CLOS­ING THE LOOP

When sit­ting down with a pas­sion­ate team roper like Bob Di­neen of Rocky Moun­tain Nat­u­ral Meats, one ques­tion begs to be an­swered: Have you ever roped a buf­falo?

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - By G.R. Schi­a­vano

Colorado header Bob Di­neen has turned his pas­sion for the West­ern way of life into a life­long ca­reer in the bi­son in­dus­try with his com­pany, Rocky Moun­tain Nat­u­ral Meats. In his free time, he and his wife Lau­rie rope to­gether at home and at jack­pots from Mon­tana to Ari­zona, and they’ve raised two chil­dren with a pas­sion for swing­ing a rope.

Orig­i­nally from New Jersey’s farm coun­try, Bob grad­u­ated from West Vir­ginia Univer­sity with a de­gree in an­i­mal sciences be­fore tak­ing a live­stock man­age­ment job on an An­gus ranch in Mon­tana. Colorado called to him next, where he wran­gled a dude string for Som­brero Ranches’ Rex Walker in Estes Park in 1983, un­til he an­swered an ad for a ranch man­ager po­si­tion at a cow-calf op­er­a­tion in nearby Long­mont. What Bob soon came to re­al­ize was that those cow-calf pairs weren’t of the cat­tle kind. They were bi­son.

Not ex­actly the life call­ing he’d an­tic­i­pated, Bob took the job, part­nered up with Lau­rie—then a horse boarder on the prop­erty and now his wife of 33 years— and in­creas­ingly dis­cov­ered that the po­ten­tial in the bi­son mar­ket was nearly as vast as the prairies they once roamed. In a few short years, Bob and Lau­rie, who’d been hired by the Na­tional Bi­son As­so­ci­a­tion in Den­ver, left the cow-calf op­er­a­tion and Bob, in 1986, founded Rocky Moun­tain Nat­u­ral Meats.

“It wasn’t like a light bulb mo­ment when we thought this is go­ing to be our ca­reer. It was just a means to an end. We started selling meat and our idea was to put a qual­ity piece of meat in a box ev­ery day and stand be­hind it, and that was kind of new for the bi­son busi­ness.”

Bob and Lau­rie de­scribe the bi­son and cat­tle mar­kets as non-com­pet­i­tive as bi­son num­bers hardly reg­is­ter in com­par­i­son. Bob ap­prox­i­mates that, com­pared to the 100 mil­lion cat­tle in the United States, there are 400,000 bi­son on the en­tire North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent.

“In the beef in­dus­try,” Bob ex­plains, “they know a lot about ge­net­ics, a lot about ex­pected prog­eny dif­fer­ences, and all that stuff, and we’re kind of mak­ing it up as we go along in the bi­son in­dus­try. So, from a mar­ket­ing stand­point, it’s like the Wild, Wild, West. It’s up to you to sell your prod­uct.”

Bob rises to this chal­lenge from the bot­tom-up, rec­og­niz­ing the need for a sta­ble foun­da­tion—strong re­la­tion­ships with qual­ity bi­son pro­duc­ers—to sup­port the sales growth and value in­creases the in­dus­try has seen on a mostly con­sis­tent ba­sis. He’s gone from a one-man, sales-and-mar­ket­ing, pack­ing, and dis­tri­bu­tion op­er­a­tion to run­ning a 100-em­ployee plant in Hen­der­son, Colo., that han­dled ev­ery­thing ex­cept the slaugh­ter process.

Cer­tain that there was only one weak link left in his busi­ness’s chain, Bob went to work.

“For food safety rea­sons, we got se­ri­ous and opened our own slaugh­ter fa­cil­ity in Brush, Colo., in April 2013. Now we have a closed loop and we like to brag about the fact that the an­i­mals we buy are all har­vested in Brush and pro­cessed in Hen­der­son, and noth­ing goes into Hen­der­son that didn’t get har­vested at Brush. When it comes to raw prod­uct, we don’t buy meat in a box from any­body.”

•••

It’s Bob’s un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to get­ting things done right that also makes him a man to beat in the rop­ing arena. Proper prepa­ra­tion and ground­work have led to a num­ber of suc­cesses for Bob, in­clud­ing win­ning the con­so­la­tion round at the #10 World Se­ries of Team Rop­ing Fi­nale in Las Ve­gas in 2010 and the In­cen­tive at the 2012 Reno Rodeo In­vi­ta­tional Team Rop­ing, with part­ner Matt Schieltz on the heels each time. Most re­cently, Bob, with heeler Lory Mer­ritt, took the num­ber two spot in the #10 at The Daddy in Cheyenne this past July.

“That’s why I love the prac­tice pen,” Bob pro­nounces, re­veal­ing that the im­por­tance of a solid foun­da­tion is no less valu­able in the arena than in the meat in­dus­try. “One of the fun things of this whole deal for me is try­ing to make those horses work right. Those horses have to be there for you. I see these guys at these rop­ings with a horse that doesn’t want to stand in the box and there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Bob, a 5 header, and Lau­rie, a 3 heeler, raise and run their own Cor­ri­entes and prac­tice to­gether on their Fort Lup­ton ranch—an­other ven­ture they com­mit­ted to with blood, sweat, tears, and a large dose of hu­mor, un­til it be­came the haven they en­joy to­day. They raised their two chil­dren—Michaela and Owen—in the rodeo tra­di­tion there and have just re­cently started feel­ing like they can step away from home and the busi­ness to travel and rope.

