One size does not fit all: Riverbend Ranch utilizes trait-specific lines to meet customers’ different needs
One of the most progressive cattle breeding programs in the U.S. is headquartered near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Riverbend Ranch runs 1,400 registered Angus and embryo-recipient cows to produce bulls and replacement heifers for their registered herd. The ranch also runs 3,500 to 5,000 commercial cows and feeds about 11,000 head each year.
The cows run on eight ranches in five states – Idaho, Utah, Texas, Montana and Hawaii. In addition, the operation runs a 4,000-head grow yard in Dillon, Mont. Riverbend also has a Quarter Horse breeding program on the Fort Ranch in northern Utah.
Establishing a well-respected herd
Frank VanderSloot and his wife, Belinda, began putting Riverbend together in 1992, visiting Angus herds across the nation to find the best cows in the breed. Their Angus program has expanded exponentially since then.
“We started at the commercial end and soon realized there was a gap that needed to be filled,” says Frank. “There weren’t any major suppliers of bulls in this area, at least not the kind of bulls we felt were needed. We decided to see if we could fill that niche, and it has been a long process. We went to various purebred herds seeking what we felt were the best cows in the country,” he explains.
“We certainly didn’t get all of them because most of those were not for sale. So, we had to choose carefully. We were able to get some through dispersals and sometimes through the goodness and generosity of breeders who were willing to share their best genetics with us,” Frank continues. “Anyone can order semen from the best bulls in the world, but they still need the other half of the equation. Without a great cow, they are only halfway there. There are a lot of good cows in the country, but only a small handful of great cows. It takes great cows to make great bulls.”
“It took us 10 years, searching for the best females, before we felt we had what we wanted. This gave us a good start and our program has continued to develop. We paid a small fortune for some of those cows, but it has really paid off,” says Frank.
Now, the herd is recognized as one of the best in the nation for producing great bulls with superior phenotype as well as stacked superior expected progeny differences (EPDs).
“Everything is moving rapidly in this industry. Feedlots have learned how to use EPDs and have discovered Riverbend genetics. They know they can make a lot more money with the right kind of genetics and are willing to pay a premium for these kind of cattle,” Frank explains.
“We purchase 10,000 to 15,000 calves every year from our bull customers and put them in various feedlots or into our own feedlot. If we don’t get them bought, we are usually the contending bidder. Our customers can be sure there will be a market for their calves,” he adds.
Dale Meek, manager of the purebred operation, says the main focus is raising bulls for the commercial cattleman. To qualify for the sale catalog, a bull must be the complete package.
“Our focus is not only on carcass merit and performance, our bulls must also excel in maternal traits so commercial cowmen can improve their herds by keeping their daughters,” Dale says.
Utilizing reproductive technologies
Riverbend utilizes artificial insemination (AI) as well as an extensive embryo transfer program. Bull calves are on a high-roughage ration after weaning, shooting for an average daily gain of three pounds. Carcass and performance data is gleaned from steer mates that go through the feedlot.
Frank says by utilizing their own genetics in the commercial herd, they get to see, firsthand, which bulls are doing what.
“We are not operating on theory. We are operating on experience. We feel it is our job to produce the best bulls so our customers can thrive and profit,” he says.
One size does not fit all
Riverbend realizes one size doesn’t fit all. There is no one type of animal that will fit every operation. Thus, there are different lines within the registered herd. Some are bred to be problem solvers.
“The goal is to create lines producing cattle with balanced traits while excelling in areas where a customer wants to focus,” explains Frank.
Riverbend Ranch is also breeding for cattle moderate in both mature size and milk production and do well in a harsh environment. These cows consistently bring home good calves and have a higher pregnancy rate.
“Riverbend managers have found their customers want cattle that are nearly maintenance-free, with ease of management, excelling in traits economically important for the rancher,” says Dale.
There is a need for a maternally-oriented type of bull and also for a terminal type. The breeding program tries to fill customers’ needs with trait-specific lines so they can maximize their profits and minimize their inputs.
“We guarantee 100 percent satisfaction on any animal we sell, no questions asked and totally insure the health of the bull for the first breeding season. If a customer calls us up and says a bull has been injured, we will either replace the bull or give a credit toward another bull,” says Frank.
Nearly 450 bulls are sold in an annual sale in the spring, with an additional 75 to 100 bulls sold later by private treaty.
Teamwork is essential
Riverbend has a great team.
“We have good managers and cowboys. Everyone wants to see the ranch succeed so they take great pride in their work. If the cowboys with the commercial herd see something they don’t like, they have no problem calling me up and saying, ‘This is an issue with a certain bull,’ and we work together to improve the Angus breed,” says Dale.
Communication with customers is also important. If people trust and have faith in the program, they come back.
“We are selling bulls, but we are also up-front with people and always let them know anything they want to know about the bulls,” says Dale. “If we feel there is an issue with a bull we won’t sell it. If someone wants a certain bull but a certain trait is a major concern, we let them know it isn’t the bull for them.”
Riverbend tries to match the bulls with the right customers.
For more information, visit riverbendranch.us.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.