producers such as Barry McCoy, Dillon, Montana, use that information to tweak the genetics they bring in from Riverbend sires, and they all work together to create a premium-loaded package of genetics, quality management and top-notch herd health protocols. The result is calf crops that are uniform in health and performance, efficient and constantly stepping past the previous generation in quality.

Over the years McCoy has developed a close relationship with Harrison and others at Riverbend, and they’ve worked together to help him improve his herd, thinking further down the line to consumers. “I made a small grid for myself as far as what I think is the top 20 percent and I try to look at that. It gives me a starting place to wade through the catalog and really focus on two key EPDs (expected progeny differences), and that’s marbling and ribeye,” McCoy says.

Win-Win

McCoy knows he can focus in on carcass EPDs, which benefits the end user without having a negative impact on cattle performance on the ranch. He says good cattle that thrive in the feedlots are star producers on the ranch, too. It goes hand in hand. The same goes for how he cares for his cattle. Cattle that are healthy on the ranch are more likely to be healthy in the feedlot.

McCoy has worked with his own nutritionist and veterinarian, and he has pulled from his experience developing heifers with Harrison to create health protocols that put his herd ahead of the game. He takes a bottom-to-top approach to herd health, making sure both calves and cows are on strategic vaccine and nutrition programs that promote good health all around. He reaps the efficiency and profitability of healthy livestock and passes the same benefits on to the feeder when his calves go to market.

“As a general rule in the Northwest, we’re high-cost producers. We have to feed a lot of hay and so we try to add as much value to our cattle as possible,” McCoy says. As a result, he looks for follow-through on every input. He says good genetics are a foundation, a good starting point, but a producer stands to lose a lot by not building on that foundation with strategic health and nutrition protocols.

McCoy has built a sturdy structure on his genetic foundation, and buyers have taken note. “We now have a reputation with our feeder cattle, which has the great added benefit of having the same buyers come back competitively no matter where we market our cattle. That means a lot to us,” he says. It also means Riverbend bidders will have to nod quite a few times if they want the varsity performers they helped create to come back and play for the home team.

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Tempering the weakest link

By Martha Mintz

Riverbend Ranch crew gathers a group of cows and calves for branding and health treatments. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Riverbend Ranch crew gathers a group of cows and calves for branding and health treatments. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

A surgical, lightning-fast flick of the wrist sends a twisted nylon rope flying. The loop slips vertically under an Angus calf’s belly, perfectly positioned for his forward momentum to deposit both hind legs squarely in the cowboy’s snare. Slack is gathered with a sharp upward jerk of a gloved hand and an eager, well-trained mount steps gingerly backward to finish the catch.

It’s a mesmerizing display of cowboy workmanship, but this is no rodeo. It’s a branding, and the catch is one of the least important jobs of the day–just don’t tell the cowboys. The day’s namesake isn’t the most important bit either. Branding in today’s livestock industry is actually all about establishing a strong immune system for the calves. It’s about using properly selected, timed and administered vaccinations and other health protocols to set them up for a lifetime of success.

“What the end product is going to be months down the line is determined by what I do in my job,” says Rhett Jacobs, Dubois, Idaho, Riverbend Ranch unit manager. Jacobs manages 1,700 cow/calf pairs from breeding through weaning. “I take an unborn calf all the way until it’s ready to be fed. I deal with the whole imprint of that calf’s life.”

Jacobs knows keeping that calf from ever getting sick is essential. Even if it recovers, it will never be on the same level in growth throughout its life or quality at processing as its healthy peers. As per their consulting veterinarian’s advice, Jacobs and the other Riverbend Ranch unit managers are sure to vaccinate their calves between 30 and 60 days of age.

“We’ve got issues on some of the ranches like dust pneumonia or overeating disease so we want to make sure we get vaccines in those calves before they get too old so we can eliminate those problems before they get started,” Jacobs says. “If we’re treating sick animals too often, then we’re not doing our job. It’s all about prevention.”

