Manufacturing Innovation: How Riverbend Ranch Made the Cut

Vertically integrated from the calf to the dry ice for direct shipping, this beef processor is breaking with convention and winning awards. Meet a 2024 Manufacturing Innovation Award finalist.

Tracking tags store several details about a carcass into the information system, including live weight, dress weight, marbling, back fat scores, ribeye size, and more.
Tracking tags store several details about a carcass into the information system, including live weight, dress weight, marbling, back fat scores, ribeye size, and more.
Riverbend Ranch

It’s not often that a beef processing facility gets its start in e-commerce, let alone an operation whose focus is on household products like cleaning supplies, personal products, vitamins, cosmetics, and the like. But that’s where this story begins.

Frank VanderSloot founded Melaleuca: The Wellness Company in late 1985 as a direct-to-consumer (DTC) operation. It now generates $2 billion in annual sales, manufacturing and distributing more than 400 different household products. “We have over 2 million households around the world that shop monthly at Melaleuca.com. And our customers are extremely loyal,” says Tony Lima, vice president of public relations at Melaleuca, referencing a 97% customer monthly reorder rate.

With competitors like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, a $2 billion company is a very small player in a large CPG market. But it nonetheless explains a lot about how the beef company that VanderSloot created as part of Melaleuca was able to hit the ground running.

“[Customers] are already buying their health and wellness products from Melaleuca each month, and those orders are shipped directly to their doorsteps,” Lima says. “When Frank opened the opportunity for them to enjoy high-quality beef at reasonable prices, thousands of families jumped at the chance.”

Riverbend Ranch completed construction of the Riverbend Meats processing plant in January 2023, and when they began filling orders by the end of May that year, customers had long been lined up to receive their first shipments of Angus beef.

“I’ve launched two other e-commerce platforms in beef, and it’s mind-boggling how successful Melaleuca is with this program. With those other two, we were told by our e-commerce consultants, ‘If you get 10 orders in the first month, then consider it a success.’ In one of them we got 10, the other got nine,” recalls Hyrum Egbert, vice president of corporate strategy for Riverbend Meats. “Here, we had over 20,000 orders in the first month.”

Beef processing on site

Ranching had always been a part of life for VanderSloot, who grew up on the family farm in North Idaho, taking over the responsibilities of chopping wood and milking cows by the time he was 12. He and his wife Belinda established Riverbend Ranch about 10 years after launching Melaleuca.

The health and wellness that is so much a part of Melaleuca carries over into the way the VanderSloots have built Riverbend Ranch. Today, Riverbend Ranch has more than 62,000 head of Angus cattle grazing about 290,000 acres of pastures and high-elevation ranchland in Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.

Riverbend Ranch is committed to its vertical integration. “This allows us to control the entire supply chain from start to finish, including the development of the animal every day of its entire life, plus raising the feed that is fed to the animal, the actual harvesting of the animal, and the processing of the beef,” VanderSloot explains. “This allows us to offer a product that is far superior to any of our competition.”

Adds Egbert, “He’s not just raising great cattle, but he does so without using growth hormones or antibiotics.”

Frank’s philosophy carries over further into Riverbend Meats because the beef plant was intentionally sited adjacent to the cattle feedlots of Riverbend Ranch to create not only a much lower beef processing carbon footprint, but also to create much less stress for the animal being processed.

With Riverbend Meats built adjacent to Riverbend Ranch’s feedlots, cattle are herded directly to the building rather than having to be loaded on a truck and driven hundreds of miles.With Riverbend Meats built adjacent to Riverbend Ranch’s feedlots, cattle are herded directly to the building rather than having to be loaded on a truck and driven hundreds of miles.Riverbend Ranch

“This is a real farm to fork story,” Egbert says, from the nearby feedlots straight through to DTC packaging. “We can literally walk the animals to our harvest floor. I’ve never seen anything like this at this scale.”

Rather than having to be loaded on trucks and driven hundreds of miles for processing, the cows are now simply herded next door. “The animals come from the feed yard over there and then feed into our herring bone system,” says Jay Rawlings, vice president of operations for Riverbend Meats, explaining the drover lane originally envisioned by animal behaviorist Temple Grandin that provides an easier and less stressful way for the cattle to make their way to the building. “In fact, [Grandin] came out and visited us at the end of last summer—just to see the final product and give her blessing. There were some concerns early on and we made some design changes, and she was very happy when she came back to see the final product.”

