Outstanding producers honored at Certified Angus Beef Annual Conference
October 7, 2016
Riverbend's one-at-a-time quality focus earns national honors
Unless you're building an ark, little good can come from 45 inches of rain in 20 days.
That's what happened when Hurricane Floyd hit Snow Hill, N.C., in fall 1999.
For cattleman Steve Harrison, the results were life changing. As the flood waters rose, half of the family's cow herd—the one he'd returned to the farm to manage—was lost.
“He’s always thinking and always evaluating and looking for ways to improve his genetics and his management, too.”
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When people asked about his plans in the aftermath, he simply answered, "I can't go back to working in the hog barns."
So Harrison headed west.
At the same time, more than 2,000 miles away from that coastal farming community, Frank and Belinda VanderSloot and crew at Riverbend Ranch prepared for their first production sale in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Although he grew up hand-milking a cow to help provide for the family, VanderSloot was a businessman who was just getting into the registered cattle business.
Today it is among one of the largest Angus operations in the country.
VanderSloot says he didn't choose the breed.
"That was a decision made by the people. That's where the demand is. People want what Angus brings to the table," he says. "That's a tribute to the people who have been running the Angus breed for the last century."
He simply built on the strengths.
"The foundation was super great mother cows," VanderSloot says. "It was a selection of one at a time—there were no group purchases, ever."
The only way a female entered the herd was if she could pass on paper and in eye appeal.
"In my opinion, you can't have enough of the right kind," he says.
For that attitude and all the actions that support it, Riverbend Ranch received the Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand 2016 Seedstock Commitment to Excellence Award. The VanderSloots accepted the honors at the CAB annual conference, Sept. 22 to 24 in Tucson, Ariz.
Even though Harrison was in the stands at the Bonneville County, Idaho, 4-H barn for that first sale of 120 bulls., he and VanderSloot didn't meet right away.
It was another eight years before the observer hired on with Riverbend, which now markets 650 bulls a year across the U.S. Just 17 full-time employees care for the ranches spread across seven locations from California, Utah and Texas to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
"We empower people to make decisions and do their jobs. There's not a lot of micromanaging going on," Harrison says, praising the "lean" crew that manages all 5,500 head, combined registered and commercial. "The cattle themselves are a part of it, because we're striving for cattle that go out and work and don't require special attention. I can look after more cattle that are doing the right things."
They design cattle for the arid, harsh, high-desert ranches in their region. Cattle with maternal abilities, performance at the feedyard and keeping the consumer in mind.
"The idea that you're going to wreck your cowherd selecting for carcass traits is a fallacy," Harrison says. "In this day and time, with all the selection tools we have available in this breed, and the advanced technology tools like genomics, we feel like there are plenty of cattle in the gene pool that can advance carcass traits and still keep the convenience traits the Angus cow was built on and is known for."
The average Riverbend bull will have a below-average birth weight expected progeny difference (EPD), weaning and yearling weight in the top 15% and in the top 10% for $W. That's while maintaining a top 20% for all carcass values.
"We're highly data driven," Harrison says.
Riverbend's enterprises include a commercial cowherd, stockers and a customer buy-back program, which has led to feeding 65,000 Riverbend-influenced calves over the past five years.
"Each successive group of cattle gets better in terms of yield, in terms of conversion, in terms of grade," Harrison says.
Riverbend purebred operations manager Dale Meek says, "For an operation our size, we use a pretty limited amount of sires in every breeding season." They narrow the list to a handful of bulls and then each cow is mated individually to the one that will "fit the strengths and weaknesses" of that animal.
"We try to build consistency through making a pretty large number of three-quarter siblings through sire groups," he says.
Barry McCoy, Dillon, Mont., has bought Riverbend bulls the past five or six years.
"What we've done is made a more efficient cow, one that's weaning a bigger percentage of her body weight and one that just requires a little less forage maintenance through winter," says the commercial cattleman, noting that he places emphasis on performance and carcass traits, too. "Even though I don't directly retain ownership of the calves, I still have the goal of providing a good product for the next user. Though it may not be direct, we benefit from that because eventually, the cattle work better."
Hearing customer success stories is what makes it worth it for the crew, Harrison says.
"When that animal leaves our ranch, it's representing us, each and every one of us," he says. "If you get stagnant here, it's probably your own fault. There are a lot of other great benefits to the job—the scenery, the family life, everything else—but seeing improvement in the cattle is what really gets me going."