All the hands helping out with branding are carefully instructed on the proper way to administer vaccines. Shots given incorrectly even in the first few months of life can resurface as a marred cut of meat 18 months down the line. That’s something Dell, Montana, unit manager Tom Lappe wants to protect the processor and consumer from dealing with.

“One of the biggest things I can do as a manager to ensure a good eating experience is to make sure my crew is placing those shots right,” he says.

The Great Test

Weaning throws down the gauntlet at the feet of cattle managers, attacking from all angles the barriers they’ve put in place to protect the calf crop they’ve nurtured. The stress of being weaned, worked through corrals, hauled and started on new rations is the biggest health challenge most cattle face in their lives. As in any battle, those who have strengthened their forces and are strategic in navigating the process will come out ahead.

Riverbend Ranch purchases around 8,000 head of calves at this trying stage of their lives for the stocker program. Calves come in at 450 to 500 pounds, are started in a lot where they’re overwintered and then turned out on grass to keep gaining through the next fall.

It’s no surprise when Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager, is buying calves he seeks out ranches that have proven to deliver calves with better than average health. He says there’s no doubt that entering into the stocker phase of life is the weakest, most vulnerable link in the cattle production chain.

“It’s not just about the death loss. It’s about the resulting loss of performance when cattle do get sick. There’s a lot of research that’s proven out that compromised immune systems or sickness affects marbling scores and overall performance throughout the feeding process,” he says.

Start strong/finish strong

Harrison’s relationship with cow/calf producers through the Riverbend Ranch customer investment program gives him an inside track on calves that have been managed to be healthy. It also creates a relationship where he can help producers tweak their programs for the better.

“If we have a problem with a group of cattle, we try to communicate with the sellers, help them analyze their programs and see if we can prevent problems with future calf crops,” Harrison says. He notes often it’s seemingly tiny things that can have a huge impact.

“It sounds simple, but dusty corrals at shipping add to stress and can result in respiratory problems,” Harrison says. Simply watering down corrals prior to shipping can resolve the problem. Other areas where good intentions can be sabotaged are if vaccines weren’t handled properly before administration or were administered incorrectly. Sometimes a tweak in a producer’s mineral program can put cows and calves in a better place nutritionally so that immune responses are stronger and vaccines are more effective, he says.

“The biggest thing for all of us is to continue to pay attention to the fundamentals of establishing good health,” Harrison says.

Once the baton is passed to Riverbend Ranch, Harrison and his consulting vet make sure good, healthy cattle stay that way. Calves entering the backgrounding program are treated with a modified live vaccine program, dewormed and put on a highly palatable, high energy ration. After two weeks the cattle are reprocessed with a booster vaccination and are put on a high roughage, low energy ration for the rest of the winter. This ration keeps their rumen working while not really pushing gain.

“We want them to gain 1.5 to 1.75 pound per day in the lot,” Harrison says. “We don’t want them to get too fleshy. Instead we want them to take advantage of the grass to gain when we turn them out on pastures in the spring.”

The calves get another vaccine booster and are dewormed before they’re turned out on grass.

“By the time the feedyard purchases cattle from us they’ve had three rounds of vaccine, been on a solid mineral program year round and had good feed and good water. We handle the cattle in good facilities and as calmly as possible and make sure we have enough good help on hand to make the gather and shipping process quick and low stress,” Harrison says.

He notes it’s more important than ever to work herd health from every angle, including prevention and keeping a watchful eye for any developing health issues.

“As the value of these calves continues to accelerate, death losses and decreased performance is really going to cost all of us and that cost will continue through to the end user,” he says. “The benefits, or negatives, of health will filter all the way to the end of the feeding process.”

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Checking in for a full-service stay

By Martha Mintz

Simplot Manager Bronc May (left) and Simplot Grand View Director of Research and Veterinarian Services Randall Raymond (right) stand in front of one of the many pens at Simplot Land and Livestock’s 150,000-head feedlot. (Journal photos by Martha Mintz.)
Simplot Manager Bronc May (left) and Simplot Grand View Director of Research and Veterinarian Services Randall Raymond (right) stand in front of one of the many pens at Simplot Land and Livestock’s 150,000-head feedlot. (Journal photos by Martha Mintz.)

The mountains that earned the area the name Grand View, Idaho, are about the only things that stand stationary as one gazes out across the crisscrossing pens of Simplot Land and Livestock’s expansive feedlot. The 750-acre home of up to 150,000 cattle is in perpetual motion. Feed trucks, cattle trucks, earth movers, loaders, pen riders, repairmen, nutritionists, veterinarians and managers scurry about ceaselessly catering to every want and need of their four-legged guests.

Each bee in this hive of activity is carrying out carefully plotted and researched tasks designed to ensure cattle are converting grains and forages efficiently into delectable, taste bud tempting beef. They’ve found the secret to achieving those goals is keeping cattle healthy, happy and very comfortable.

As trucks towing trailers drop over the rock-rimmed hills that protect the feedyard deliver the next round of cattle, freshly emptied pens are scraped clean. Tractor operators artfully create large, rectangular mounds in pen centers. Those dry, raised areas will command a view of the lush valley and soon be a favorite sunny perch for the calves calling the spacious lot home.

“It’s like changing out the sheets and putting a mint on the pillow at a hotel,” says Bronc May, Simplot custom cattle feeding manager, as he flashes his best concierge smile from under the brim of a light grey Stetson. “We want it clean and nice. The mounds are ready to go, the pens are clean, the water is fresh and there’s feed in the bunk. When an animal comes in he’s not waiting on anything.”

A stay at the Simplot feedyard would rival that of a full-service hotel in the cattle world. Just as a hotel host may meet a priority guest with a hot washcloth and a glass of champagne to ease the strain of travel, so too does Simplot consider arriving guests’ need to unwind.
“We want to handle cattle in as low stress of a manner as possible when they hit the feedyard. We make sure they get proper feed, water and exercise immediately,” says Randall Raymond, Simplot Grand View director of research and veterinarian services. “Exercise is extremely critical. We’ve done some research, and it seems to positively impact their ability to acclimate to feed and water and affects their health and growth pattern.”

Risky business

Assessing and sorting cattle by risk as they enter the feedyard is a critical first step.

“Managing cattle so they’re not commingled is extremely important,” Raymond says. “We bring cattle in as peer groups that were together before the feedyard and manage them together in those peer groups throughout the feeding process.”

Cattle transitioning to the feedlot from Simplot’s own meticulously managed herds or cattle from trusted customers, like Riverbend Ranch, are considered low risk. They’ve been managed strategically to have strong immune systems that help them float through stressful transitional periods, such as entering the feedyard, with ease. These low-risk cattle get to take a pass on antibiotics. They do receive a modified live five-way viral vaccine and an eight-way clostridial vaccine to boost their immunity.

“We really try and simplify what products they receive on arrival and focus on ways we can improve their health and reduce stress before they arrive,” Raymond says. They achieve that through working within their own operations and with their regular customers on developing strong mineral and health programs as well as low stress and other management protocols. They actively run research programs on Simplot ranches and feedyards to identify the best practices and products to meet the needs of the cattle.

Cattle that are freshly weaned, have a truck ride longer than 6 hours or that were commingled prior to arriving at the feedyard are classified as high risk. These cattle are under more stress and, in the case of the commingled cattle, have had more disease exposure. They are far more likely to develop disease outbreaks. Due to these circumstances, which Simplot tries to avoid, high-risk cattle receive antibiotics along with the standard vaccine boosters.

“There’s a lot of good research that demonstrates the effects of health on marbling and tenderness,” Raymond says. “Adverse health events negatively impact ability to grow and convert feed to protein, so it’s something we really try to avoid. None of these things are healthy for our business and, ultimately, aren’t the right thing for the cattle either.”

Evening up

Far more than a cursory glance is needed to discern any differences in a row of fat calves perched atop their pen mounds contentedly chewing their cud. This kind of uniformity is a reflection of quality and repeatability and is a key factor in making packers, chefs and consumers happy. This even batch of black beauties is a testament to precision management and free-flowing data from start to finish in cattle production.

