The Big D Ranch a farm family affair

by Janna Virden

The “D” in the Big D Ranch located in the small Conway County community of Catholic Point stands for the Italian family name of DeSalvo. 

Camillo DeSalvo was the first of a series of Italian immigrants who purchased land owned by the railroad in the area in 1878 for $1 an acre. The rolling hills reminded the first settlers of their homeland and the farms they left behind in Italy to start a better life for themselves and their families in the United States. 

Now 134 years later, the “D” can also denote Determination, Devotion and Desire as Philip DeSalvo and his father, Tony DeSalvo, work to achieve the same goals as their forefathers did when they first put a plow to the land.

The DeSalvos, Philip and Beth, along with their children, Ben and Isabella, and grandfather, Tony, were named the 2012 Farm Family of the Year for Conway County in the Western District of Arkansas for their overall comprehensive cattle management practices on the Big D Ranch. 

“We do it all here,” Philip said. The cattle are born on the ranch and marketed either as commercial cattle, registered cattle or registered bulls when they come of age. We feed around 5,000 people a year with the beef that comes off this place.” 

And it is not an easy job.

Tony grew up working on the farm, starting with milking his first cow at age 3. Today, he has handed over the day-to-day responsibilities to his son but that doesn’t mean he has stopped working.

“We can work between 15 to 18 hours a day,” Tony said “This farm has been bred into us.” 

Philip and Tony oversee every aspect of the needs of the animals on the ranch from the day they are born until they are sold. The men work directly with beef nutrition specialists, track weight and health and cull cattle that don’t meet the standards of the ranch. Accurate record keeping is essential. Beth enters the data that is collected into a computer system.

Even through a second year of extreme drought, the family is determined. “Quitting and giving up is not in my vocabulary,” Philip said.

Besides baling hay, the completion of a silage pit on the ranch has provided an area to store forage for the cattle. The DeSalvos also have added water lines to supplement the needs of the animals during tough times.  

Each generation has learned the basics of farm life from their parents and grandparents.

“This is a business that you learn as you go,” Philip said. “You’ve got the older generation to teach you. You can’t teach this industry in a book.”  

Philip, Beth and Tony are devoted to 8-year-old Benjamin and 6-year-old Isabella. Both children wake up early to do chores and are also learning about farm animals by raising them to show in the Conway County Fair.   

“I don’t want to push them,” Beth said. “I want them to want to do it.” She said there is no better place to raise a family than on a farm.  

Many of the cattle and animals on the ranch have names and have become part of the family. Beth said that when she and Philip got married, an aunt gave them a young cow as a gift, which they named Bell for wedding bells. Bell gave birth every year to a new calf for 12 years, adding to the growing herd and the income of the family. Isabella and Ben have also given names to their livestock, but Beth said they also know that these are farm animals and not pets.  

The Big D Ranch is one of the few family-run ranches in the state that’s sole source of income comes from what is grown and marketed on the ranch — cattle. Philip, Beth and Tony use modern practices and adaptations to make sure they get the best production from the land their family has owned and farmed for five generations. For instance, after their poultry contract wasn’t renewed, they turned their poultry houses into feedlots and weaning areas. They cut costs on the ranch by recycling and using good environmental practices. 

The desire to achieve runs as deep as the history surrounding this plot of earth purchased so long ago when a new life was sought in a new land.