OKEECHOBEE — “My family has been blessed by God. He’s given us a small piece of his Earth to take care of,” said Wes Williamson of Williamson Cattle Company.
Florida cattle ranches are sometimes blamed for excess phosphorus in the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee. But more often, the opposite is true: Ranches remove more phosphorus from the basin in the form of cattle going to market than they bring into the basin in the form of feed and fertilizer.
Beef cattle on Florida ranches primarily eat grass, said Mr. Williamson. They are given a little supplemental food in the winter — about 25 percent of their nutritional needs are met with supplemental foods after frost has killed the grass. The cattle still eat the grass, but once frost has set in, it has less nutritional value, he explained.
“The cows are still harvesting grass, but it is not as nutritious at that time of year.”
Cattle ranches in Florida occupy thousands of acres. The state average is one cow/calf pair per 6 acres. The “stocking rate,” the number of acres needed per cow, depends on the land. In some areas, they may have one cow/calf per 10 acres. Some highly productive land can support one cow/calf per 3 acres.
Ranches are a mix of land use. Many include wetlands, areas of woodlands and native pasture as well as areas of what is considered “improved pasture.” Improved pasture means grass growing there is not native to Florida. In most cases, it’s Bahia grass, which, although not “native,” is considered “Florida friendly” and grows in South Florida with little or no fertilizer.
On Williamson Cattle Co.’s spread, about two-thirds of the property is covered in Bahia grass. A small area is used for orange groves. The rest is native pasture, wetlands, marshes and hammocks.
Based on Florida Department of Revenue data, statewide, about half of ranchland is improved pasture; about 22 percent wetlands; about 8 percent unimproved pasture; about 14 percent natural uplands; 1 percent open water and other land uses; 4 percent other agriculture (such as orchards) and 1 percent forestry.
Cattlemen were among the first in the agriculture industries to implement Best Management Practices (BMPs), said Mr. Williamson.
“Before we fertilize, we have to test the soil and test the leaf tissue,” he explained. “The tests tell us if the plant needs more phosphorus and if there is deficit of phosphorus in the soil.
“If the soil doesn’t need the phosphorus, “I don’t need to spend the money on it,” he said.
Some ranchers do not fertilize unless tests show it is needed, or don’t use fertilizer at all. Others fertilize just a small percentage of their land each year.
“There is a very low profit margin in the cattle business,” said Mr. Williamson. “Most cattlemen love the lifestyle, love waking up on the ranch, working the cattle, watching them grow.” Mr. Williamson is a third-generation rancher. Some ranching families in the state are fifth, sixth or even seventh-generation ranchers.
The cows primarily just eat the grass that is growing on the ranch. Cattle have four stomachs, and do a good job of recycling what they have taken in, said Mr. Williamson.
The nutrients in the grass fuel the cow’s own body and also helps her grow and then feed her baby calf.
The cow manure drops on the ground in the pasture where it dries out, breaks down and fertilizes the grass, naturally recycling into the ecosystem.
When calves go to market, about 1 percent of the body weight is phosphorus, Mr. Williamson said.
The average calf is 500 to 600 pounds when it goes to market. “That 500 or 600 pounds is leaving the watershed including 5 or 6 pounds of phosphorus per calf,” he said.
Considering the phosphorus brought onto the ranch in the form of supplemental feed and fertilizer and the amount of phosphorus that leaves the ranch with the cattle, the ranch is usually a phosphorus exporter, he said.
Some of the supplemental cattle feed comes from other areas in South Florida, so that nutrient load is not being imported into the state. For example, a feed made from citrus pulp is a byproduct of the juice mills.
Cattle also recycle other vegetative matter that would otherwise be considered a waste product. Supplemental feed includes dried distiller’s grain, a byproduct of the biofuel industry, and hulled cotton seed, a byproduct of the cotton industry.
Cattle take vegetative matter that humans can’t eat and turn it into beef protein we can eat.
“We also put up some of our own hayledge,” said Mr. Williamson. That’s another way to recycle the nutrients already in the watershed. “Extra summer growth of grass is cut and stored for the winter, like hay but not bailed. It is mixed with the other supplemental feed.”
