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Life of service lands Ralph Winchester county award

FRANKLIN LIVING— “I just want to have a good, happy ol’ country life and good health.”

Ralph Winchester has that and more at his cattle farm in Red Bay. The Franklin County native also now has an award to signify the kind of life he has lived: Franklin County Cattleman of the Year, presented to him in January at the association’s annual meeting. Receiving such an honor, Winchester said, caught him completely off guard.

“It blindsided me, but I was really tickled to get it,” said Winchester, who has been in the local Cattleman’s Association for going on three decades and serves as a member of the board. “It was an honor. It really was … I like to fell through the seat. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Perhaps Winchester should not, however, have been so surprised by the award. Association President Caleb Beason said the 72-year-old cattle farmer was more than deserving, describing him as “hardworking and very personable.” Beason said directors vote on a recipient who is committed to service, leads by example, is active in the industry and is known for positive community interaction – Winchester to a T.

“He just does a phenomenal job,” said Beason, who praised Winchester for his connections in the community and his long, devoted service. “He sets the example for a lot of others who are coming on.”

Winchester was born and raised just north of Red Bay in Pleasant Site, and his rural upbringing played a hand in the “happy ol’ country life” he lives today. “There was eight of us children – a big family,” said Winchester. “You’ve never seen so much love. We were a really close family.” His father was a farmer who was worked at Reynolds Aluminum Company in Florence and a factory in Belmont, and his mother was a housewife. “We all did our own chores and whatever we had to do to keep everything going … We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot love.”

Winchester went to vocational-technical school after high school – which is why he can now perform all his own mechanical work and welding – but although he’s worked an array of jobs, from cutting hair on the Columbus Air Force base to serving as a substitute teacher and bus driver at Red Bay, the cattle farming industry has followed him all his life.

When he married wife Cheryl 50 years ago, her father had cows and helped him get started with his own herd. “I had 100 momma cows the first year,” Winchester said. “I kept those for several years, then I sold down to 40-50.” After a few years in business with his brother, Winchester said he tried to get out of the industry – until his pastor at Red Bay First Baptist Church  wanted Winchester to partner with him in his cattle farm. That partnership lasted six or seven years; since then Winchester said he has tried to retire from cattle farming, but he just can’t leave it behind. “I’ll go to a sale, see a pretty one I like and raise my hand,” Winchester said. “I want a be a cowboy, but I’m too old.”

Nowadays the old cowboy has two horses and about 50 cows. “That’s enough for one man.” He raises his beef cattle for sale, primarily at the Northwest Alabama Livestock Auction in Russellville, farming Black Angus cross and Charolaise breeds. His best cattle farming advice? “Buy the best bull you can afford. That’s the key to having good calves.”

He has three small farms – two in Red Bay at 30 acres and 25 acres plus 75 acres out toward Pleasant Site – and he said he loves every part of the job, from feeding to birthing. “I just love the rewards you get,” said Winchester, adding one of his favorite things is to pull up in the middle of the field on his horse or side-by-side and see the cows come to him for treats.

Cattle farming is time-consuming business, but Winchester gets help from a part-time farmhand and a 5-year-old next-door neighbor who is like a grandson – he calls the Winchesters Poppa and Mimi. On top of being a cattle farmer and a surrogate grandfather, however, Winchester has found plenty of other activities to keep him busy as well: he’s a deacon at Red Bay FBC, a longtime Masonic Lodge member, Red Bay Lions Club member and a Shriner. He also served on the county commission from 1992-1995 and on the school board from 2007-2012 – “anything with people involved where I can maybe help a little bit.” He also hosts a jam session in his guest cottage every Thursday, when three to five buddies come over to pick tunes on their guitars, swap tales and enjoy fellowship until 11 p.m. or so, when they break to enjoy Cheryl’s homemade treats. “It’s just one of those things money can’t buy. It takes your mind off of everything.” He and Cheryl are also part of a couple’s group that goes camping together once a month.

Of course, out of all his involvement, being in the Cattleman’s Association is one of his top joys. Winchester said he particularly enjoys the fellowship among the directors. “This is probably the best board of guys you’ll ever work with,” he said. “Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and what the cause is … I really enjoy being around all those guys and their families.”

A key focus for the Cattleman’s Association is reaching the youth, and that’s been a priority for Winchester personally as well. Although he and his wife lost both of their sons to miscarriages, they have embraced opportunities over the years to raise three boys who needed a little extra TLC. Winchester said these boys, who they treated like sons, had good parents, but their parents worked two or three jobs and need an extra hand. The Winchesters took them to church and taught them important life lessons like discipline – and of course, cattle farming. “We just tried to be there for them when they needed us,” Winchester said. “We’re just more than more than blessed, we really are.”

As long as he’s able, as long as the Lord continues to bless him and Cheryl – a breast cancer survivor – with good health, Winchester said he hopes to continue to be active and involved in his community. “The Lord has blessed me so tremendously,” he said. “I just love helping people.

“A lot of people right here in Franklin County need a lot of help,” he added. “I don’t do it for recognition; I do it because of love for people.”