Beef Producers Rise Above the Challenges to Preserve and Prosper the Ranching Way of Life
Florida born-and-bred beef has made its way into the grocery under the brand name Florida Cattle Ranchers, LLC. In response to consumers’ interest in locally-grown food, 13 ranchers have banded together to develop this Florida beef brand. “Millennials, they care about these things. They’re driving this,” says Jolie Davis, Florida Cattle Ranchers’ chief executive officer.
Carey Lightsey, a founding member of Florida Cattle Ranchers and co-owner of the Lake Wales-based Lightsey Cattle Co., says people in their mid-20s started asking to buy meat about three years ago. When ranchers did research, they found it was “a lot healthier” for the cattle to travel short distances to feed lots within the state.
“This is just something that we’ve always dreamed of doing,” Lightsey explains. “You spend a lifetime trying to get the right genetics, raise the right kind of cattle, now you get to go ahead and finish them out in Florida.”
Local Beef Update
The Florida Cattle Ranchers brand hit Publix stores in March in the central and southwest region, which extends from west of Orlando to Hernando County and south to Marco Island, says spokesman Brian West. Under an exclusive agreement, the brand is being piloted in locations where there is a full-service meat counter.
“It’s a great opportunity to help an organization that is trying to do the right thing,” West says. “We’re all hopeful it’s something we can offer as far stretching as we can, at least in Florida.”
Dr. Robert Gukich, another founding Florida Cattle Ranchers member, says it was a “very exciting process to see our meat finally get on the counter in Polk County.” Raising the cattle in Florida has a number of benefits, including reducing animal stress and boosting performance, says Dr. Gukich, whose Lake Wales Large Animal Services veterinary practice deals mainly with beef cattle. It also reduces the carbon footprint by reducing fuel used to transport cattle out of state while increasing profit and helping the environment, he shares.
About 700,000 to 750,000 calves born to Florida’s one million mamma cows are shipped to feed lots in the midwest and Texas every year, says Ned Waters, president of the Kissimmee-based Florida Cattlemen’s Association. “They need a lot of corn, more corn than Florida grows,” explains Waters, whose family ranch, Waters Cattle, is located between Bartow and Lakeland.
Nine of the nation’s 25 largest cow-calf operations are in Florida, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association publication, Directions.
Cattle Feed Update
A high-moisture corn is one the reasons the Florida Cattle Ranchers has been able to develop the locally-grown beef fed in North Florida and “harvested” in Georgia, Davis says. The Florida-born and raised cattle crosses the nearby Georgia border for 21 days or less to be harvested.
Additionally, FCR also is developing a core mineral supplement for Florida herds, Davis reports.
The impetus to switch to Florida-grown corn came with the use of ethanol as fuel— and the resulting higher prices. “That’s what made it possible to profitably feed cattle in Florida,” says Chris Denmark, development representative for Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Marketing and Development.
Industry’s Economic Impact and Challenges
A big benefit is to Florida’s economy. “It does bring the whole experience closer to home,” he adds. Keeping the cattle in state generates sales here in seed, fertilizer, plant protection products, equipment, tractors, banking, fencing, fuel, restaurants, veterinary care and more, adds Aaron Keller, press decretary for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. “The fact that there are feedlots in Florida that are keeping cattle in the state is a major change,” he continues. “While it is limited, the number of cattle being fed in Florida is over 8,000 per year. That is all new business at this point.”
The sale of beef cattle and breeding stock have an economic impact of more than $900 million a year, according to freshfromflorida.com.
Polk County had 94,000 cows and calves in 2016, ranking fourth in the state, according to the Florida Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Summary published last June. Numbers were down from 102,000 in 2007.
Dry weather has been a challenge for ranchers this spring. “We’re kind of in a drought. We’ve had a really good winter as far as forages go,” says Bridget Stice, a livestock extension agent with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (UF/IFAS) in Bartow. “The dollars we thought they had saved over the winter, however, they’re spending now.”
Though supplementing feed is costly and affects profits, ranchers are “kind of used to it,” she observes.
The industry was on alert after the New World Screwworm appeared in the Florida Keys among its population of small deer in September, 2016. The fly larvae or maggots had been eradicated throughout the entire southeastern United States in the 1950s by releasing infertile male flies into infested areas, according to FDACS.
Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, the maggots were under control by January.
Preserving and Prospering the Industry
Plans are underway for the 66th Annual Florida Beef Cattle Short Course, which will include beef cattle production, cattle management, research, and production issues. It will be held May 3 through 5 at the Alto and Patricia Straughn UF/IFAS Extension Professional Development Center in Gainesville. Registration is available online at eventbrite.com/e/66th-florida-beef-cattle-short-course-tickets-29085279855.
Cattle have been raised in Florida since 1521, when they were brought over by the Spaniards. The biggest threat to the industry is “urban encroachment,” according to Dusty Holley, director of Field Services for Florida Cattlemen’s Association. Like they have always done, cattlemen are stewards of the land, says Holley, whose family owns Sullivan Ranch in Polk County. While some land is sold for development, some property is protected through conservation easements that dedicate the land for agricultural use. In the end, it saves the government money on developing city services like firehouses, sewer systems and roads.
Ranchers keep “thousands and thousands” of acres from being developed, Davis adds. “If they didn’t work to preserve this, we would be a concrete state,” she says.
As citrus growers struggle with citrus greening disease, some are plowing up trees and replacing them with cow pastures and hay fields to keep their greenbelt tax exemptions. “Right now, hay is a big commodity,” says Ray Clark, president of Polk County Cattlemen’s Association, the largest county association in the state with some 400 members. “Kind of like a golden egg.”