A Small Cattle Farmer
Bill Dorough turned 80 years old this past January…and, he says, “I need to think one of these days about slowing down a little bit.” The central Arkansas rancher has certainly kept busy these past eight decades. For the last 36 years, he’s been a top official with the Arkansas State Fair. He tried to retire in 2004, but a year later he was back helping to run the livestock shows, which he had supervised for 18 years. Before that, he had a 70-head dairy farm in Sweet Home, a town of about 1,000 just south of Little Rock; when he took over the livestock director’s job at the Fair, he switched from dairy to beef cattle.
“Johnny Holmes, who used to work for the American Dairy Association and later Associated Milk Producers, was a good friend of mine,” Dorough explained from the Fair’s annual board meeting in August, “and he became the general manager here. I was getting tired of the dairy business, working myself to death, and I guess it was the year that he came here I decided I was getting out of the dairy business. So he visited with me and wanted me to come out here and get the Livestock Department off and running; a month after I came here, I inherited this other job of superintendent of the grounds.”
Those two jobs kept him at a hectic pace. Little Rock’s big multipurpose arena, Verizon Arena, wouldn’t be completed until 1999, and the fairgrounds offered the only sizeable venue in town. “We had events going on constantly,” Dorough recalls. “We had lots of concerts, trade shows; I’d say five days out of every week, something was going on here, and usually they always managed to ruin our weekends with events,” he adds, laughing.
Dorough’s relationship with the Arkansas State Fair goes back almost as far as he does. He started showing livestock when he was nine years old, and won the Grand Champion Jersey Cow competition four years in a row. Back then, what there was of the Fair was across the Arkansas River in North Little Rock.
“It was over in the area where the old Planters Lumber Co. was, near the Missouri-Pacific yards over there,” he recalls, “and that was going to be the permanent home. I believe it was the second year there; they only had one permanent building at the time, but they were going to proceed with more construction.” In 1942, a disastrous fire on the last day of the Fair burned the facilities to the ground. “It was during the war years,” says Dorough, “so there wasn’t any money for refurbishing that place.” The Fair moved to Pine Bluff for a year, was cancelled in 1944 and 1945, and set up shop at its current location the following year.
Dorough attended Arkansas Tech in Russellville and the University of Arkansas as a member of the National Guard, he fought in the Korean conflict. He returned to operate his dairy farm until he got, as he puts it, his “full-time job, and then some,” with the Fair. His beef cattle farm back in Sweet Home was an Angus cow/calf operation until this spring. “I decided I was getting too old to be messing with the cow/calf thing,” he says. “So I sold all my cows, and I was going to raise replacement heifers.” Dorough and a friend—he has many—went to Texas; each bought heifers off the same ranch, and he’ll sell his heifers before they calve in mid-January. “I don’t have to calve a bunch of first-calf heifers,” he says.
He may have changed his mind again He says he had a “brainstorm,” and told his wife, Frances, “You know what? I can eliminate a lot more work if I get out of this business of raising heifers. I don’t have to worry about bulls; I don’t have to worry about heifers trying to break out to get to bulls; I don’t have to worry about bulls breaking in to get to the heifers.”
Now, Dorough intends to get into the backgrounding business. He says, “I can grow out a group of steers; get them in the fall, sell them in June; get another group in the spring, sell them in the fall.” Dorough has several friends with cow/calf operations and won’t have to buy calves at sale barns, which he says he avoids as much as possible. “When I had a cow/calf operation,” he says, “I rarely sold my calves at the stockyards; I sold mine to either individuals, or buyers that would take them, maybe, to wheat pasture in Oklahoma or Kansas.” For several years, another friend with a farm in western Arkansas would buy all his calves, grow them out and sell the bred females as replacement heifers; Dorough only brought cull animals to town. “I’m not bragging,” he says, “but I just felt like I had calves that ought to be bringing a better price than what they brought at the stockyard.”
Good grass is crucial to backgrounding, and Dorough says he’s got plenty of it. “It’s a river bottom farm, and I just rarely am ever short on grass,” he says. “I don’t put up a lot of hay; I don’t feed hay but 2-3 months a year. I have enough forage, winter and summer, without having to feed a lot of hay. And I don’t like putting up hay; I decided that putting up hay is hazardous to your health.”
Dorough says he still does 95% of the work on his farm by himself. “If we’re working cattle, I give them shots,” he says. “We normally do that 2-3 times a year. I have some friends that come out; I have family help me, but I don’t even have any part-time help on the farm. If I’ve got a project that I need help on, I usually hire one of my neighbors for a day or two, but I don’t have much hired labor at all.”
He hasn’t sold the heifers yet, of course, and sounds like he’s still thinking about staying in that enterprise. “They were weighing 700 lbs when I bought them, and they’re going to weigh 1,000 lbs by the first of the year. They’re a crackerjack bunch of heifers, and they’re all peas in a pod; they’re just top-notch Angus heifers. A lot of them are bred to the top Angus bull in the breed, artificially, so I’m hoping they’re going to bring a good price. If they don’t,” Dorough laughs, “that’s going to really sour me on the heifer business.”
Meanwhile, Dorough’s duties at the Fair are keeping him occupied—more than he expected, due to a tragedy. When he retired in 2004, he was replaced by a long-time Arkansas county agent, Gerald Crossland. Last December, Crossland suddenly passed away. “They came to me the first of February,” he says, “and said, ‘Would you come back and help us?’ They knew me well enough to know I wasn’t going to say no.”
Even before that, his duties at the Fair had been expanding. “I swore I was going to leave; when I left in 2004, I was done! Then I got talked into coming back in 2007 and helping out—‘Oh, you won’t have to do much; we just want you to do one particular thing. Just stall cattle, and work with the exhibitors on their stalling.’ Well, I wound up working at other things the whole ten days, and the same thing last year.”
Now Dorough’s back to handling the livestock shows, his first love. “That’s what I always wanted to do,” he says. “I didn’t care for the concerts, the tractor pulls and the wrestling matches; the last eleven years I was here in that position as livestock director, I really enjoyed my work because I love working with these kids. I made a lot of friendships there with their families, and kept up with some of these kids—they’ve gone on to be successful as grown-ups.”
The accolades have been rolling in for Dorough; he was named to the Arkansas Agricultural Hall of Fame last year, and was named a Graduate of Distinction of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Animal Science in early 2009. Both institutions cited his extensive work with young livestock exhibitors, and with the Fair’s Farm & Ranch Club. He says this may be his last year at Fair; then again, it may not be.
“I grew up on a farm,” Dorough explains. “My happiest memories were days spent on the farm. A lot of neighbor kids, they’d get bicycles, and they wanted to go swimming and stuff. My parents always kind of worried about me, because I wanted to work all the time. I wanted to get out there with my hands, and work; I don’t know why, but it just intrigued me, and I’ve always enjoyed doing work. I think that’s one reason why I can still do things at 80 years old—because I’ve been accustomed to hard work all my life, and I enjoy it. There are times when I wanted to sit down and forget it, but I can sit down for three hours and I get restless; I want to get out and do something. I don’t ever intend to become a couch potato. When I do, well, they can haul me off.”