“We sort every pen of cattle and do a lot of individualized management by pen and peer group,” May explains. “Most people think we just throw cattle in a pen and throw a little feed to them. We spend hours and hours looking back at data trying to find the right information to move ourselves forward, help us better market the cattle and help us sort the cattle.”

Far from just some feed tossed in the bunk, rations are carefully plotted and monitored for maximum performance. When cattle come to the feedyard off grass, their rations are slowly tweaked over a 30-day period to transition them to the higher energy flaked corn and wheat, high moisture corn, potato byproduct and alfalfa rations. Cattle are fed three times per day by trucks armed with computers that precisely measure and mix each ingredient for each individual pen. A feeding manager then evaluates the bunks every day to make sure cattle are eating their rations.

This meticulous system generates a lot of data to be reviewed, crunched and turned into useful information for all the cogs in the beef production machine. And thanks to carefully nurtured friendships, that data does move up and down the chain.

“A great part of our relationships is that we are sharing information from the packer, through the feeding facility, to the rancher and all the way back to the seedstock producer who influences the genetics,” May says. He shares every scrap of information he has on the cattle at Simplot with his ranching customers, including daily gain, conversion, health cost, death loss and grade. The goal is for producers to take that information and adapt their systems to improve feedlot performance. The result is higher quality cattle that earn them more money, are more predictable and profitable for the feeder, and provide a delicious experience for diners. And they do it all with the knowledge that they’re not just fattening cattle; they’re feeding the world.

“At the end of the day we have to keep in mind that we’re feeding someone’s family,” Raymond says. “Everything we do to these animals is to promote them to be healthy and comfortable and to produce a healthy and nutritious product for people to consume.”

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Years of work for moments of joy

By Martha Mintz

Kachina Southwestern Grill Executive Chef Jeff Bolton prepares Prime cuts of ribeye. (Journal photos by Martha Mintz.)
Kachina Southwestern Grill Executive Chef Jeff Bolton prepares Prime cuts of ribeye. (Journal photos by Martha Mintz.)

Heat reaches out desperately from the grill as jittery orange flames jump and dance in excited expectation. Both are practically calling out, begging for the massive ribeyes flecked delicately with flavor-bursting white fat held just inches from their grasp. When Kachina Southwestern Grill Executive Chef Jeff Bolton finally connects the beautiful cuts of beef with iron, the grill sizzles and snaps its delight.

A 4-minute sear on each side and 8 minutes in the oven transform the red and white perfection into a caramel-colored, mouthwatering medium-rare delight. Expert plating with shreds of this and swirls of that turns the Prime cut into a work of art, as pleasing to the eyes as it will be to the palate. It’s a treat those partaking in will savor with every sense, but they may not have the slightest inkling as to how long it truly took to prepare.

“The process for getting that product to the consumers starts 24 to 30 months ahead of time,” says Bronc May, Simplot custom cattle feeding manager. Simplot runs both expansive cow/calf herds as well as sizable feedyards, and the company certainly know good beef.

It all began with those ranchers carefully poring over their sale catalog this spring at the Riverbend bull sale. For this amazing culinary creation to be realized, they first have to pick genetics capable of producing the perfection that is a Prime cut.

The folks at Riverbend may argue the timeline for producing a great steak should be stretched even further back, as the strategic breeding decisions they made three years prior to the sale resulted in the genetics that May and other ranchers will use to get moving down the right path.

Once genetics are locked, ranchers have to carefully steward the health and nutrition of the cow and calf and ease them through weaning. The baton is then passed to the feeder at around 6 months, and a delicate transition in diet must be navigated. The following months require close monitoring, scientifically crafted rations and expert sorting to coax a calf into reaching his full genetic potential. Finally, harvesting must occur at exactly the right moment.

“We might sort a group of calves into three or four marketing groups to get the perfect, consistent product to the packers,” May says. “When we get down to harvest we may take a calf 20 days early or leave him on feed 20 days longer. We want to wait until we know the finished product will be perfect for the consumer.

