Tourists visiting only Florida’s coast or the Orlando area often assume the state is all beaches and theme parks. But if they ventured into more rural areas, especially in the Panhandle or the southern interior Heartland counties, they’d learn that cattle roam much of the state’s acreage.
Four million acres of pastureland and another million acres of grazed woodland is involved in cattle production, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). That 5 million acres is nearly half of Florida’s total agricultural land.
The majority of Florida’s cattle – a million cows, heifers, and bulls – are raised for beef. They produced 830,000 calves in 2014, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). NASS reports 802,000 head of Florida cattle – including 561,000 calves – sold for $868 million in 2014.
According to FDACS, Florida is a “cow-calf state,” meaning most cows produce calves that are shipped to other states to be raised in feedlots and eventually processed into beef. Florida has four of the nation’s 10 largest cow-calf operations, according to FDACS. Most of the states receiving the calves are west of the Mississippi River.
Another part of Florida’s cattle industry – the dairy industry – consists of 180,000 cows, heifers, and bulls, FDACS reports. Annual farm gate sales of fresh milk and other dairy products exceed $400 million.
Growing Cows and Calves
Florida is replete with ranchers whose families have been in the cattle business for multiple generations, giving them valuable passed-on and hands-on experience.
The cattle industry also has newcomers looking for investment opportunities. Such newcomers can learn much from a University of Florida publication, Florida Cow-Calf Management, Getting Started.
“Before purchasing cattle, new cattlemen should first focus on establishing pastures, building adequate facilities, and selecting a breed type,” the publication recommends. The publication adds that “low equipment and land costs afford the greatest profit potential.” Saunders Real Estate sales associate Jim Allen, a veteran cattleman, echoes that advice: “Buy land at a reasonable price that will appreciate in value,” Allen says. Allen says while a well-run cattle operation itself can offer profit, the greatest profit potential is in land appreciation.
Allen adds that ranchers “need to know how to grow grass,” which is the main source of nutrition in a cow-calf operation. He explains that the grass is so important because Florida doesn’t grow much corn for cattle feed. Other states with feedlots do grow corn to feed the calves so they can become beef.
It also helps if ranchers have mechanical skills for fixing equipment and know a bit about animal husbandry – the science of breeding and caring for farm animals. Allen says buying the right cattle for the right locale will help ensure the cattle thrive.
Cattlemen can derive satisfaction from knowing they contribute to Florida’s environmental health. “Florida cattle producers are good ‘stewards of the land’ as owners and caretakers of thousands of acres of pristine native range and pasture land,” FDACS declares on its website. “Lands used for cattle production are also important ‘green space’ for wildlife and native plant habitat, aquifer recharge, and carbon recovery … Biologists conclude that bird and wildlife populations thrive on lands used for cattle production.”
Cattle from Andalusia, Spain, and the Caribbean were the first in Florida and today’s United States, according to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Library and Information Services (DLIS). “Some scholars believe that cattle brought by the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego de Maldonado in 1540 escaped and survived in the wild” in Florida, according to a DLIS publication. “Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565 when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the garrison and surrounding communities.”