“In addition, we’re raising these cattle with the highest care. These animals are treated like royalty. At the end of the day, we want to be great stewards of the land and of our animals,” Egbert says. “We harvest the animals humanely, efficiently, and ensure the greatest quality of beef.”

Indeed, all of this translates into the quality of the beef that Riverbend Ranch provides to its customers. Prime is the highest grade of beef. On average across the U.S., 9% of the cattle will grade out at prime. “We’ve had weeks where we’ve been at 60%, and we’re consistently at 30%,” Egbert says. “The cattle here are truly special.”

Well above the national average of 9%, Riverbend’s beef consistently grades out to at least 30% prime.Well above the national average of 9%, Riverbend’s beef consistently grades out to at least 30% prime.Riverbend Ranch

VanderSloot’s focus on genetics has created a best-in-class herd in terms of flavor and grade, Rawlings says. For his focus on quality, the Certified Angus Beef brand presented Riverbend Ranch with the 2016 Seedstock Commitment to Excellence Award.

Challenges with site preparation

It was a foregone conclusion that the facility would be built where it was because of its proximity to Riverbend Ranch’s headquarters. However, the site was certainly not chosen for its ease of construction.

The plant sits atop a 4,000-year-old basaltic lava field known as Hell’s Half Acre, which increased the complexity and cost of the excavation considerably. Big-D Construction, chosen to design and construct the processing facility, had to use demolition techniques to excavate footings and foundations, along with trenchers equipped with diamond blades to place the utilities. In the end, it took more than 44,250 lb of TNT to remove the basalt material.

The lava rock was a new challenge for Big-D. “They were going non-stop, blasting and digging,” says Bryan Willis, project director for Big-D Construction. “We were blasting most weeks twice a week.”

Added cost came not just from the TNT and drilling equipment, but from figuring out what to do with all that blasted lava, Willis notes. “All that excavation comes out, and that rock has to go somewhere,” he says. “So there are sites around here where we buried the rock back into different areas and filled over spots and planes. It gets more expensive than just what you see on the surface.”

The relatively remote location also had no existing utilities around or even near the site. Everything had to be extended to the project—a considerable undertaking both logistically and financially. Electric power lines were brought in from 2.5 miles away, and 9 miles of gas lines were installed to reach the site.

“We didn’t have the infrastructure out here for the amount of gas that was required to power these 600 hp boilers. So we had to extend a high-pressure gas main from downtown Idaho Falls 9 miles away—under the freeway and under four or five different canal crossings—to get it out here,” says Devin Belnap, vice president of real estate development for Riverbend Management. “That decision was needed. It was a tough one, but the community will benefit at large from that; it will allow for the city to grow west.”

Big-D worked closely with Riverbend and local utilities to accomplish these tasks as quickly as possible, performing much of the work, including trenching, laying conduit, laying gas line, backfilling, and compaction.

Culinary water was also a challenge that required a new well to be drilled. With a water table 320 ft below grade, crews blasted through the volcanic rock down 500 ft for the new well.

The lay of the land

As difficult as the land was to work with, Riverbend Ranch made a point of nonetheless optimizing the land that was available to them. “Frank really tried to incorporate the topography of the ground to work into this. The shape of the building is because there’s a basalt plateau right here, a strong foundation,” Rawlings says. Likewise, natural depressions in the land were turned into septic systems, storage ponds, etc.

Following the shape of the building and the basalt plateau it’s built on top of, processing runs in a U-shaped flow—for product quality, food safety, employee traffic patterns, etc., Rawlings notes. “We start in one corner, the beef travels all the way to the other corner of the building, turns, and it comes back out for shipping,” he says. “So there’s no crossing processes, there’s no mixing.

All harvest employees are on the second floor and all fabrication employees on the first floor, using different travel patterns to and from work areas—with different locker rooms and restrooms—to maintain hygienic standards.

Though more technologies are being introduced to automate some tasks, steaks are still weighed and trimmed by hand to ensure quality.Though more technologies are being introduced to automate some tasks, steaks are still weighed and trimmed by hand to ensure quality.Riverbend Ranch

The building is constructed primarily of pre-cast concrete walls and insulated metal panels with a cast-in-place concrete basement. But the beef producer has taken pains to make it not look like a building made of slabs of concrete and metal.

