Bull Magic: Genetics, Conditioning, and Customer Service
It is a given in the cattle industry that behind every successful commercial calf producer is an equally successful bull developer. For many of the Northwest’s top cattle operations, that bull developer is Greg Rathbun.
On November 7, up to 300 potential bull buyers crowd around the Rathbun Ranch’s auction enclosure in expectation of viewing – and perhaps bidding on – the 100-plus animals that will be sold under the hammer that day. That is three prospective buyers for every Rathbun bull, and some of the larger ranch owners in attendance will purchase a half dozen or more at the ranch’s 21st annual sale.
“Greg and Jen have developed a very loyal customer base,” says Rod Wesselman, regional manager for the American Angus Association. “Those who try Rathbun bulls stick with them.”
He says the beef industry’s enthusiasm for Rathbun bulls is reflected directly in the cattle registration numbers. “Last year, the Rathbuns were American Angus’ top registration producers in the state of Washington,” he says. “That says a lot about how they run their operation.”
Rathbun attributes his operation’s bull marketing success to his focusing on three key elements: genetics, conditioning, and customer service.
“You have to have all three to really make it work,” he says. “Take away one, and the other two don’t mean much.”
For Rathbun Ranch’s foundation genetics, Rathbun credits his father, Corrin, with the tenacity and discipline required to build an exceptional seed stock herd.
“In the beginning, I remember Dad hauling trailerloads of cows off to the sale because they either had poor bags on them, they were too big or too small, or they had bad feet,” he recalls. “He really had zero tolerance early on.”
Rathbun notes that today’s herd is benefitting from his father’s strict adherence to selection.
“Our culling rates are now very low,” says Rathbun, adding that using proven semen in their AI program also enhances the predictability of the offspring.
Today, the family spends much of its time seeking out genetics that best suit the specific needs of its customers.
“All year we are watching the advertisements, attending the bull sales, going to semen collection centers, attending shows, and checking out calves on different ranches,” says Rathbun. “We’re very firm on what we’re looking for.”
Genetics to Serve the Customer
At the top of Rathbuns’ desired trait list is low birth weight for ease of calving and high weaning weight.
“An important trait to our customers is performance,” says Rathbun. “Most of our clients are commercial calf producers who are still selling pounds at weaning.”
Gail Thorton of Cowichi, Washington, is a commercial beef producer who sells up to 200 newly weaned steer calves every fall. He has been buying Rathbun bulls for over a decade. “I really like Greg’s sire selection,” says Thorton. “He is looking out for the commercial cattlemen, especially guys like me who are running on range.”
For Thorton, the proof is at the scales. “The highest weaning weights I have ever had have been with Rathbun bulls,” he says. Since switching to Rathbun’s bulls, the average weight of his 9-month-old steer calves has climbed from below 700 pounds to above 750 pounds.
While low birth weight and high weaning weight are critical to his customers’ immediate financial success, Rathbun hasn’t ignored genetic selections that impact his foundation stock. “Because we use most of our own genetics, we can’t be throwing away our daughters,” says Rathbun. “We need bulls that consistently produce good daughters.”
The Rathbuns also look at scrotal circumference, carcass traits, disposition, and marketability when they are selecting genetics.
At any given time, the Rathbuns are using the semen from a list of eight specifically selected bulls. Every year, one to two on their list are replaced by new selections. Rick Van de Graaf, a commercial calf producer who buys 15 to 20 bulls a year from the Rathbuns, has complete confidence in their bull-breeding program.
“The Rathbuns are always looking to get the best breeding lines for the animals in your herd,” Van de Graff says. “They have come up with some new ones now that are as good as – if not better than – any ones we have had before.”
Over the years, the Rathbuns have determined that calving in the early fall works best for their bull clients. “Most of our buyers’ herds calf in the spring,” says Rathbun. “Our bulls are in top form at 18 months – right when they are expected to go to work.”
After calving, lactating mother cows are wintered on alfalfa fields that weren’t profitable enough for a final cutting. Rathbun animals can be seen grazing on them through November.
In March, mother cows and calves are turned out on to the Rathbuns’ native desert range. At an age when most commercial calves are being weaned, Rathbun prefers leaving them with their mothers another three months. “We believe the mothers teach their calves how to forage out for feed on the range,” he says. “That is a skill our bulls will need when they are working.”
It is also an excellent opportunity for the young bull calves to develop muscle mass. Rathbun notes that instead of standing still in a pen all day, they are out walking and developing strong feet and legs. “This is a very important step in the development of our bulls,” he stresses.
Pete McElligott, a cow-calf operator from eastern Oregon, has noticed his Rathbun bulls adapt well to his toughest range. “When I put them out, they are ready to work,” he says, adding that they travel well while remaining in good condition.
Bull Boot Camp
Bull development doesn’t end when the bull calves are pulled off the desert in the middle of June. Weaned from their mothers, the young animals are weighed, ultrasounded for confirmation, and then moved into their bull development center – a rock-strewn obstacle course known as The Hill. “It is a long, narrow piece of ground .3 mile long and up to 300 feet wide with a steep hill at one end,” says Rathbun, adding that the elevation change from the bottom of the hill to the top is close to 100 feet. “They water at the bottom of one end and feed at the top of the other.”
He says young bulls will walk the hill seven to 10 times a day when first weaned. “With all those rocks, it is just great for developing their legs and feet,” he says.
For Rathbun, genetics and development are just two thirds of the winning equation. “The third thing you need is customer service because no matter what you do on genetics and development, you are still going to have a problem here and there,” he says. “That is when you have to be there to back your product.”
That means remaining in contact with his customers after delivering the bulls and doing follow-up on their performance. It also means guaranteeing a new bull for its first year in the field. If the bull fails to perform, it is either replaced that year, or the buyer receives a credit for a new bull the next year.
“I really like the quality of Greg’s bulls and, of course, the guarantee that goes with them,” says Devon Michel of Saddle Mountain Ranches, Inc. “We have been buying 10 of his bulls a year for the last 10 years. We have only had to use our warranty once. One out of a hundred bulls is a pretty good average.”
Greg Rathbun | 509/762-5499