Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

1999 Winner

Lykes Brothers Inc.
Okeechobee, Florida

The Lykes Bros. story began over 100 years ago with Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes. Leaving a career in medicine, Dr. Lykes began raising cattle and citrus at the family homestead in rural Hernando County. By the turn of the century, Dr. Lykes had moved his family and business to Tampa and began shipping cattle to Cuba aboard a three-masted wooden schooner. One by one, each of Dr. Lykes’ seven sons joined the family business. Working together they expanded and diversified, incorporating their business, Lykes Brothers Inc., in 1910. Descendants of Dr. Lykes have retained ownership of Lykes Bros. and continue to build on the solid foundation laid by the doctor and his seven sons.

The Lykes Bros. Ranch, located in Highlands and Glades counties, spreads out over 350,000 acres on one of the largest contiguous pieces of land in the state. While most of the property is home to an integrated cow-calf, forestry, sugar cane and citrus operation, one-quarter of the ranch is wetlands. The ranch is a tapestry of farmland, pine forests and pastures, woven together with a thousand miles of canals, retention ponds and wildlife corridors. Since the property covers many different land types, Lykes employs multiple land-use practices to make the most efficient and economical use of the land. Higher-income crops like sugar cane and citrus are planted on the richest soils, while the pine stands and grazing pastures comprise the rest.

With more than 22,000 head of cattle, the Lykes Bros. Ranch is the fifth-largest cow-calf operation in the United States. Employee training plays a key role in Lykes Bros. pursuit of quality. All supervisors and foremen attend pasture and forest management school, and the ranch’s cowboys are trained in everything from cattle genetics to nutrition at reproductive management school. The Lykes Bros. Beef Quality Assurance Program is a written and mapped documentation of all treatments administered to each calf, including vaccines, de-worming, pharmaceuticals, castration and de-horning. The employee who administered each treatment is also documented. This assurance to the buyer details exactly what was done to the cattle prior to purchase, saving the buyer the time and expense of unnecessary re-treatment.

The presence of cattle on native ranges continues to play an important role in the ecosystem. Through grazing, the herd helps keep brush and fuel loads down, reducing the risk of devastating wildfires. Lykes takes special care when converting native range land into improved pastures. Aerial photographs of the property are used to select those lands best suited for improvement, and which, like wetlands, should remain untouched. Information gathered from the photos -- including soil type, terrain, and flooding capability -- are used to compile a comprehensive map of the property from which improved pastures are carefully designed and cultivated. Seeded with nutritious grasses and legumes, these improved pastures can feed up to six times as many cattle. Wetlands are separated from the improved pastures by “signature strips” -- 50-foot buffer zones of upland vegetation that absorb the nutrients that wash off the pastures. They also provide a wildlife corridor with access to the wetlands.

To help the pastures remain healthy, Lykes employs a number of management practices. Rotational grazing, for example, moves the cattle from pasture to pasture to prevent over-grazing. The ranch also encourages the multiple land-use concept of letting cattle also graze its forested areas. This reduces fire hazards by reducing foliage and underbrush. High-intensity management on these lands allows for conservation activities on the other acreage. The success of this practice can be seen in its diverse wildlife. Game animals like deer, quail, and turkey populate much of the property. Managing for wildlife has also benefitted a number of endangered and threatened species. For instance, old stands of pine are actively managed so that the many red-cockaded woodpecker clusters found throughout the ranch are left undisturbed.

Lykes Bros. manages the largest pine forest in South Florida. To increase the quality of its timber, Lykes continually works with researchers on a variety of projects. In a cooperative effort with the University of Florida, Lykes forestry has developed a Caribbean and Florida slash pine hybrid that provides 30 percent better growth. The forestry operation also works with the University of Florida on its Eucalyptus groves. Eucalyptus, which grows nearly twice as fast as native pine, is harvested for mulch. Its color and aroma make it a favorite in xeriscaping, a popular low-maintenance landscaping technique. In the last decade, Lykes has planted 32 million seedlings, making it the largest grower of eucalyptus east of the Mississippi River. By continually breeding cold tolerance into the trees, Lykes and its research partners are improving a strain of eucalyptus whose seeds are collected and shipped all over the world.

Partnerships with researchers and professional associations are a major part of the Lykes management philosophy. All of the ranch’s managers participate in outside organizations, sharing ideas and knowledge to improve Florida’s agricultural community. The youth of Florida benefit from a number of Lykes Bros. programs. Steers are donated to the Florida State Fair for kids to purchase and raise for competitions. Eighteen agricultural scholarships are awarded to promising students. Lykes also forms partnerships with researchers, opening its ranch to studies of rare birds, like the caracara and the swallow-tail kite.

Lykes Bros. has 22,000 aces of citrus trees throughout Central Florida. While the various groves stretch from Indian River to Lake Placid, all the young trees come from Lykes’ Boatramp Nursery near Lorida. In conjunction with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), Lykes is experimenting with a variety of root stocks to determine which plant can thrive in a particular environment. This research is shared with citrus farmers throughout the state.

Advances in technology have allowed Lykes to get the most out of its groves. Utilizing on-site weather stations in conjunction with moisture sensors, Lykes can determine when the current conditions are right for irrigation management. Using Certec low-volume grove sprayers to apply pesticides, operators can focus the treatment directly at the trees. This not only reduces the application used by 25 percent, it diminishes the potential for pesticide runoff from the groves. Water use is closely monitored in the groves. If local rainfalls are not adequate, a low-volume drip irrigation system is employed. Turbine pumps bring ground water for the irrigation system from production wells located on the property. The groves were designed to maximize the use of gravity for water control. Excess surface water moves through furrows between the citrus tree beds, flowing down a system of canals into water retention ponds. A series of fixed weirs helps filter the water before it leaves the property, usually exceeding the state’s water quality standards.

The Lykes Bros. philosophy of striving for excellence is evident when it comes to meeting government regulations. Lykes’ environmental coordinator ensures that the company’s operations throughout the state meet or exceed farming regulations, and ensures that information is disseminated to each supervisor and manager in a timely manner.

Lykes Bros. has been in the sugar cane business since before World War I, when it operated a sugar cane plantation in Cuba. After losing the plantation in the 1960s following Castro’s revolution, Lykes consolidated its sugar cane operation in Florida. Today Lykes grows about 4,000 acres of sugar cane each year. The state’s sandy soil makes water management very important. Over the years, Lykes has developed a series of canals and weirs in which water is staged down through the farm. The water is then pumped back to the head of the system by recycling pumps. Fertilizer applications are spread out over the cane’s 12-month growing season. This reduces the amount of fertilizer required while achieving the same amount of plant growth. Scouting for pests, like the sugar cane borer, lets the farm determine if and when pesticides are needed. In an effort to constantly improve quality, Lykes has invited IFAS to research different varieties of cane on its farm to develop more productive crops. The results of these tests will be shared with sugar cane growers throughout the state. -- 1999


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