“Most big plants are just concrete boxes, but Frank and I didn’t want the building to look like a juvenile detention center. Employees feel that they are appreciated because of the facility and the way it’s finished on the inside. We spent more money than we needed to as an investment back to them,” Belnap says. “Since they work hard all day, we want them to feel valued and as comfortable as possible.”

At 210,000 sq ft, the processing plant is larger than Riverbend needs at the moment, but the company has growth in mind. “For our first stop, we’re going to drive real hard to get to 300 head a day,” Rawlings says. Riverbend is currently producing 140 to 150 head of cattle a day. “But this is designed to run 600 head a day when we’re fully built out and are able to grow our customer base.”

Riverbend also does its own aging under the same roof (for 21 days), as well as its own storage. Like the rest of the plant, the 780,000-cu-ft box cooler gives the processor plenty of room to expand. The building layout also includes a freezer, multiple hot box chillers, a cold dock with eight dock-height doors, order fulfillment space, a two-story office, and various support spaces. The facility requires seven different temperature zones in all.

Because no dry ice could be bought in eastern Idaho, Riverbend put in its own state-of-the-art dry ice system to enable the supply it needs for direct-to-consumer shipping.Because no dry ice could be bought in eastern Idaho, Riverbend put in its own state-of-the-art dry ice system to enable the supply it needs for direct-to-consumer shipping.Riverbend Ranch

Another challenge presented by being located at the end of the pavement, so to speak, is that there is no dry ice to be had anywhere on the east side of Idaho. “We had to go to Boise or even to Salt Lake City, which is three hours away, to be able to purchase it,” Rawlings says. Instead, Riverbend put in its own state-of-the-art dry ice system so that all order fulfillment can be done in-house.

Game-changing technologies

The extra room in the processing spaces gives Riverbend some flexibility to put in processing systems that work for now while also having the ability to continue to incorporate improved technologies.

Riverbend has the ability and space to plug and play various pieces of equipment on its line to enable a variety of finished product flows.Riverbend has the ability and space to plug and play various pieces of equipment on its line to enable a variety of finished product flows.Riverbend Ranch

In previous roles at other meat processing plants, Egbert and Rawlings both mention being faced always with tight production spaces where they had to be good at creating the jigsaw puzzles of equipment. “We’re not worried about space here. Every other place I’ve been to, it’s a huge worry about space,” Egbert says.

Instead, Riverbend is working on filling that space, bringing in new systems to help optimize production. One of its newest additions when we were visiting was a Marel I-Cut, a smart slicer that easily portions the steak by weight or thickness. “It scans the product going in, and you calibrate it to the density, and it looks at the size. If I want 12 oz steaks, it’ll start cutting 12 oz steaks. And if this doesn’t make a 12 oz steak in your parameter, then it’ll make it an 8 oz,” Rawlings explains. “So it’s helped the efficiency of the process. When it comes out, we’re still hand weighing and hand trimming to make sure we get that final spec, but it’s definitely sped the process up for us.”

The I-Cut has also enabled better efficiency of portions, Rawlings adds. “We’ll be able to take four different product portions out of one tenderloin, where we can focus in on 6 oz, 8 oz, medallions, and then tips.”

Another new piece of equipment that’s been a game changer for Riverbend is the MeatMaster from Foss, a smart inline fat analyzer. “That will definitely be an upgrade for us in calling out lean percentages on trim, so there’s a bit of a labor savings there,” Rawlings says. “But I think the biggest part of that is the foreign object detection—for customer satisfaction and company liability, it just adds on top of what we have right now to take it to the next level.”

The X-ray detection technology of the MeatMaster is able to catch bone fragments that metal detection would not find, and it’s also able to detect smaller objects.

Home-grown information system

Rawlings and Egbert also sing the praises of the information system that ties everything together—built from the ground up by Greg Johnson, Riverbend’s director of IT, who joined the company in late 2020 after more than 13 years in the industry.

“Our in-house system is better than any other software system out there for beef,” Rawlings contends.