One form of phosphorus the rancher can’t track is atmospheric phosphorus, which comes down with the rain. Some water — and the nutrient load in that water — also sheet-flows across the land from other property.
On a Florida beef cattle ranch, the herd size stays stable most years. For most of the year, the cattle roam thousands of acres of native and improved pastures. Part of the year, bulls run with the herds at a ratio of about one bull to 30 cows. Nature takes its course.
Most of the cows have calves every year. When the calves are 9 to 10 months old, they go to market. Calves are shipped out of state to the feed lots in the Midwest. (It’s easier to ship the calves to the grain than to ship the grain to the calves.) With the calves go some of the nutrient load from the basin. Some older cows also go to market each year; Some of the heifers are saved as replacements.
The herd is brought to the cow pens twice a year: Once for annual shots and dewormer, and in July or August to gather up the cattle that will go to market.
Mr. Williamson said over the years, the number of cattle in Florida and the number of acres of land in ranches has decreased, while a thousand people a day who move into the state “have to live somewhere.”
He said cattlemen want to be good stewards of the land because they want to pass the land, and their lifestyle, down to their children.
At one time the state had a program that paid the landowners to store and treat water on their land. Landowners would offer projects and the South Florida Water Management District would chose the most cost-effective ones. It was considerably less expensive than the state and federal projects that purchase land and take it off the tax rolls, he noted.
In addition to removing some of the nutrient load from the watershed, Florida’s cattle ranches benefit the ecology in other ways. Ranchers spend a lot of time and money fighting invasive weeds that will take over Florida land left vacant.
Cows also help control some of the invasive plants by eating them, he added. The problem of non-native invasive plants is widespread in Florida. If not managed, the invasive plants will quickly take over a landscape. West Indian Marsh Grass is taking over wetlands, he explained. It is not the cattle’s favorite forage, but they will eat it when other grass is less plentiful. “If we didn’t have cattle eating the West Indian Marsh Grass, it would be 4 or 5 feet high,” Mr. Williamson said.
Ranchland helps the environment by providing green spaces that can absorb rainfall. Most of the time, rain that falls on the ranch is absorbed by the grass or recharges the aquifer. Unlike homeowners who want water drained as quickly as possible away from their lawns, ranchers understand that parts of their property should be wet part of the year. In the wet season, they move cows out of the marsh areas. If a pasture has low areas that flood, the cattle themselves will move to high ground.
Beef cattle will not stand in water if they have shade, said Mr. Williamson. “It’s natural for them. It’s instinct.” Ranchers fence cattle away from waterways that drain into the river and lake. Cattle access ponds that are on the property but do not drain off the property.
Ranches also provide wildlife habitat. The Williamson ranch is home to deer, turkeys and other wildlife. “Some times of the year, the wetland attracts hundreds of white pelicans and thousands of migrating sandhill cranes,” he said.
An environment that is good for beef cattle is good for wildlife, Mr. Williamson added.
Mr. Williamson said cattlemen are concerned that the ranches are being blamed for adding to the nutrient load in the runoff, when their cattle operations actually export nutrients from the watershed.
If new regulations make it impossible for ranchers to make a profit, the land has to be sold. That’s bad for the ranchers, who lose their way of life. It’s also bad for the environment because cattle ranching is the least intensive use of the land.
When a ranch is sold, it may be used for more intensive use such as row crops, or it may be turned into subdivisions to house Florida’s growing human population. The farmers and ranchers call that “the last harvest.”
It happened in the Everglades Agricultural Area, he said. Before the $25 per acre agricultural use tax was implemented in the EAA, there were cattle ranches in the EAA. The $25 per acre tax made cattle ranching unprofitable.
“They had to leave or start growing sugar cane or row crops on the property,” he said.
Instead of vilifying cattle ranchers, the state should be working to preserve the ranch lands, he said.
Williamson Cattle Co. has a conservation easement, under a federal program with structures to retain water in a wetland area. Under the terms of a conservation easement, the property owner agrees to a deed restriction in perpetuity. The property owner receives a one-time payment from the government for the deed restriction, which is in place forever.
“When it comes to projects to help the environment, cattlemen want a seat at the table,” he said. “We’re willing to talk about these things. Everybody who lives in this basin is responsible for nutrient load.”