“It’s a life­style,” Bob says of the role

team rop­ing plays in their lives. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”

•••

The sen­ti­ment calls back to Bob’s be­gin­nings in the bi­son busi­ness, when he was fresh off of cat­tle ranch­ing in Mon­tana and dude-string­ing through the moun­tains bor­der­ing Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park.

“For me, at the time, the big­gest down­side to bi­son was you don’t re­ally get to use a sad­dle horse. There’s a re­la­tion­ship be­tween horses and cat­tle that is a uniquely West­ern way of do­ing things in the world, and it’s re­ally cool. I just love that.”

That love may now be re­quited in the rop­ing arena, but that’s not to say that 20-some­thing-year-old Bob never put his cow­boy­ing skills to the test with a bi­son.

“I roped one once,” he re­calls of a young bull that ended up on the wrong side of the fence. “I roped him around the horns and dal­lied on this lit­tle heel horse, and I was like, ‘Now what? Is he go­ing to do a 180 and come boil­ing down the rope?’”

It was an ex­per­i­ment that ended well for all in­volved, with the bull stay­ing at the end of the rope and Bob able to run him into a squeeze chute where he could re­cover his ny­lon, but Bob knew then he wouldn’t test the lim­its of a bi­son on a rope a sec­ond time.

“I got away with it and I wasn’t go­ing to do that ever again,” Bob says, ac­knowl­edg­ing the luck of that day.

Lau­rie takes the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain why, in ad­di­tion to the ob­vi­ous and ab­so­lute wreck that could re­sult from dal­ly­ing off with an an­gry bi­son at the end of the line, rop­ing bi­son is noth­ing short of a bad idea.

“Bi­son have a re­ally big wind pipe and it’s re­ally close to the sur­face,” Lau­rie says, us­ing her hands to demon­strate the far greater cir­cum­fer­ence of a bi­son’s wind pipe com­pared to that of cat­tle.

It’s a de­sign fea­ture that al­lows the an­i­mal to con­sume enough oxy­gen to run for great dis­tances, but, like any true Achilles heel, also makes them shock­ingly vul­ner­a­ble.

“So if you ever roped them around the neck,” Lau­rie con­tin­ues, “you could kill them. You’d crush that wind pipe.”

It’s no se­cret that an­i­mal wel­fare is a hot-but­ton topic when it comes to agri­cul­ture, but for Bob and Rocky Moun­tain Nat­u­ral Meats, there’s re­ally noth­ing to debate.

“There is a gap that is a mile wide be­tween the con­sumer and agri­cul­ture. Bi­son are still a wild an­i­mal and that’s not some­thing we’re try­ing to change. An­i­mal wel­fare is im­por­tant and we re­ally take it se­ri­ously at Brush. It’s a big part of what we do. Those an­i­mals need to be han­dled right.”

•••

Proper stock­man­ship al­lows Bob to stand res­o­lutely be­hind his brand, as does his stan­dard of trans­parency—a non-ne­go­tiable on be­half of the con­sumer.

Bob val­ues trans­parency with a cap­i­tal T, and, as a re­sult, he’s turned down nu­mer­ous deals in its name. His de­mand for it not only drives his busi­ness, but is also the sole source of his grief when dis­cussing the sport of team rop­ing.

“The roper needs to know what he’s run­ning at,” Bob as­serts. “It’s only fair. We’re putting the money up, so we need to know, what are you hold­ing out?”

As a man who prefers to grab the bi- son by the horns, so to speak, Bob sees the many changes go­ing on in the sport as the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress the is­sue—a les­son no doubt gar­nered from build­ing his own busi­ness in an in­dus­try that hardly ex­isted when he be­gan.

•••

The work isn’t fin­ished, and though Bob and Lau­rie find a few weeks in the year to go to rop­ings and visit with friends, Bob gives no in­di­ca­tion of mak­ing re­tire­ment plans. Rather, he talks about be­ing a part of the ma­jor ren­o­va­tions at the Na­tional West­ern Stock Show Com­plex in Den­ver so that he can en­sure that, in the com­ing years, the needs of the bi­son will be met when they ar­rive each Jan­uary for the sale, and he talks about the strides be­ing made with the Crow tribe and their abil­ity to be vi­able and sus­tain­able pro­duc­ers in the mar­ket one day.

In short, Bob Di­neen keeps his goals— much like a fresh steer com­ing out of the box—in near sight.

“That’s why you go rope,” he says, cir­cling back to his pas­sion for the sport. “It’s fast and you bet­ter be on your A-game, and you bet­ter have your mind on what you’re do­ing.”

“We got se­ri­ous and opened our own slaugh­ter fa­cil­ity in ... 2013. Now we have a closed loop and we like to brag about the fact that the an­i­mals we buy are all har­vested in Brush and pro­cessed in +HQGHUVRQ DQG QRWKLQJ JRHV LQWR +HQGHUVRQ WKDW GLGQ·W JHW KDUYHVWHG DW %UXVK >:@H GRQ·W EX\ PHDW LQ D ER[ IURP DQ\ERG\ μ

BOB, A 5 HEADER, TURNS HIS STEER FOR PART­NER LORY MERRIT, TO SNAG THE NUM­BER-TWO SPOT IN THE #10 AT THE DADDY IN CHEYENNE, WYO., THIS PAST JULY.

ABOVE: BI­SON ARE GEN­ER­ALLY WORKED ONCE A YEAR TO EAR TAG AND VAC­CI­NATE. RIGHT: ONE-POUND PACK­AGES OF GREAT RANGE AND PRAIRIE LEGACY GROUND BI­SON ARE JUST TWO OF THE PROD­UCTS OF­FERED BY ROCKY MOUN­TAIN NAT­U­RAL MEATS.

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