Egbert adds, “I can confidently say that most other plants use eight to 10 different programs that are doing the same thing that his one program does for us. So you don’t have any of the misalignment of computer systems or nothing that’s talking this language while another one’s talking SQL, and all of a sudden they can’t talk. Everything’s done through his system that he built. It is the best out there.”

Small packers often use off-the-shelf information systems, Egbert notes, but they’re typically outdated with questionable customer service. Johnson, on the other hand, is right there, making changes as needed. “It’s impressive what he’s been able to do,” he adds.

There have been challenges along the way, but Johnson says he’s been very happy with how it’s all turned out. “If you see the applications where they’re printing box labels or capturing data about the animals, printing out carcass tags, and things like that—it’s all built here in-house,” he says.

At the facility’s grade stand, for example, inspectors from two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies will perform inspections to check the health of the animals (Food Safety Inspection Service) and the grade of the beef (Agricultural Marketing Service). Those determinations are made visually, but Riverbend nonetheless has the station equipped with a camera system for future capabilities as well as information tracking.

“We’re not grading off the camera yet, but we can take the camera data and we mirror it up with these animals over here. It is giving me a back fat score, it’s giving me a ribeye score,” Rawlings says. Though the technology’s price tag is hefty, he adds, it provides the capability to match up data points and get a better understanding about which cattle are performing better than others.

The sustainability focus

A big part of Riverbend’s sustainability story has to do with the cattle in the feed yard right next door. Those cattle had been getting trucked to processing facilities in Utah and Colorado, hundreds of miles away. Now that they can be walked over for processing, Riverbend is saving $2.5 million to $3 million a year in diesel fuel, according to Rawlings.

But there are several other sustainability steps that Riverbend invested in when building the plant. For example, the wastewater produced at the plant during beef processing is delivered to a covered anaerobic lagoon, where methanogenic bacteria convert the organic material to biogas, a mixture of about 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide.

“Once it starts its anaerobic digestion process, that methane can be pumped back into our boiler system and burned,” Rawlings explains. Supplementing natural gas use, the biogas renewable energy source fuels about 10% of the plant’s total steam demand.

The treated effluent from the covered anaerobic lagoon is delivered to a storage pond, where it is reused for agricultural irrigation. “There’s 20 million gallons of storage down there that helps us through the winter months,” Rawlings says. The nutrients in the effluent are reused by crops, which in turn reduces the amount of supplemental fertilizer applied to the land.

“So we’re saving fuel because we don’t have to truck in as much corn, alfalfa, and everything else because we have it here on site,” Egbert notes. “I truly don’t believe there’s a better system out there in this world.”

“We farm almost 500 acres right here with that water, and have the ability to expand that system,” Belnap adds.

Separate floor drains capture high concentrations of blood into a separate system so that it goes out to compost areas instead of the water source. “We take that blood and we take all the paunch contents—they have undigested food that all goes back out to compost as well,” Rawlings says. “It makes some really good stuff. It’s sold to local farmers, and they wait in line for it.”

A workplace to recommend

Riverbend Meats recently took its first employee opinion survey after its first year in operation, Egbert says. “The things that they loved the most were the building and the quality of the product that we have,” he says, adding that about 85% of the employees said they’d recommend working at Riverbend to their friends and family. “You don’t get that in a beef plant ever. They take pride in this place, as they should.”

Riverbend’s first employee survey, taken after a year, reveals that about 85% of workers would recommend working there to their friends and family.Riverbend’s first employee survey, taken after a year, reveals that about 85% of workers would recommend working there to their friends and family.Riverbend Ranch

Riverbend Ranch has tried to build a different type of beef processing plant. “We’re trying to take away any bureaucracy that we’ve had in our past,” Egbert adds. “Obviously, we have to have chains of command, but take away the bureaucracy and implement fast learnings, and be able to build an efficient system—whether that be in ops, IT, sales, HR, food safety, you name it.”

It’s been a tough, challenging project, but being nimble also keeps it interesting. “If you’re looking for a routine, this is not the place because this is up and coming, this is new business. If it doesn’t work this week, we’re changing it next week,” Rawlings says. “That’s the challenge of it. It could be frustrating, but it’s the fun of it as well.”

A final note: The team at Riverbend Meats let me know of a restaurant in Idaho Falls where their steaks are served (Copper Rill), so that’s where I ate dinner the night we toured the facility. That was probably the best ribeye I’ve ever tasted.

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