“To get that perfect ribeye to Chef Bolton’s grill, everything has to go right at every moment spent on that two-year journey. One wrongly placed shot, an agitated animal running into a gate, a battle with a respiratory challenge or any number of other seemingly small things can send an animal on a one-way detour off the road to greatness.

Perfection appreciated

The years of hard work from breeders, ranchers, feeders and processors come down to Chef Bolton as he takes a carefully crafted steak down the final stretch to the plate. With a great cut of meat, his process is simple: a smattering of salt and pepper and grill to perfection.

“Why I like steak so much is just the flavor of the meat itself. It’s not the sexy visual appeal or the presentation–as long as it’s cooked right that’s it for me,” he says.

Watching Bolton fluidly navigate his perfectly organized yet chaotic kitchen based in the Westin hotel in Westminster, Colorado, it’s easy to draw comparisons between this final steward of a steak and the early stewards. He works long hours in an often unforgiving and sometimes dangerous environment, and time off is a fleeting luxury. He has an immense and lifelong passion for what he does, has educated himself on how to produce a responsible and quality product, and considers himself a steward of the land.

And just like every link in the chain before him, Bolton’s business thrives on consistency.

“Inconsistent products definitely raise my blood pressure,” he says. It’s one of the reasons he keeps a full-time butcher, Zach Blatter, on staff. All meat served in the restaurant comes in as whole carcasses or primal cuts so quality and consistency can be carefully controlled. “We can look at the outside of a primal cut of beef, see that the fat cap is clean, that the marbling is there and can cut it consistently. We can make sure we’re holding ourselves accountable for the quality we serve our customers.”

The people and businesses in this article series are doing their best to make sure particular chefs such as Bolton can keep their blood pressure well in check. The uniform herds they’ve built through years of breeding and the data flowing back and forth from processor to feeder to producers to guide the production of quality cattle really pay off in consistent performance.

Relationships with and knowledge of many of these fine-tuned herds allow Simplot to amass large groups of cattle capable of making the grade and delivering cut after cut of uniform, flavorful perfection to untold numbers of kitchens.

Spreading the word

As with many of those followed in this series, Bolton doesn’t just put on blinders and do his job; he makes an effort to extend his knowledge and impact on both ends of his business. He knows many of the farmers and ranchers who supply his business and works to educate his consumer.

“I think the connection and camaraderie between farmers and ranchers and chefs and supermarkets has grown,” he says. A movement he feels is brought on by the consumer’s desire to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced. “The more we can get ranchers to get out there and communicate with us and educate the consumers, the more beneficial it will be for everybody.”

He notes that especially with large beef enterprises, there’s a public perception that in his words, “bigger is badder.” Those large operations couldn’t possibly be focused on producing a quality product in a manner that takes careful heed of animal welfare and environmental impact.

“They think they’re so big they can’t be doing it right,” Bolton says. “Ranchers need to reach out to consumers and say, ‘We’re still doing it right. We’re still treating our animals properly, rotating our crops and doing all these right things and still producing killer cuts of beef.'”

Bolton does his part to educate consumers. He has taken groups of people to supermarkets with full butcher shops and taught them about dry aging, cutting and the quality of steaks. At the end of the day he prepared Choice beef, dry aged Certified Angus Beef and an 18-day dry aged bison steak.

“We just grilled them up with salt and pepper, and people were blown away at the difference in flavor and tenderness of the Certified Angus Beef. That’s what I look for is our customer’s reaction to what the steak is in terms of quality and how it’s prepared,” Bolton says.

One of Bolton’s satisfied customers included Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager. As he tucked into a perfectly cooked 24-ounce ribeye fresh from Bolton’s kitchen he reflected on what he could glean about the animal’s life from every juicy, flavor bursting bite.

“I just think how everyone had to do the right thing at every step of the way to make this happen,” Harrison says. The chef, the processor, the feeder, the veterinarians, the nutritionists, the ranchers and the breeders all had to hit a home run.

Looking at its recipe, many countless steps and a very long prep period all take part in making a truly amazing steak.

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