Written by Roy Hill, OFN Contributor
Travis Ballard lives a little north of Charleston, Arkansas, just across Highway 60 from his son, T.K. Ballard. Father and son raise broiler chickens and Red Angus cattle, and share heavy equipment, fences and ideas about farming. They also share the title of Franklin County Farm Family of the Year, Travis winning it in 1968, and T.K. in 2011.
“We have separate but together operations,” said Travis about the two family farms. “Sometimes we co-mingle, especially for fencing or keeping the place up. We’re still separate but we share equipment.”
“We have different farms,” said T.K. “I help him and he helps me, the biggest thing is we share equipment, and that helps keep costs down.”
Travis runs around 190 Red Angus on 210 acres, and oversees four broiler houses that produce 96,400 chickens per flock. T.K.’s spread is 160 acres, with another 300 leased, and six broiler houses that produce 160,400 chickens per flock.
Farming and ranching roots run deep in the Ballard family, beginning with a dairy farm that started almost two decades before America entered World War II. Travis and his wife Linda have been together for 36 years, and count six children and 13 grandchildren between them. Both Travis and Linda lost their first spouses and married in 1975, bringing Travis’ three children and Linda’s two children together into one family. “Love is blind they say,” said Linda. “It’s been 36 years and I’m still blind.”
“My grandpa, James A. King, started with the first Jersey heifers here in 1923,” said Travis. “He died in 1938, and my aunts milked until I took over on Jan. 1, 1966. We milked until the last truckload went out on March 16, 1998. Six months later, T.K started milking again, and he built six chicken houses. All his dairy cattle left in March 2005–registered Jerseys, good ones. I still miss the durn things”
“I can’t remember not working on the farm,” said T.K. “I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told that when I was only three years old, Dad put me on a tractor and let me drive it home. You can put a tractor down in low gear and make it go real, real slow. People who live out here tell me that they’d drive by and see me weaving all over the place on that tractor.”
Both Travis and T.K. told the story of how one particularly mean young bull caused them to decide to raise Red Angus cattle.
“It was an accident, really,” said Travis. “Years ago, we were still milking, and I had a neighbor who had some red cattle. I kept looking them. I had no clue what they were, but they had horns, and were big old broad, good-looking cows.” It took Travis six months to learn that his neighbor had Tarentaise cattle, from the Tarentaise Valley of the French Alps. The Ballard’s researched sire directories, obtained Tarentaise semen, and began breeding some Jersey cattle with it.
But some of the calves turned out to have more attitude than the Ballard’s wanted to deal with.
“We had one bull calf that we couldn’t catch,” said Travis. “We got him in the corral but he just tore the place down and got loose. It was three weeks or a month before we got him. I remember it was a Tuesday when we finally caught him again. We used 16 X 16 portable corral panels and boxed him into a small space, and then backed the trailer up to the corner of it.” Travis recalled how the young bull tried to get at him as he straddled the top of the corral panel, and knocked the breath out of him before finally walking into the trailer.
“He literally tore the corral down,” said T.K. “Most of it fell on dad. Once we got him in the trailer, we just kept him in there. We fed and watered him in the trailer for several days until we sent him to sale.” T.K said that the Tarentaise bulls had meaner dispositions than Brahma bulls.
Mild temperament was one of the qualities that attracted the Ballard’s to Red Angus, and is a trait they aggressively select for.
“We just don’t mess with any that show the slightest bit of meanness,” said T.K. “If I can’t walk up and physically put my hands on a bull, we’re not interested.” T.K.’s wife, Michele Ballard added, “We’ve returned a bull for that reason before.”
Travis echoed his son about selecting cattle for temperament. “Over the years, any animal that showed fight went straight to sale. We just pregnancy tested 50 heifers, and one showed her mean side so she went right to sale.”
Both Travis and T.K. look for Red Angus bulls with low maintenance energy EPD numbers.
“We won’t buy a bull unless it’s at least a zero,” said Travis.
“The days of being able to feed cattle a lot of grain are pretty much over,” said T.K. “Our cattle have got to be able to maintain weight on grass. We have to keep inputs as low as possible, and keep out genetics profitable. It’s extremely critical to have zero or minus EPD for maintenance.”
In addition to Red Angus, both father and son raise broiler chickens, which double the farm workloads. T.K. put in a 35,000 gallon water storage tank for his six broiler houses, and constructed a chicken house command center with air conditioning, satellite TV, a fridge and furniture. The whole family can actually live out with the chickens if they need to, and have a computer that monitors the temperature inside the broiler houses, as well as the water system and the fans.
“I’ve got everything up here except a washer, dryer, and stove,” said Michele.
“At peak demand, we’ve got to put out about 84 or 85 gallons a minute,” said T.K. “We found out early that the city water system couldn’t keep up with us, so we stockpile water in that 35,000 gallon tank so we can meet our peak demand.”
Michele’s son, Weston Martin plans to continue the family tradition of working in agriculture, and is majoring in agricultural business at Arkansas State University.
“I grew up with it, and I like it,” said Weston.
“When Weston was in high school, he’d get up at 4:30 in the morning to do farm chores,” said Michele. “When we still had dairy cattle, he was responsible for all the baby calves. He had a full-time job to take care of before he went to school.”
Both Travis and T.K. see getting younger people involved in agriculture as vital, and think that financial help is the key to helping new farmers get started.
“It costs so much anymore to start a farm,” said Travis. “A million dollars is just a drop in the bucket. We’ve got to get older people who care to help the new farmers get started.”
“It can be very difficult to get into farming,” said T.K. “If you don’t have collateral or equity, you’re not getting the money you need. I wouldn’t be where I am without dad. He had to help me. It’s going to take the older generation helping new ones get started, and it may get to the point where you’re trying to help non-family to get in.”
Despite the long hours and difficulties in getting started, neither Travis nor T.K. can see themselves doing anything else. They both love farming.
“It’s not the most lucrative job in the world,” said Travis. “You’ve got to want to do it.”
“There is not a job anywhere in the world with any amount of pay that could pull me away,” said T.K. “I was born to do this.”