Keith Sutton 2017-11-07 00:24:24
Livestock you didn’t know were being raised on Arkansa as farms Cattle. Hogs. Horses. Goats. Sheep. Donkeys. Drive across Arkansas and you’re likely to see all these farm animals. In fact, these types of livestock are so common and familiar, most of us hardly notice them. In some parts of the state, however, the strange farm animals you see might cause you to do a double-take. Alpacas in Conway? Yes, indeed. Bison in Marshall? They’re there. A herd of water buffalo in Texarkana? Who would have thought it? While most Arkansas ranchers raise the kinds of animals you might hear on Old McDonald’s farm, a few have become enamored with beasts more likely to be seen in South America, Asia or the American prairies. Some are hobbyists indulging an interest in the unusual. But for most, raising exotic farm animals is a full-time business from which they derive all or most of their income. The stories of how those businesses were founded and operate are fascinating. Turkey Creek Water Buffalo Ranch In a state where 2 million cattle graze, water buffalo are an unusual sight. But on 600-acre Turkey Creek Ranch near Texarkana, Tom and Shannon Olson own 250 water buffalo, one of the largest, most significant herds in North America. The Olsons established the first water buffalo dairy in North America and helped the growing water buffalo industry gain a foothold on this continent. “Originally, we raised beef cattle,” Tom said. “But in the 1980s, we wanted to try something different. That’s when we met Tony Leonards, who was raising water buffalo in northwest Arkansas. He was the first person to bring water buffalo to the United States from Trinidad and Guam. We bought our first two bulls from him in 1985 and enjoyed them so much, we later bought four pregnant heifers.” Water buffalo originated in eastern Asia and were domesticated 5,000 years ago for use as meat, milk and draught animals. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, there are now 184 million worldwide, including 174 million in Asia, 5 million in Egypt, 459,000 in Europe and 4.2 million in the Americas, including 6,000 water buffalo in the U.S. The Olson’s buffalo were a novelty at first, but as their herd grew, they sold a few and decided to try milking the cows. Buffalo milk, which is lower in cholesterol and much higher in butterfat and protein than the milk of dairy cows, is the primary ingredient in authentic mozzarella cheese – mozzarella di bufala – which creates high demand for it. “We went to a congress of the International Buffalo Federation to learn more about water buffalo, and everyone told us we didn’t have the right animals to milk in the United States,” Tom said. “We decided to try it anyway. And although selling the milk wasn’t easy at first, we found a market with a mozzarella cheese company in Dallas and sold milk to them for several years. Eventually, our heifers came in demand for the dairy industry, so we quit milking and focused on selling those. Now we butcher some animals and sell the meat to family and friends who want a leaner alternative to beef, but primarily we sell registered heifers for dairy breeding stock.” When you see Tom and Shannon standing beside their buffalo, scratching heads and rubbing sides, you quickly see these animals are more than a business. The Olsons know each buffalo, its routines and mannerisms. Their daily interactions with the animals create a mutual affection one rarely sees with cattle. “Their uniqueness is what really appeals to me,” Shannon said. “They’re very gentle, intelligent and beautiful animals quite different from cattle. They’re long-lived, too, up to 25 years. So it’s easy to grow attached to them.” “We really like how the buffalo respond to you on a personal basis,” Tom added. “You give them a little bit, and they return it fivefold.” Sweet Clover Alpaca Farm Debbie Shannon works as a lab technician at Conway Regional Hospital. But since 2008, she’s had a second occupation, too – raising alpacas on two acres in Faulkner County. “My sister prompted my interest in alpacas,” she said. “She went to the Indiana State Fair around 2002 and saw them displayed there. She told me about them and suggested I think about getting some. At the time, however, even cheap alpacas cost $30,000 each. So while I was interested, I waited and bought my first alpacas in 2008.” Alpacas are native to South America’s Andes Mountains where they were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. They are whimsical-looking animals with long legs and necks, big eyes, luxurious fur and two-toed feet. They often are confused with llamas, to which they are related. But llamas often weigh twice the alpaca’s typical 100-200 pounds. And llamas are primarily used as pack animals. Alpacas are raised for their cashmere-like fleece, which can be made into clothing, blankets and other textile products. “I raise breeding, production and show animals,” said Shannon, who presently has 12 alpacas with names like Zorro, Exquisite Bling and Mayday. “I keep my boys and girls separate until ready to breed them, and breeding is always planned – a specific boy with a specific girl – to produce the best animals. “Many people want to buy alpacas for pets,” she continued. “But I don’t recommend that. Alpacas are very intelligent. They know the person who feeds them every day, but they’re not generally friendly or pettable and require special care. They’re also social creatures. You can’t raise just one. You need at least three for them to thrive.” Shannon’s alpacas are sheared once yearly to collect the fleece, which is recognized for its fineness, softness, light weight, durability, luster and excellent thermal and water-wicking qualities. Each animal typically produces 20-50 ounces of first-quality fiber and 50-100 ounces of second- and third-quality fiber. “The fleece can be processed immediately after shearing, because it doesn’t have lanolin like sheep’s wool,” Shannon said. “I spin it into yarn using a spinning wheel I purchased and learned to use. Then I send the yarn to my aunt in Pennsylvania who is a magnificent knitter. She sends me back hats, mitts, scarves, shawls and other products I sell.” For Shannon, this is all a labor of love. “I love my alpacas,” she said. “They’re incredible animals, and working with them is great fun. I’ll always be glad I have them.” Ratchford’s Buffalo Farm L.C. Ratchford, the youngest of six children, grew up on his family’s farm near Marshall. His great-grandfather drove a herd of cattle from Georgia and settled in Searcy County more than 150 years ago. L.C. lived on the farm established by his parents in the early 1950s where they raised cattle, pigs, strawberries, tomatoes and other commodities. L.C. always knew he wanted to farm full time. But after watching a Public Broadcasting Service television special on the American bison when he was a child, he wanted more than anything to raise some of those massive, shaggy beasts of the Great Plains. “After seeing that TV show, I was hooked,” he said. “I didn’t make plans to have buffalo for several years after that, but it was something I knew I wanted to do.” To boost his income, L.C. learned welding. “I knew as a welder I could make enough money to pursue my dreams of being a full-time farmer,” he said. “So that’s what I did. After my father died and I took over day-to-day operations of the farm, I took my welding money and bought more land to increase the farm’s size. And I used my welding skills to start building the 8-foot-tall steel holding facilities and corrals I knew were needed for buffalo. Then 17 years ago, when everything was ready, I bought a bull, two cows and two calves. And my dream of raising buffalo finally became reality.” Cattle are still part of the Ratchford family business, which L.C. runs with help from his brother, two sisters and their 92-year-old mother, Madge. They have 100 head on their 500- acre ranch. But as L.C. envisioned, buffalo are now the focal point of their operations. “We have 50,” said L.C. “Twenty-five are breeding animals, and the rest will be processed for the meat we sell, including a full variety of USDA-inspected steaks, tenderloin, roasts, stew meat and ground meat, and a popular line of jerky and snack sticks made not only with buffalo, but wild boar, elk and venison, too.” Success didn’t come without hard work. “I had to develop my own markets going from one store to the next making sales,” L.C. said. “That paid off, though, as our products are now available in 375 stores throughout Arkansas and parts of Missouri and Oklahoma. “You could say I’m living the dream,” he continued. “People talk about this country and all of its problems, all the things that are bad. They talk about Arkansas being a depressed economy. But I was able to build a thriving business through hard work and tenacity. I built it, because I had a dream. And that shows that in this country, it’s still possible to live the American dream.”
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