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Tennessee ranching heritage is rooted in America’s fight for liberty

Progressive Cattleman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 24 August 2016
Walker Ranch cattle

Family tradition states John Walker (of Scottish-Irish descent) and his five brothers served in the American Revolution Continental Army. John Walker served as a private in Captain John Morrow’s company of Pennsylvania Riflemen, 2nd Battalion, signing up in May of 1776.

He engaged in the Battles of Long Island, Trenton, Brandywine and Germantown, and was discharged at Valley Forge on Jan. 1, 1778. After the colonies attained independence, he settled in the Susquehanna Valley, Pennsylvania.

As a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Walker’s service qualified him for a military land grant. These grants were awarded as payment to war veterans or as incentives for longer service terms.

To claim the land, servicemen submitted documents such as affidavits of commanding officers or discharge papers to substantiate their service records. The governor’s office reviewed and approved or rejected applications, which could be a lengthy process. The amount of land granted depended upon length of service and rank.

Walker received a military land grant in about 1780 for 200-plus acres in what would previously have been considered North Carolina. Tennessee wouldn’t become a state until 1796.

The farm was anything but a farm when he arrived. It grew trees that would have to be cleared in order to grow a crop big enough to support his family.

Walker would have been clearing his land and establishing his farm about 10 years before Quakers from North Carolina came to the area in the 1790s. The Quakers established a settlement near Walker’s farm that came to be known as Friendsville (Tennessee).

They wielded considerable influence in the area, promoting the abolitionist movement and later facilitating the Underground Railroad during the Civil War to provide a stopover for fugitive slaves and soldiers en route to join the Union Army.

Also during the time Walker was building fences and improving his land, Sam Houston’s widowed mother, Elizabeth, would move her eight children to a neighboring farm site.

(Sam didn’t stay long, however. Within two years, he ran away from home and lived with a Cherokee tribe. He led a storied and colorful history before eventually becoming governor of Tennessee, U.S. senator from Texas, and finally governor of Texas.)

Rob Walker

Fast-forward to Walker’s descendant, Rob Walker, who today ranches on the same land that has stayed in his family for eight generations. Rob says, “I guess that’s one reason why I’ve always wanted to farm a little bit – because I enjoy history and my personal family history; I’ve always wanted to keep the farm operating.

I hate to see it sold off. Of course, some of it has sold off over the years when settling estates and things like that. I’d like to try and hang on to what’s left.”

Rob’s father farmed part time on the original family farm, and Rob also farmed part time until about 10 years ago when he says, “I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, so I came back to ranching full time. Of course I’ve always lived here, and it’s always been a cattle operation.” Cattle and calves are still the largest ag market in Blount County, and the average farm these days is less than 200 acres.

Rob runs 200 head of commercial Angus cows on pastures of fescue (Kentucky 31), orchardgrass and white clover. He’d like to eliminate the Kentucky 31 and establish an endophyte-free fescue but says, “You have to keep a field out of production for six to nine months, and that’s hard to do.”

On leased farms, Rob grows hay. He puts up 800 to 1,000 4-foot-by-6-foot round bales per year, sometimes buying hay if he’s short. He usually starts feeding hay in mid-December or early January (if he’s lucky) and feeds through April 1.

Rob says, “I have a millet field that I’ll bale. I like to mow it right before dove season and then have a dove hunt there. I wait for it to get a seedhead. It doesn’t make the best hay with the seedhead, but the doves won’t be there if it doesn’t have a seedhead. I’ll go back in this fall and seed it to ryegrass.”

In the pastures, Rob fights buttercup, horse nettle, bull nettle and cornflower, as do most producers in eastern Tennessee. He clips pastures in late spring to keep fescue seedheads down, as the highest ergovaline concentrations are in the seeds and clipping keeps the seedheads from irritating the cows’ eyes as they graze.

Rob says, “Last year was terrible – I had so much pinkeye and flies. This year, I got together with my local veterinarian and got a different pinkeye vaccination. So far I haven’t had any pinkeye, so I’ve been fortunate – but it’s still early in the season.”

The grazing cows also receive mineral supplements with protein blocks, and the calves have access to a creep feeder.

Regarding the creep feeder, Rob says, “It puts some pounds on them. I think it’s paid off, especially the last few years when the price has been so high. Now, when the price starts dropping, it gets questionable – is it worth it or not? It does make them grade a little better, I think, and they slick off a little better.”

With an October calving season, Rob weans calves in mid-July for the 45 head or so that he’ll keep for backgrounding. He’ll wean the rest of the calves, weighing an average of 700 to 750 pounds, the first week in August.

Those calves will be marketed a month later at a livestock sale in Sweetwater, where they are usually sold to order buyers and shipped to Texas or Kansas feedlots. He’ll also keep 20 to 30 replacement heifers each year. Unless there are fertility or udder problems, Rob can generally keep a cow productive for six to seven years.

Rob and his wife, Michel, have two daughters, who both say they’ll keep the farm in the family for another generation. Rob, however, is concerned. He says, “East Tennessee is a good grass-farming area and good for cattle, but what it grows best now is houses."

"Land prices have gotten so expensive you can’t afford to expand and make payments on it. Even renting property anymore is kind of hard to do.”

Rob’s ancestor, John Walker, and many of his family members are buried in the Big Springs Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Friendsville. His headstone reads: John Walker – PA Line – Revolutionary War – 1747-1837.

The Walker family has been on the land now for 226 years. With good land and cattle management, their roots on the land run deep. But their real ranching heritage is a legacy of sacrifice, liberty and family.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Walker Ranch cattle graze Tennessee land that has been family-owned since the Revolution.

PHOTO 2: Rob Walker surveys his herd. Photos by Lynn Jaynes.

Lynn Jaynes
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