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Central Florida: Keeping cattle sustainable in the path of growth

Progressive Cattle Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 24 January 2020
Florida cattle grazing

“The Happiest Place on Earth.”

That’s what Walt Disney coined it, and so do the millions of people that reside and flock to the Sunshine State each year.

Progressive Cattle Florida

It’s hard to believe, due to Florida’s relatively small size when compared to some of our Western states and its high water table and wetland areas, but the statistic tossed around gator country is 1,000 people move to Florida each week.

Yes, you heard that right, 1,000 people per week!

While most of this growth is occurring along the coastal areas, it is also seeping into Florida’s prime cattle country, which sits in the central region, just south of Orlando and north of Lake Okeechobee inside I-95 on the East Coast and I-75 on the West Coast.

And ranchers are feeling the growing pains.

Buck Island Ranch

“Trying to coexist with tourism is a big challenge for producers,” says Todd Clemons, part-owner of Okeechobee Livestock Market. “Disney World and both the East Coast and the West Coast are inundated with people.”

Despite being the third-most populous state – with 22 million people – Florida is ranked 12th in the nation for its amount of beef cows. Central Florida counties such as Okeechobee, Highlands, Osceola and Polk are listed in the top 50 beef counties in the country and most of the state’s roughly 2 million head are located in this central region.

Okeechobee Livestock Market

To further illustrate just how many cattle are in the heart of Florida, Clemons says they sell about 100,000 head through their ring each year. Arcadia Stockyard, which is just 60 miles west of them, sells roughly 100,000 head also.

“Just our two markets sell 200,000 head a year,” Clemons says. “I think there are nine markets in the state, selling close to a half a million head of cattle a year, and our two markets in central Florida sell close to 200,000 head – almost half of the amount of cattle that go through sale barns go through these two down here.”

Environmental issues

With its palms and pines, cypress forests and palmettos, central Florida also encompasses a 2.6 million-acre watershed – the headwaters of the Everglades – that stretches across nearly one million acres of working cattle ranches. This system flows into Lake Okeechobee and beyond, to the Everglades and the coasts, and has seen an increase in phosphorus and other nutrients over the years, making ranchers in this area an easy target to criticism.

Herding cattle

“With their arrival, people bring preconceived perceptions that agriculture is bad for the environment,” says Alex Johns, past president of Florida Cattlemen’s Association (FCA) and manager of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s cattle program in Brighton. “So not only are we losing precious green space, but we have to fight those misinformed public perceptions.”

Johns, who completed his presidency last June, devoted a lot of time to clearing up misconceptions about ranching and water quality. He says, “My experience [as FCA president] has been rewarding. We continued to educate the public on the science and the facts. We know that ranchers filter water and are a big help in removing nutrients from the waterways. We also know cattle in Florida are net exporters of phosphorus. We ship hundreds of thousands of calves out of the state each year that carry phosphorus in their bodies to destinations out West.”

Getting ready to move cattle

Buck Island Ranch owned by the Archbold Biological Station foundation in Lake Placid is no different in their commitment to preserving Florida’s cattle country and natural resources. The only difference is both cowboys and scientists work together.

“We do environmental-type research on a functioning, working cattle ranch,” says Gene Lollis, Buck Island’s ranch manager. “We run roughly 3,000 cows, and we look at what the impacts of our agricultural operations are on our natural surroundings. I don’t know of any other place where the science is tied into a full-scale working cattle ranch.”

Lollis says when he first started at Buck Island Ranch, he was approached by a local cattleman who told him he was going to destroy the cattle industry in the state of Florida. Lollis’s response was: “If we don’t get some of these numbers and find the truth behind some of the questions being asked, you’re dead and you don’t even know it.”

Since its start in 1988, Buck Island Ranch has debunked some of the myths around Florida ranches and is a key leader in a collaborative state and national partnership that provides incentives for ranchers to implement strategies to slow the flow of water from their working lands, reducing damaging flows and nutrients downstream. They have also studied the effects of controlled fires and moderate grazing on the diversity of native wetland plants and endangered species.

