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A crossroads for scientists and cowboys in subtropical Florida

Contributed by Archbold Biological Station Published on 02 July 2020

It is no surprise to long-time Florida residents that it is a cattle ranching state, however, for tourists deciding to leave the coastline, it can be surprising to see so many ranches and cows.

Among the many ranches is Buck Island Ranch, located near Lake Placid, Florida, and operated by Archbold Biological Station, a not-for-profit research, conservation and education center.

Buck Island Ranch: A natural laboratory

Buck Island Ranch is a full-scale cow-calf operation on 10,500 acres of natural lands and managed pastures. It is home to approximately 2,700 cows and hardworking cowboys and is a real-world platform for agroecology research.

"We are Florida's ranch, a place where ecologists and cowboys come together to gather data and make the case for cattle ranching as part of Florida's environmental future,” says Gene Lollis, the ranch manager.

Collaborations between ranchers and scientists started when Archbold leased the ranch from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1988. In 2018, Archbold was given the opportunity to purchase Buck Island Ranch.

"As scientists, it has been our privilege to study a working ranch, a place where you can look out and not see a house, nor hear a road, but see forever, over a vast open landscape that keeps going, and going and going,” says Dr. Hilary Swain, executive director of Archbold since 1995.

Over the years, scientists at Buck Island Ranch and visiting researchers from universities across the nation have led many large and diverse research activities.

“In the last twenty years, our own lab’s research has been focused largely on wetlands and water management, understanding how grazing and fire affect wetlands and grasslands, and more recently, understanding the ranchland carbon cycle,” says Dr. Elizabeth Boughton, agroecology research program director at the ranch.

Water quality: The Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services

Issues surrounding water management and water quality are particularly important in Florida. For fifteen years, Buck Island Ranch has been working on efficiently monitoring water on ranches as part of the Florida Ranchland Environmental Services Project (FRESP) and its successor program, the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES), both offered by the South Florida Water Management District. These programs pay ranchers for water management on their own ranches – either water retention or nutrient removal. The expectation is to reduce flow and nutrient loading coming off ranches to help improve water quality and quantity downstream. Archbold currently monitors 38,058 acres of ranchland on 17 projects.

These programs represent a win-win scenario. Although there are some risks of losing forage productivity by holding more water, these are offset by an annual payment that contributes to economic sustainability and by having greater soil moisture at the start of the dry season.

“In our project at Buck Island Ranch, holding water back with low-cost water-control structures reduced surface flow by approximately19 percent and extended the number of days wetlands in the pastures held water by at least 30 days, benefitting wetland species,” says Boughton.

Restoration easements: Making wetlands wetter and better

Wetlands cover approximately 15% of our ranch. They provide habitat for a high diversity of plant and animal species, which in turn attracts scientists, naturalists and hunters. You might even see cows wandering around in freshwater wetlands where they find additional forage and a nice cooling station during the summer months.

Protecting and restoring wetlands is the main goal of the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE), programs operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the USDA. These programs offer landowners the opportunity to enroll land in wetland restoration, with financial compensation, while keeping ownership and access to their land.

At Buck Island Ranch, 3,763 of the 10,500 acres are under WRP/WRE easements. In Florida, grazing is allowed on restoration easements, but within specific guidelines. Boughton obtained funding to test if grazing practices are compatible with wetland restoration.

“We did not find any evidence that grazing negatively affected wetland restoration at Buck Island Ranch,” says Dr. Grégory Sonnier, a researcher working with Boughton.

This is an important result because without the ability to graze their land, ranch owners would be less likely to enroll in the program.

A source or a sink of greenhouse gases?

The question, “is Buck Island Ranch a sink or a source of greenhouse gases?” has been asked multiple times to Boughton, as there is a push for all elements of the cattle industry to reduce carbon emissions and become more sustainable. To answer this question, Archbold sought out collaborators from USDA, Cornell University and the University of Illinois. The ranch is now home to five monitoring stations with advanced instruments that measure gas exchanges between pastures and the atmosphere.

“The work has shown that grazed pastures are a net sink for carbon dioxide, meaning they absorb more through photosynthesis than they release through respiration,” says Boughton.

Methane, another greenhouse gas that is 25 times the strength of carbon dioxide is also measured using this apparatus. Data collected at Buck Island Ranch has shown the cattle were responsible for only 19%-30% of the annual methane emissions, while wetlands and wet soils are a major natural source of methane in subtropical pastures. These results are important because cattle emissions are generally considered the dominant component of pasture methane budgets, but this was not true for these subtropical pastures.

Collaboration and partnership is the key

Over the years, Buck Island Ranch has established collaborations with multiple universities and participated in international science networks. In 2016, Archbold, in collaboration with the University of Florida Range Cattle Research and Education Center (RCREC), was selected to join the Long-term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) Network operated by the USDA. Buck Island Ranch is one of 18 sites nationwide that will produce information to improve both agricultural sustainability and the delivery of ecosystem services. This is critical for a society that increasingly demands agriculture be safe, environmentally sound and socially responsible, in addition to being productive and economically viable.

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Recently, the Archbold-Alltech Research Alliance was created between staff at Buck Island Ranch and researchers from the animal nutrition company, Alltech. The partnership is just beginning, but the overall goal is to increase the quality and quantity of beef produced in subtropical regions, while maintaining and enhancing the environment.

“We are trying to understand how individual plants species vary in digestibility and potential methane emissions and if nutritional interventions may affect digestibility,” says Sonnier.

Alltech research scientist, Dr. Shelby Roberts says, “This partnership presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate the complex relationship that exists between the ecosystems and cattle production systems and how both systems rely on the sustainability of the other to survive.”

 “Operating Buck Island Ranch has transformed Archbold's science and conservation; it elevated us,” Hilary Swain said. “Our knowledge and understanding has, in turn, helped us transform hearts and minds about the Florida cattle industry.”

More information about Archbold Biological Station Buck Island Ranch is available at our website. Buck Island Ranch also released two short documentaries on Youtube and Vimeo.  end mark

PHOTO 1: A Brahman bull in morning fog. Photo by Haoyu Li.

PHOTO 2: Ecologists and researchers of the Archbold-Alltech Alliance. From left to right: Mary Margaret Hardee, Dr. Karl Dawson (Alltech), Dr. Jeffrey Bewley (Alltech), Dr. Shelby Roberts (Alltech), Gene Lollis, Dr. Vaughn Holder (Alltech), Betsey Boughton, Hilary Swain, Grégory Sonnier and Raoul Boughton. Photo by Haoyu Li.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Boughton is the agroecology program director at Archbold Biological Station. Email Elizabeth H. Boughton.

Dr. Grégory Sonnier is the assistant research biologist at Archbold Biological Station. Email Grégory Sonnier.

Dr. Hilary Swain is the executive director of Archbold Biological Station. Email Hilary Swain.

Gene Lollis is Buck Island Ranch’s ranch manager. Email Gene Lollis.

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