High-Desert Angus Producers Capitalize on Genetic Selection

An Inside Look at Thomas Angus Ranch 

In the heart of the Baker Valley, surrounded by the Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountains, lies Thomas Angus Ranch. It’s just outside of Baker City, in the high-country desert of eastern Oregon. This vast landscape is home to owners Rob and Lori Thomas, their family, and their well-known Angus breeding program. Starting with Rob’s parents’, Bob and Gloria, focusing on genetic selection and hosting their first Thomas Angus Ranch bull sale in 1973, Thomas Angus Ranch has grown into an operation with more than a thousand purebred cows and five sales each year in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and California.  

Rob and Lori, with the help of the entire Thomas Angus Ranch team, work extensively to aim their Angus genetics in the direction of the industry and the needs of their customers. “Here on the west coast, our biggest challenge is drought, and it has steadily been the theme the last couple years. What we are finding is that if you are buying expensive feed or have limited feed, feed efficiency is important. In those situations, it becomes extra critical that you are getting the best utilization of that feed,” explained Rob.  

The challenges of high-desert cattle production and the recent relentless drought have caused Thomas Angus Ranch to closely evaluate their genetic selection traits, which is one of the areas that Vytelle has come in to play in their operation, particularly from a feed efficiency standpoint. “We produce different types of cattle to go into many different environments. For instance, with our high-altitude cattle we try to select donors that thrive in the region. We pulmonary arterial pressure (PAP) test those females and mate them to proven high-altitude bulls. We try to select for traits in different areas. For instance, if we are going into the high desert environments, we have a limited amount of forage out. We have to be able to best utilize those forages, so feed efficiency becomes a huge issue. To help us make those selections, we feed-efficiency test females with a Vytelle SENSE system to evaluate which genetics rise to the top.” 

To rapidly reproduce the genetics that have been proven to work for their customers, Thomas Angus Ranch utilizes the Vytelle ADVANCE™ hormone-free in vitro fertilization (IVF) program to implant 600 to 1,000 embryos a year via fresh or frozen transfer into recipient herds in Oregon, Colorado, and other locations across the country.  

“The easiest part of Vytelle is the no hormones; it saves our crew. By doing it all naturally, we are not having to stimulate these cattle. It’s simply easier on our people, and easier on our donors,” said Rob. “We are often doing big implants, putting in at least 100 embryos a day, but often several hundred. We love the fresh embryo option, but with the inherent risk of undershooting or overshooting numbers of available recipients, we do always make sure to have frozen embryos as well to make up the difference.” 

Determining what works for their customers and identifying the genetics they want to replicate is where Thomas Angus Ranch strives to expand their opportunities. “Setting ourselves apart from other producers is critical. We approach it with the idea that we can produce the very best product that can cover an extremely wide range of areas. By making the kind of cattle that travel, are sustainable, have high conception rates, are feed efficient, and produce a product that will not only make a feeder money, but will fetch a premium in the marketplace. Putting all that selection criteria together into one package requires a lot of different steps,” said Rob. “It’s not just evaluating the numbers, but narrowing down to the type of cattle that will work, and pinpointing those donors who are built to do the job. If we can identify the finest elite daughters and use all the data that we have, then we can multiply those genetics into systems that have critical mass. If we can produce one or two offspring, yes, we can make an impact. If we can produce one or two thousand, then we are truly making a difference in the industry.” 

Vytelle’s integrated technology solutions play an instrumental role in optimizing how the Thomas Angus Ranch team pulls together their genetic selection criteria and puts it to use. In 2022 Thomas Angus Ranch installed a Vytelle SENSE system on site at their Baker City ranch to do their own feed-intake testing. “Part of our draw to Vytelle is the total suite of not only IVF services, but also the information services and the hardware and software that they provide in terms of the feed-efficiency testing. All of these features work hand-in-hand to create a total suite of systems that we love to utilize,” explained Rob.   

When it comes to meeting the needs of his customers and the industry, Rob recognizes the need for being ahead of the game. Rob’s father, Bob, was a big believer in cutting-edge technology, using artificial insemination in its earliest days. In 2022, Rob carries that same belief. “In some cases, we are a little premature as far as what the industry is ready for from a feed-efficiency standpoint, but in order to be there when the industry gets there, you’ve got to have a head start,” Rob explained. “We have not seen huge dividends for feed-efficiency testing our bulls at this point, but we recognize that it takes years and years to develop those kinds of cattle, and I do truly think that feed efficiency is a very important trait. In order to get there, we have to be ready and have the cattle when the industry asks for it. To do that, we’re building them now. We’re not focused on building just feed-efficient cattle, but cattle with all the traits that we need. Vytelle SENSE is a big part of this effort, helping us capture that data and being able to incorporate it with all the other traits to produce the animal that is going to give the market everything that it requires.” 

Thomas Angus Ranch is seeing a movement toward a recognition of sustainability from their customers. “One advantage of our west coast customers is that they are large producers, typically 500-2,000 head, where 100% of their income comes from cattle. So, our customers are very aware of the industry. We haven’t quite yet touched on sustainability with our customers, but there is a big story to be told about how efficient these cattle are, and the sustainability component. The primary sustainability of these feed-efficient cattle might just be that they keep you in business. The secondary component of the story of sustainability is the story we have to tell consumers, but we’re still collecting that story,” Rob Thomas concluded.