California Angus family 2016 CAB Ambassador honoree
"Five Star Land & Livestock" the barn reads. The curious eyes that travel 30 miles south of Sacramento to the Wilton, Calif., ranch meet the name that started it all.
"Do you think it's too bright?" Abbie Nelson asks of the chosen shade of new red paint that surrounds the white block letters of text. It's just right, but even so it will surely fade under the California sun.
To Nelson these things matter. If not for her, then for those who venture down the bumpy gravel driveway and make a right at the red barn. The consumers.
For this diligence and a continued commitment to open their gates and host, the Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand honored Five Star Land & Livestock with the 2016 CAB Ambassador Award Sept. 24 in Tucson, Arizona. At the conference, Mark and Abbie Nelson accepted the award with their daughter, Andra, and their son, Ryan, with his wife, Hailey.
It's almost too picturesque, to drive around the circle, past the barn and "Welcome" sign to the United States and California flags twirling in the breeze. It can be difficult to imagine actual work taking place before and after visitors leave.
But it's a lone gate beginning to drag, a calf bawling in the distance that demands attention. It's a few loose straws of hay that escaped this morning's feeding and now lay strewn across the manicured lawn that give it away. It's real, the rolling hills and golden grasses, the grape vineyards of zinfandel and petite sirah. The way California should look.
"We're a small operation, typical of small breeders; we have about 100 registered cows," Nelson says, downplaying the 300 acres she convinced husband Mark to keep and where she raised their family. The 1,700 acres they lease down the road is a necessary blessing.
Transparent, the Nelsons don't shy away from the existing constraints of raising cattle in an environment where rule makers know more about Rodeo Drive than they do the American cowboy's traditional Friday and Saturday night pastime. Issues of dust or truck length, water rights or taxes – it seems it would be a relief to move to a more secluded spot, build fences high and lock the gates. Instead, the Nelsons stay in the middle of it all.
"You just have to work with them and stay above it," Nelson says of California's growing list of rules and regulations. "We have a big job to do and that's to gain the trust of the end consumer, to make sure they know we have a safe product."
That's the great responsibility, one that parallels nicely with the CAB brand and leads the Nelsons to match every request with a "yes, absolutely, we'd be happy to host."
"Some of the very first events we ever did were at Five Star Land & Livestock," says CAB Vice President of Production Mark McCully, recounting the now-familiar days of taking distributor groups or media out to ranches to show the real faces of the brand in action.
"We've literally had our chefs in their kitchen cooking dinner," McCully says recalling a 2014 group of bloggers who spent a day on the ranch touring and asking questions. As the sun went down, hospitality continued on the Nelsons' back deck.
Mary McMillen, CAB strategic partnerships, remembers another time when the family welcomed an entire TV crew for scouting and a 13-hour production shoot of the CBS award-winning cooking show, "Recipe Rehab." Television may look glamorous, McMillen says, but it's tedious and very hard work: "To be fully engaged and do on-camera interviews for over 12 hours, Abbie is just the epitome of gracious western hospitality."
"I wasn't nominated for some kind of Emmy," Nelson jokes of her TV debut, "but it was an honor to represent CAB. We enjoy people and the opportunity to directly relate our industry to our consumer," whoever they may be.
State legislators and lobbyists, journalists or Rotary members, eighth graders, politicians and friends leave Five Star Land & Livestock with an understanding of the industry and a family that embodies it.
That shouldering of responsibility, the someone-has-to-do-it-so-we'll-step-up attitude keeps the requests pretty constant. Or maybe it's the fact that Nelson's had TV producers rifle through her closet, only to call the experience "fun" that makes the family an easy target.
Whatever the reason, on top of the typical requirements that come with ranch life – growing the herd, maintaining a business and keeping together a family that includes nine grandchildren and growing – the Nelsons are never too busy to stop and answer a question. Or two.
"We've had Polish and Chinese. There was just a Japanese group in September," she rattles off. Not to mention the couple's time spent off the land with past and present leadership roles in California Cattlemen's Association, California Angus, California Beef Cattle Improvement Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American Angus Association and the Angus Board, to name a few.
"I love cattle. They are in my heart," Nelson says. "I have a passion for taking care of them, for breeding them, the decision making and the genetics."
There's more to life though, of course.
"The legacy of my children and how they've grown. I think it's a good strong legacy," she says of her greatest contribution.
A five star one.
Poky Feeders wins CAB Feedlot Commitment to Excellence Award
One of the largest cattle feeders in the country aims for high-quality results and hits that target every day. Poky Feeders, Scott City, Kan., turns 3,700 head per week, and nearly 37% of 120,000 Poky-fed Angus cattle earned the Certified Angus Beef ® brand at National Beef Packing last year.
