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.”
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.
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.