By Jeff Helms
With 1,200 people moving to Florida each day, the state’s cattlemen are galloping to get ahead of challenges related to the environment, urban encroachment and evolving public perception. This work was a recurring theme when Alabama farmers visited ranches there April 11-14 on the Alabama Farmers Federation Beef Tour.
“We do a lot of tours for legislators,” said Henry Kempfer, who runs a 25,000-acre ranch with brother George and other family members in Deer Park, Florida. “The most important people for us to bring here aren’t y’all. We love that best because we get to talk cows, but we bring people from the city to educate them on what we’re doing so they’ll understand and see the value in farming.”
Like all ranches Federation members visited, Kempfer Cattle Co. grazes Brahman-influenced cattle year-round and invests substantial time and money managing water and ecosystems.
Although practices differ from Alabama farms, Federation President Jimmy Parnell said visiting other beef cattle operations is valuable.
“It’s a really good experience,” said Parnell, a cattle farmer from Chilton County. “We were able to see a lot of good ranches, a lot of good cattle and a lot of great people. We do things different, but we’ve got so much in common.”
The tour included Adams Ranch in Fort Pierce, which developed the Braford and A-Beef breeds, and Deseret in St. Cloud, which has the largest beef herd in the U.S. with over 40,000 cows.
Autauga County farmer Win Parmer said the impact of Florida’s exploding population was eye-opening.
“I was down here about 30 years ago, and there were lots of cattle and lots of pasture,” Parmer said. “There are still big ranches and open land, but many places are full of houses, subdivisions and motels. Everything has changed; there are lots of people here.”
Florida cattlemen are learning to coexist with new neighbors by demonstrating how ranching benefits the economy and environment.
At Buck Island Ranch in Lake Placid, operated by the Archbold Biological Station, Alabama farmers learned research has proven grazing increases carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Meanwhile, Blackbeard’s Ranch in Myakka City and Milking R Dairy in Okeechobee showcase conservation practices to community leaders and customers who visit their operations to buy beef, pork, honey, ice cream and milk.
Although beef was on the agenda (and menu) at most stops, Choctaw County’s Jeff Lassiter said he enjoyed experiencing other facets of agriculture.
“Williamson Cattle Co. (in Okeechobee) was interesting because they have orange groves,” he said. “We never see those in Alabama.”
Florida’s citrus industry has been decimated in recent years by greening disease. From the bus windows, tour participants sympathized with their southern neighbors as they witnessed dry, twisted trees starved to death by the disease. Despite challenges, citrus growers like Williamson press on, praying for a cure and mitigating losses when possible.
Non-beef stops included Dundee Citrus Growers, where tour participants watched blueberries and oranges being packed; McClure Family Farm tomatoes; and Wedgworth’s Fertilizer. The Beef Tour also visited the University of Florida Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona; watched a sale at Okeechobee Livestock Market; and heard from one of the state’s top large animal veterinarians at G7 Ranch in Lake Wales.
Mike Carnes of Marshall County said lessons learned on the Beef Tour will help him better manage his own herd.
“I always pick up something that I take back home that helps me to do something a little different,” Carnes said. “We’ve all got the same problems. We fight environmental problems. We fight the prices. We’re so far apart and so different, but we’re so similar.”