Manager Joe Morgan says there's still room for improvement, but the business has come a long way since he started in 1985. That was a few years after cattlemen from near Pocahontas, Iowa, named and founded it – unfortunately coinciding with the worst farm recession in decades.
Morgan and a dedicated staff rose from those precarious times to grow into a huge, but family-oriented business dedicated to "the people side" and premium-quality beef.
Wayne Anderson, Williams, Iowa, who maintained an interest in Poky from the start, joined Morgan in Tucson, Ariz., Sept 22-24, where their business was honored with the 2016 CAB Feedlot Commitment to Excellence Award at the brand's annual conference.
"Most of the cattle were company owned" in the 1980s," Morgan says, contrasting that with the current 5%. That shift was gradual as customers wanted to own more of a growing herd. Now, Poky only owns the high-risk pens, which alleviates some customer worries.
It speaks more to the consistent quality in the Poky system today than a shift in risk, says Grant Morgan, son and assistant manager who came back in 2008 after a few years in allied industry.
From the start, his father says, "We figured that to grow, it was going to be more and more important to do the right things and promote the right things. It was going to make us more successful and our customers more successful."
Ranchers had little incentive to retain ownership or improve cattle when they all sold for the same price, but Morgan hit the road to start building relationships. The confidence to travel was "thanks to a lot of good, reliable people who have devoted their lives to us and the success of Poky," he says.
The yard grew to 30,000, then 40,000 head in the mid-1990s when friends in the area began meeting to kick around ideas that helped create U.S. Premium Beef (USPB) a couple of years later.
Investing heavily in USPB shares with the right and obligation to supply many thousands of cattle, Morgan took that risk to reduce it and reward quality going forward. Obligations met opportunity as the
cattle feeder redoubled efforts to build relationships with producers from Arkansas to Oregon. That led to another wave of expansions to current capacity.
Ideas of grid marketing and strategic alliances were sweeping across the beef industry.
Morgan says he watched CAB's creation as a young Angus producer near Atlantic, Iowa, later seeing its growth across the industry and in the registered herd he maintained at Scott City until recent years. But CAB really stepped up to realize its potential "when it became a line item on the packer grids," he says.
"If you put a target out there with a reward, a farmer or rancher will get there – it's just their nature," Morgan says. "Everybody thought they had the best steer in the West until they fed and found out.
"When one guy got a $30 or $40 premium over a neighbor's cattle, it didn't take long for people to realize they had to improve their genetics – the message was passed on to the ranch pretty fast," he says. "Once they knew marbling was highly heritable and didn't affect the maternal side, they were able to meet their goals."
Poky customers in the last year number more than 300 in 13 states. They include scores of ranchers who, like the Morgans, understand the great advantage of Angus cattle in providing both functional cows and premium beef.
There are second- and even third-generation managers still making handshake deals. Klint and Lori Swanson, of Shipwheel Cattle Co., Chinook, Mont., represent hundreds in recollecting the roots of their link.
"I'm guessing it was around 20 years ago when Joe came to our place," Klint Swanson says. "I remember him sitting down at our kitchen table and visiting. He said that he had heard about my family's [Apex Angus] cattle and was very interested in purchasing our steers." A deal was struck, and "we've been sending them cattle ever since."
Steers from Shipwheel's balanced program regularly grade 90% to 100% Choice or better with 65% CAB, and the Swansons lead customer tours to see Poky and National Beef plants where all learn more about their cattle and industry.
With a nod to those balanced genetics, Morgan says, "We are feeding the fastest growing, best grading cattle we have ever fed." Poky and its network of like-minded partners will gladly feed more of those, but not by building more pens. The main yard is at a practical limit for feed mill size and its seasoned crew.
Departmental foremen, a risk manager and a longtime chief financial officer assure continuity there while Joe and future manager Grant Morgan look to the broadening avenue of partnering.
Grant "keeps pushing" his father to grow the business.
"His coming back sure gave me a new reason to continue at this pace," Joe says. "We're not going to take a step backwards."
2016 CAB Commercial Commitment to Excellence Award
It's hard to pinpoint when the transformation began, but on the Christensen family's western ranch, it's evident that it happened: a commitment to excellence.
The views of the Rocky Mountains look much the same as they did when Grandpa Karl homesteaded near Hot Springs, Mont., a century ago, but third-generation rancher Shawn Christensen and wife Jen now raise their two daughters there.