Deseret Cattle & Citrus is not far from the Orlando International Airport

“We want to educate the general public on the importance of ranching or the importance of open space,” Lollis says. “The millions of people that live here in the state of Florida think these ranches are desolate wetlands that don’t have anything. We have 171 bird species that exist here because of what we do and 455 plant species because of what we do: ranching.”

Preserving Florida’s heritage

In an effort to preserve green space and Florida’s ranching heritage, the state has funded conservation programs that allow ranchers to sell their development rights. While this gives participating ranchers peace of mind that their operations will continue for generations, the general population also benefits from water filtration and recharge, as well as the protection of many endangered and threatened wildlife species that inhabit the state.

Lightsey Cattle Co. in Lake Wales was the first ranch in the state in 1991 to turn some of their land over to conservation easements. Cary Lightsey, fifth-generation, says, “The environment and conservation are important to our family. We’ve done easements on 88 percent of our land, so it has to stay in ranching. It feels good knowing that is what our family will be doing for a long time.”

Gators, Oseceola turkeys and endangered Sherman fox squirrels are at home at Lightsey cattle Co

Lightsey’s resistance to growth comes from a heritage that dates back to the 1850s, which he and his brother Layne have worked diligently to maintain for their children and grandchildren. They, along with many others in the central area, have been awarded the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award for their dedication to the land, and they take pride in their efforts.

“Our land keeps getting better and better,” Lightsey says of central Florida. “I think in another 50 years, our grass is going to be so strong with some of our improved varieties, but if it is asphalt or concrete, we’ll never be able to show what we can do. There is no sign of growth slowing down.”

Cow-calf country

Some of the biggest operations in the beef industry reside in central Florida, including Lykes Brothers and Deseret Cattle & Citrus. Clint Richardson, general manager of Deseret, says that the high rainfall (upwards of 55 inches per year, mostly in a six-month period) and long growing season make this region favorable for cow-calf production.

Richardson says, “We can grow a high volume of improved forage for most of the year, allowing for higher annual stocker rates. Also, readily available ground and surface water allow for more intensive rotational grazing system to improve forage utilization and cattle performance.”

Besides a few grow yards north of Gainesville where the geography is similar to Alabama and Georgia, the majority of calves in this region are sold to the feedlot states in the Midwest. A truckload heading to the panhandle of Texas takes about 26 to 28 hours. Richardson says the heat and humidity, low-quality forages, and being a long distance from feed commodities and feeding operations, make it a hard environment for stocker and feeder cattle.

Next year, Florida will celebrate 500 years since Juan Ponce de Leon landed in St. Augustine in 1521 and became the first European to discover our 27th state. It wasn’t long after that, that cattle were introduced to the New World and cattle ranching became Florida’s oldest industry. While many parts of Florida have already succumbed to subdivisions and other development, the subtropical heart of Florida remains prime cow country.

“It would be a great loss to Florida to not be able to see a cow grazing in the pasture or a cowboy gathering the cattle, because we have such a long history,” Lollis says. “It’s my hope that ranching in Florida can continue for another 500 years.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Environmental stewardship is important to Florida ranchers as they work hard to maintain their precious green space. Photo courtesy of Deseret Cattle & Citrus. 

PHOTO 2: Progressive Cattle Florida.

PHOTO 3: Buck Island Ranch encompasses more than 10,000 acres of one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions – the subtropical heart of Florida. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

PHOTO 4: Okeechobee Livestock Market sells about 100,000 head of cattle through their ring each year and offers padded seating for their customers. Now that’s hospitality! Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

PHOTO 5:  Employees at Deseret Cattle & Citrus are BQA-certified and practice low-stress handling. Photo courtesy of Deseret Cattle & Citrus. 

PHOTO 6: Employees at Deseret Cattle & Citrus are BQA-certified and practice low-stress handling. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

PHOTO 7: Deseret Cattle & Citrus is in the path of growth, not far from Orlando International Airport, Space Coast and some of Florida’s most famous beaches. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

PHOTO 8: Gators, Osceola turkeys and endangered Sherman fox squirrels are just a few of the many animals that call Lightsey Cattle Co. home. Photos by Cassidy Woolsey.

Cassidy Woolsey
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