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Ranch’s practices aim to better bull genetics

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

An Idaho Falls ranch buys back feeder calves from customers who buy its bulls in order to document its genetic information. The ranch has also begun testing and removing bulls with a specific genetic abnormality to preserve the integrity of its genetics.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — An Idaho Falls ranch has sought to enhance the reputation of its bull genetics by buying calves from customers who breed with its sires and voluntarily removing bulls with a specific genetic defect.

Riverbend Ranch, owned by Frank and Belinda VanderSloot, has promoted its Customer Investment Program for the past 18 months, guaranteeing buyers of its Black Angus bulls that the ranch will participate in any feeder cattle auctions of progeny.

The ranch spent $7 million last year buying calves bred with Riverbend genetics. Steve Harrison, Riverbend’s vice president of operations, said buying back calves provides bull performance data, gives bull customers a potential market for their calves and improves profitability of the ranch’s feeding operation with calves that readily gain weight and have premium carcasses.

“We believe in the genetics, and the cattle perform in the feed yard. We want to document that performance and profitability, and because we believe in the cattle, we want to feed the cattle,” Harrison said.

Harrison explained the ranch also diverted about 8 percent of its bulls into feeding chains after testing for a genetic disorder called Developmental Duplication. Only recently was the responsible gene identified for testing purposes.

During its March 8 bull sale, Riverbend sold 20 fewer bulls than the previous year, partly because removing positive bulls reduced its inventory.

The defect can cause cattle to spontaneously abort, be stillborn, possess an extra appendage or have a narrowed spinal column, resulting in paralysis.

Harrison explained Riverbend is among the many ranches with genetics in its herd from an extremely popular artificial insemination sire that has been a significant source of the gene responsible for the abnormality.

The American Angus Association does not require the genetic test but asks those who don’t conduct it to specify if an animal’s pedigree makes it a potential carrier.

“It’s a personal decision among individual breeders whether they chose to test for the carrier status or not, and even more of a personal decision whether to put those cattle for sale or not,” Harrison said.

Ron Shurtz, with Shaw Cattle Co. in Caldwell, Idaho, said his ranch sold 400 bulls during its February sale, up slightly from the prior year. But he acknowledged about 3 percent of his ranch’s Black Angus bulls were diverted as feeders after testing positive for Developmental Duplication.

“We were fortunate. Some of the AI sires we had used were not carriers,” Shurtz said. “This year, we have two bulls we used pretty heavily that have that in their pedigree. We may have a higher rate of that next year.”

University of Idaho Extension livestock specialist Wilson Gray believes ranches that can afford to take the hit come out ahead in terms of their reputations by testing and removing any animals with genetic abnormalities.

“I think overall as we go down the road we’re going to see more scrutiny about those kinds of things, which overall would be positive,” Gray said. “Now that we can find defects and pull that out, I think there would be a tendency to do that.”



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