Ranch talk might center around the same challenges then and now, from lack of moisture to grasshoppers, but a quick glance at stacks of artificial insemination (AI) records and carcass data provides a clear distinction. The diversified crop and livestock farm that once housed milk cows and chickens is not the same as the commercial Angus ranch the family operates today.
Shawn's dad brought in Angus bulls and then switched to the breed completely in the 1970s, a decade later Shawn participated in the 4-H carcass contest and later learned to AI.
There might not be one central event, but there's evidence of the fruits of that commitment.
"They've just been good gaining and good converting cattle," says Ryan Loseke, of Columbus, Neb. He's bought the family's cattle for most of the last 20 years. "It's been neat to see how he has done a good job of maximizing carcass quality but not getting poorer performing cattle."
Loseke specifically remembers the pen that went 100% Choice and Prime. It also made 65% Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand, and gained more than 4 pounds (lb.) per day.
That kind of cattle and the lifelong dedication to produce them earned Shawn and Jen Christensen's Springvale Ranch the 2016 CAB Commercial Commitment to Excellence Award, which they accepted Sept. 24 at the brand's annual conference in Tucson, Ariz.
"He's always thinking and always evaluating and looking for ways to improve his genetics and his management, too," says Ben Eggers, manager of Sydenstricker Genetics, Mexico, Mo. "Kind of a student of the Angus breed, really."
For Christensen, the award is gratifying, a validation of the vocation that he's made his life's work.
"When I was 3 years old, I wanted to be an airplane pilot," he says. "It was pretty obvious I was ready to want to be a rancher when I was probably 4 years old. I think ever since I haven't really changed my mind."
Christensen got an early start, helping his dad do everything from watch gates to rake hay. As a teenager he started making business decisions, as his dad focused on growing an irrigation business.
"He kind of says, 'Okay, you're going to build this program,'" the son recalls.
At first Christensen studied sale books and sent his dad to the sale with a wish list. Then he was making decisions himself, but his dad's influence remained.
"That's how we were raised. Whatever you are doing, you want a product that the consumer wants," Christensen says. "We are raisers of beef, but you still have to raise cattle that can calve out on the range, get bred back during a drought, and go on to the feedlot and have a feedlot want to come back and purchase your cattle."
When he became an AI tech in 1983, it was a two-fold purpose: tightening calving season while individually assigning specific sires to certain cows.
"We've always raised our own replacements…." Christensen starts, as Jen continues, "…he knows the cowherd many generations back. To look at an AI bull, he knows what that cows' milk or marbling has done for many generations. It's not that he just sees the cow's numbers on paper."
Jen says she doesn't catch her husband reading the latest best seller. Instead, free time is devoted to researching genetics.
"He spends a lot of time perfecting that," Jen says. She then hand-enters all records so he can study the Excel spreadsheets.
"If you don't know who the good one is or the poor one is, how do you make changes?" Christensen asks. "It seems like you can make it happen in a few years, but it takes time."
Getting connected with the Loseke family gave them the ability to get individual tag-transfer data.
"That's when I was able to really see what sires are doing and what the cowherd's doing and trying to make small adjustments," Christensen says, while trying to ensure he's being "budget-minded and dollar-driven for everybody in the industry."
Loseke tries to buy the straight Angus cattle every year. They gain and grade and, "disposition-wise, there's hardly any better. Because of that, they wean well," the feeder says.
Fifteen years ago the cattle reached 71% Choice, with 25% CAB acceptance. Today very few miss the Choice mark and 65% of them meet the brand's 10 specifications. Carcass weights have improved 73 lb., with a younger calf crop, while mature cow weight has gone unchanged.
"He's a commercial guy that's pretty rare, really, that believes in turning in the data to improve the accuracy on the bulls he buys," Eggers says. "Shawn's one of those guys who believes in doing things right."
Maybe the best way to describe the herd's change through the years is more of a natural progression. The cattle are simply an expression of who Shawn Christensen is at the core.
Science-based ranching in the Superstitions
Politics aside, every sense of "progressive" describes Chuck Backus.
From his 36 years in education and research to the overlapping 39 years in ranching, this former provost of Arizona State University embodies the aspects of applied innovation, growth by accumulating knowledge, experimenting and expanding boundaries.
"With the data available now and all that we can measure, it's a complex problem," the retired nuclear engineering PhD and solar energy specialist says. "It's also a rewarding challenge to weigh all these factors from genetics to cattle health and range conditions."
