Bovines and Baitfish
September 28, 2022
Written By Jason Jenkins
When Roger McCallie tells people he’s in the feeder business, some assume the central Arkansas farmer is talking about cattle.
They’d be partially correct.
While he does raise about 750 head of feeder calves annually, that number pales in comparison to the millions of “feeder” fish he produces each year. Located north of Carlisle in Lonoke County, the McCallies’ 72 ponds cover roughly 700 acres and contribute to the region’s unofficial designation as the “baitfish capital of the world.”
“To raise minnows up from eggs to sellable fish takes quality water,” Roger said. “Lonoke County is the place. Our water is awesome.”
Had it not been for the 1980s farm crisis, the McCallies might not have ventured into aquaculture. When Roger was growing up, the family primarily ran a row-crop operation.
“We grew soybeans, rice and milo and kept some cows, but we struggled,” he recalled. “We couldn’t make ends meet. That’s when a friend showed my dad, Billy, how to get started with minnows. We put in 150 acres of ponds. From there, we just kept adding more.”
Roger left the farm after high school to attend Arkansas Tech University, but Lonoke County beckoned him home. He and his wife, Brenda, put down roots nearby, living in what was once his great-grandmother’s home.
“Brenda came from a farming family, so we decided to get into cattle,” Roger said. “We had about 300 cows and were running 700 feeder calves. Those mommas had beautiful babies, but I couldn’t make any money off cows and calves at the time.”
After two years of struggling, Billy and Carolyn McCallie offered to help their son get started in the minnow business. They gave Roger two ponds to manage.
“They were just five-acre ponds, but those two ponds made as much in one year as all the cattle,” Roger said. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. I like being diverse. If the cattle market isn’t good, fish sales can make up for it, and vice versa.”
The McCallies have raised other fish species, but today the operation focuses on two: golden shiners and fathead minnows, also known as “tuffies.” The shiners are sold as live bait, marketed mostly to crappie anglers. The tuffies are forage fish, raised to feed sportfish such as bass and bluegill.
McCallie says the biggest challenge in aquaculture—other than finding adequate labor—is keeping the water in good condition for the fish. Humid, overcast days in the summer can reduce oxygen production in the pond’s warm water, potentially causing die-offs. The farm uses paddlewheels to churn the water and add oxygen.
“If you don’t get up out of bed and get those paddlewheels going, you can be out of the fish business as fast as you got in,” Roger said.
The McCallies rely on oil, diesel fuel and propane from MFA Oil Company to keep those paddlewheels churning. They also use propane to heat water inside their minnow hatchery.
“We use MFA Oil for just about everything on the farm,” said Roger, who serves as a delegate representing the bulk plant in Lonoke, a location once owned by his uncle and known as McCallie Oil Co. “They’re fair to us and help us keep the price down by buying in bulk.”
Fish farming is physically demanding. After decades of standing in water and mud, pulling on seining nets and handing up buckets of fish, the 58-year-old admits that his joints tend to ache at the end of the day.
“I do feel it, but I love it,” Roger said, adding that his son-in-law, Tanner Ball, has joined the operation. “The fish have been good to my family. The Lord has blessed us.”