Polk County Cattle Industry Doing Well Despite Challenges With Growth, Inflation
by PAUL CATALA
Even though the total number of cattle in inventory throughout the United States and Florida was down in 2021, the industry has been holding steady throughout Polk County.
According to a United States Department of Agriculture, cattle and calves in the United States as of January 1 totaled 92 million head, 2 percent below the 93.8 million head on January 1, 2021.
Statewide cattle inventory decreased 4 percent from the previous year to 1.63 million head — cows, calves, and bulls — from January 1, 2021, to January 1, 2022. Florida ranked 10th in beef cows on January 1, 2021, with an inventory of 929,000 — that’s 3 percent of the U.S. total, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
There are approximately 15,000 beef producers across the state tending to Florida’s cattle, resulting in cash receipts from cattle and calf sales of more than $502 million annually over the past five years.
The primary livestock enterprise in Polk County is commercial beef cattle. Last year, the county was fourth in production behind Okeechobee (175,000), Highlands (120,000) and Osceola (97,000) and ahead of Hardee (70,000).
And according to the UF/IFAS Extension Office, for 2021 and so far through 2022, the county’s cattle numbers are a combined 91,000 for all cattle and calves — nearly 95 percent of total livestock numbers in Polk County. Some of the largest cow-calf operations in the United States are in Polk County, and four of the nation’s top 10 cow-calf operations are in Florida.
More than 97 percent of U.S. beef cattle ranches are family-owned, with about two-thirds of them under the same family ownership for two generations or more.
One of those families is Dave Tomkow, who along with his brother, Mike, owns Lakeland’s Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction.
Now 60, Tomkow is a Lakeland native who also runs a cow-calf operation. During his lifetime, he’s personally seen Polk County range and pasture acreage continue to decrease because of increasing urban development and sprawl. He said that’s been the biggest cause of declining Polk County cattle numbers on farms, not lack of interest or need.
“Where there used to be cows, now there are houses. That’s the biggest cause of declining cattle numbers. Cow pastures are now worth more for homes than cows,” he laments.
Overall, Polk County’s cattle numbers remain steady, says Tomkow. He says he’s not sure how the pandemic has affected the market, but it has been better over the past six to eight months due to supply-and-demand issues – there aren’t as many cattle on ranges nationwide.
Tomkow sees the real money-makers currently in the industry are the packing houses that make $400 to $1,000 per head. He says that doesn’t trickle down to producers. Additionally, the costs of fertilizer and supplies have gone up.
“As far as trends, I personally think (the market) is going to get stronger because the supply is down and the demand is high. I think that makes the market strong,” he says, “I don’t see a whole lot of change, but I do think the market will continue to improve.”
Another longtime cattleman, Cliff Coddington, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association (FCA) since June 2021, says the state of the 2021 cattle year and 2022 to-date is in general “well” despite the rapid loss of cattle land to development in Polk County and statewide.
A sixth-generation cattleman from Manatee County, Coddington has been with the FCA for 42 years and manages Longino Ranch, a 10,000-acre, 1,000-head pasture in Sidell. He also has a family ranch of about 250 acres and 60 head in east Myakka in Manatee County.
Although cattle prices are on the rise due to inflation and costs for trucks, equipment, and diesel fuel have gone up, Coddington says in Polk and other cattle counties, cattle numbers are staying up due to ranching innovations and new revenue streams such as Fresh From Florida, which sells directly from farms to consumers.
“The supply might shrink, but we’re looking at better ways to raise numbers. Numbers have dropped, but pounds of beef might not have,” he says. “Prices continue to decrease due to supply being down, but that goes in 10-year cycles. The market is coming up due to decreases in cattle numbers. I believe we’re stable.”
That stability can also be attributed to land-use conversions, says Bridget Stice, UF/IFAS livestock extension agent IV for Polk County and interim for DeSoto County. She says land once being used to grow citrus is now being converted either to housing or pasture land for grazing livestock.
Additionally, the Polk County cattle industry is working with new technology to maintain and build its cattle industry, according to UF/IFAS, including:
- Reproductive technologies in pregnancy diagnosis, calving monitoring, and genetic profiling
- Electronic animal identification software to help manage and track individual animal activity and performance
- Unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor herd activity and pasture conditions.
Stice says Polk County’s cattle industry plays a key role “not just as a food source or even an economic driver, but as a protector of our most important resources in land and water.”
“Polk County cattle ranchers implement management practices that not only make economic sense but encourage native plant and wildlife populations, Aquifer recharge, carbon sequestration, and so much more that protect the precious and shrinking green spaces of Polk County,” she says. “Cattle ranchers allow us to keep these lands in their natural state while also being productive.”