That's Backus, who contacted the Certified Angus Beef ® (CAB®) brand in 2006 to see about transforming his desert cowherd into one that could produce premium quality beef.
Feeding his first steers in Texas that year, he found a benchmark of 48% Choice with one CAB that made it by 1% of a marbling score.
It was the first year for artificial insemination (AI) and what became a key strategy that bred 358 head this spring. Among the 2015-born, 65 steers fed at Cattleman's Choice Feedyard, Gage, Okla., hit a new high of 95.4% Prime and premium Choice, most of them Prime.
The stunning success gets a smile and nod from Backus, but he looks out across the Superstition Mountains at widely foraging cows and adds, "We still have a long way to go."
The engineer has already amended the blueprint to put equal pressure on efficiency as the academic footnotes resources and the teacher plans new ways to share results with other ranchers.
These are just a few of the reasons CAB recognized Chuck and Judy Backus and their Quarter Circle U Ranch, Apache Junction, Ariz., with the 2016 Progressive Partner Award at the CAB Annual Conference in Tucson, Ariz., Sept. 22-24.
"What Chuck has done and is still accomplishing is truly unique given all constraints," says Paul Dykstra, beef cattle specialist for the brand. "Identifying genetics as such an important part of beef production is a lesson for others in any environment. But he takes it much farther by not allowing 'accepted' limitations to dictate what his cows can produce."
First, Backus spent 30 years on range improvements for the 40,000-acre ranch, starting on the headquarters east of Phoenix in 1979 to the summer ranch near Show Low, Ariz., acquired in 2000. Ramping up beef quality with Angus genetics became top priority in 2007.
Incredibly, the herd of nearly 400 makes a living on the winter range of cactus and mostly sleeping rattlesnakes from November through April.
"It's 22 square miles of rocks, cactus and mountains that we call pastures, but we have animals that do well in these conditions," Backus says. He rides several days each week to monitor that.
Angus bulls brought calving ease, and in 10 years he's never lost a heifer. Today, increasing efficiency is the key to making life easier for his cows, and more money from feeding their calves.
The American Angus Association publishes an expected progeny difference (EPD) for residual average daily gain (RADG), which Backus looks at along with mature height and residual feed intake (RFI) comparisons. Those measure how much an animal eats each day for the same gain, which can be plus or minus 8 lb.
He aims to use bulls with an RFI of -5 or less because their daughters would need 1,000 lb. less feed per year.
"Think what that would mean for my pastures, my calves and my breed-back the next year," he wrote in an Arizona Cattlelog article. "If they are all just 10% more efficient, I can run 10% more cows on the same forage."
Last year's calf crop converted dry matter at a 6.69 to 1 ratio in 200 days on feed, gaining 3.27 lb. per day. Those are already among the best at his yard, says Cattleman's Choice manager Dale Moore, who specializes in feeding for natural and non-hormone-treated targets.
"If you can't depend on technology like implants and feed additives, you darn well better have the genetics," he says. Those are often fed longer than average to achieve growth and quality grade targets.
"It works because Prime premiums outweigh the discounts, but only when you know the cattle can do it," Moore says. He feeds thousands each year that beat 30% Prime, but none from a more unlikely place than that cactus canyon.
"Chuck has taught me not to judge a book by its cover until you have read it at least three times," he adds.
In an essay on feed efficiency, Backus recently recommitted to quality.
"Ranchers that don't produce higher quality (marbling) calves are going to be left to compete with the cull cow market as hamburger," he wrote.
Given the huge Angus gene pool, database and DNA testing all breeding stock as an entrance exam for the past three years, Backus looks forward to continued rapid improvement on all fronts.
For all the precision and planning with land and cattle, Backus cares most about people.
Judy, his wife of 59 years, leads all in traits there. She once ran a real estate business in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, which daughter Beth now operates. Daughter Amy and her husband Mike Doyle have a percentage interest in the herd. Son Tony and wife Blanca are also much involved in ranch operations. All live nearby and were in attendance at the award presentation. Quarter Circle U manager Dean Harris and wife Kris, computer records keeper, might as well be family, too, like Casey Murph, head cowboy at the north ranch.
"Ranching relates the person in all of our complexity to the real world, animal and earth kingdom that we live in," Backus says. "We have come from a million years of gathering tribes to farmers and sustaining communities and civilization."
Though evolution has distanced humans from their food suppliers, Backus aims to close the gap.
"I have a personal drive to leave the world a little better than I found it," he says.
You could call that a progressive attitude.