The raising of beef cattle has been carried out in Arkansas since before the area became an American territory. Though not as prominent as the state’s poultry industry, the beef industry has an estimated $1.4 billion annual economic impact upon Arkansas.
Undomesticated bison were present in Arkansas before the arrival of European explorers and settlers. Both the expedition of Hernando de Soto and the Marquette-Joliet expedition reported the presence of these animals. Frenchmen in the area of Arkansas Post judged the land fit for raising cattle, and a general census of Arkansas Post in 1749 lists sixty cows among the livestock kept there. Early Anglo-American settlers brought cattle with them, as did the Cherokee, who began moving to Arkansas in the 1780s, eventually settling predominately in the Arkansas River Valley in the western part of the territory. Cattle were primarily a component of subsistence farming in this early period, especially in the Ozark Mountains, as transportation problems limited the possibility of raising cattle for a larger market. Though it remains unknown just what breeds these early pioneers brought with them, author Ivan Denton speculates that the English Longhorn or Durhams may have been among them.
The California gold rush resulted in western demand for meat, and thus many Arkansans sought profit by driving their cattle west. All of these cattle drives took as their common starting point Fort Smith (Sebastian County), some following what was called the Cherokee Trail through Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada to California, while others followed the route of the Butterfield Overland Express south through Texas and what would become the states of New Mexico and Arizona before arriving in San Francisco, California.
By 1860, there were 567,799 head of cattle in the state. However, the Civil War virtually destroyed Arkansas’s livestock supply. The longhorn cattle of Texas, meanwhile, multiplied during the war. Most cattle drives from Texas skirted the uplands of Arkansas as they took cattle to markets in Kansas City or St. Louis, Missouri. However, Ohio livestock buyer Upton Bushnell arranged for a herd to be taken across northern Arkansas to Chicago, Illinois, in 1866. As Native Americans in Indian Territory began to object to massive numbers of cattle drives cutting through their land, more and more buyers of Texas cattle arranged to take their herds through Arkansas. Local farmers occasionally expressed their resentment at Texas cattlemen grazing herds on land needed for local cattle by firing upon cattle drivers. As the West gradually opened up to white settlement, more and more cattle were driven in that direction rather than north.
These cattle drives likely account for the introduction of Texas tick fever into the state. Tick fever limited the ability of local cattlemen to market their animals, resulting in an estimated $5 million loss to the beef industry each year (in 1900 dollars). In 1891, the federal government established a quarantine line that included Arkansas and limited when and how cattle could be transported to northern markets. From 1907 to 1943, the state participated in a federal program to eliminate the ticks carrying Texas tick fever, primarily though the practice of dipping cattle in a solution poisonous to the ticks. Though many cattle owners in the state protested these actions, even violently, the program was successful.
Though beef cattle can be found in every county in Arkansas, the industry is largely centered in the northwestern counties of the state. As industry historian C. J. Brown writes, “the beef enterprise lends itself well to being combined with the poultry operations which have developed in those areas of the state.” According to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, approximately 30,000 farms in the state produce beef cattle, and, in contrast to the poultry industry, ninety-seven percent of these farms are family owned and operated. Arkansas is primarily a cow-calf state, which means that producers largely raise calves for sale to buyers who then grow them until they are ready to enter a feedlot for later slaughter.
Among the numerous breeds of cattle raised in Arkansas are Shorthorn, Hereford, Polled Hereford, Angus, Brahman, Simmental, Limousin, and Texas Longhorn. Some producers, such as Armstrong Farms in El Paso (White County), raise beefalo, a cross between beef and buffalo. In addition, a number of breed-specific organizations have formed in Arkansas, such as the Arkansas Hereford Association (organized in 1918 and reorganized in the 1970s), the Arkansas Polled Hereford Association and the Arkansas Angus Association (both formed following World War II), the Arkansas Charolais Association (1963), the Arkansas Simmental Association (1970), the Arkansas Brahman Breeders Association (1976), and the Arkansas Texas Longhorn Breeders Association (1992). The industry advocacy organization in the state is the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, which has published the monthly Arkansas Cattle Business since 1965. In 1983, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 160, establishing the Arkansas Beef Council, a non-profit organization designed to “promote an understanding of the beef industry and maintain a positive marketing climate.”
For additional information:
Arkansas Beef Council. http://www.arkansasbeef.org/default.aspx (accessed January 19, 2010).
“Beef Production in Arkansas.” University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. http://www.aragriculture.org/beef.htm (accessed December 28, 2009).
Brown, C. J. Cattle on a Thousand Hills: A History of the Cattle Industry in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Denton, I. Old Brands and Lost Trails: Arkansas and the Great Cattle Drives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Hope, Holly. “Dip That Tick: Texas Tick Fever Eradication in Arkansas, 1907–1943.” Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2007. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.org/pdf/publications/Tick_Fever_Context.pdf (accessed December 28, 2009).
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture