Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

2012 Winner

Southern Accent Farm
Okeechobee, Florida

“The way we’re set up, it’s pretty easy to work our cattle,” Nicki Smith said. “We kind of have a little system, you know, take the data; write down the weight and everything, whether they’re a heifer or bull. We do things pretty simply. Most of the time it’s just me and Allen or me and Allen and Trino. And when it’s just the three of us, it’s real quiet and relaxed.”

Over the years Allen Smith and his wife, Nicki, have gathered and studied data. As owners of Southern Accent Farm, they have been looking for the ideal balance of characteristics in the Brangus breed.

“A producer will come here looking for an animal,” Allen Smith said. “He’ll say ‘well, I’m just gonna buy that bull cause granddaddy always bought a bull.’ It didn’t matter. They look for one certain trait in a bull. I’m trying to build animals that are balanced across the board, not just have a big rib eye, but also have, you know, muscular fat, have good yearling weight, weaning weights, and good birth weights. We have so much more technology today, so much more genetics available, so much more data than we did when granddaddy bought that bull.”

This perfect balance is important to the Smiths because their purebred bulls, purebred heifers and commercial heifers are sold as breeding animals, and they are highly sought after by other ranchers looking to improve their own herds.

From an initial herd of five registered Brangus heifers in Manatee County in 1996, the ranch has steadily enhanced its breeding stock to over 200 registered animals and about 200 commercial cows, including R532, the top artificial insemination sire in the Brangus breed, for 2011.

Located in north Okeechobee County, the 800-plus-acre ranch is a mosaic of semi- and improved pastures, forested wetlands and native hardwood hammocks. But that wasn’t the condition of the ranch when the Smith’s relocated here in 2002.

 “When we came, we didn’t realize exactly what all we were getting into,” Allen said. “But I realized, after being here a short time, that we were really going to have to watch where the runoff went. We had a ton of exotics. We knew there was a lot of work to be done. We found out real quick that we really had to tighten this place up and make it environmentally friendly.”

To improve the quality of Southern Accent Farm, Allen would apply the same approach he used when improving the quality of his Brangus herd, only on a much larger scale. Rather than focus on one aspect of the ranch -- soil, water, forage or wildlife -- he would find the ideal balance between them all.

When the Smiths moved in they were greeted with running wells and pastures overrun with invasive species. Forming partnerships with a number of groups, Allen got to work making essential changes on Southern Accent Farm.

Taylor Creek, which borders Southern Accent Farm, is a tributary of Lake Okeechobee. Because its waters flow south to the lake, and beyond to the Everglades, controlling the ranch’s water, and any potential runoff, was a priority.

With the help of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the Smiths replaced the old culverts and risers. During the dry season the new structures hold water to help in forage production. During the rainy season they keep sediment and nutrient runoff from going into Taylor Creek and the surrounding watershed.

“The Smiths have been excellent neighbors and great partners in doing projects and cleanups for this area of the Lake Okeechobee watershed,” said Lisa Kreiger of SFWMD. “Environmental stewardship is very important to the Smiths.”

Working in partnership with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), the Smiths put valves on the free-flowing artesian wells.

“The flowing wells were a huge issue,” said Linda Crane of FDACS. “They had been running for a good 12 years before they moved here, which kind of ruined the forages.”

Once the wells were capped, a watering system was installed to fill concrete watering troughs in the pastures.

 “And with us sharing the water trough with two pastures, then we can do our rotational grazing and we can move those cattle from one side to the other and have water on both sides utilizing one tank,” Allen said.

Controlling water wasn’t the only challenge in the pastures. Invasive species like fire ants and tropical soda apple had taken root, making grazing difficult for the herd. To combat these invasives, the Smiths turned to biological controls. With the help of UF’s Okeechobee County Extension Office, they released natural predators.

“Instead of putting out chemicals to control fire ants, for instance, we’ve come in here and put the phorid flies out, which is better for the environment,” said Pat Hogue of UF Extension. “And then we’ve released the tropical soda apple beetle, which he used to have a real problem with tropical soda apple here. And he tried to control them with chemicals for a lot of years. But of course, under these hammocks, that’s hard to do. So we released the tropical soda apple beetle, which is getting the soda apple under control and, again, without the use of chemicals. It’s a lot better for the environment. They’ve gone about it the right ways, doing it slowly as they can afford to do it. They’re one of the most progressive producers that I’ve had the privilege of working with.”

Taylor Creek was also the site of a different exotic pest plant. Over the years the highly invasive Brazilian pepper trees grew so thick that the Smiths couldn’t see the bank of the creek from their property. Working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, they chopped, mulched and cleaned one mile of frontage on the creek.

“Now, my job is to keep those exotics from coming back,” Allen said. “So we have a plan, and we’re going to keep the Taylor Creek as it should be with nothing but our native oak trees and cabbage trees. Oh man, it changed the look of the creek.”

Allen and Nicki continued their battle against invasives by reclaiming pastureland. Along with the NRCS and the University of Florida’s Ona Research Center, they collaborated on a project to control the invasive myrtles. The program, which involved testing several different combinations of herbicides on numerous test plots, helped convert a 35-acre myrtle stand into a very productive Bahia grass pasture. The Smiths did leave behind a small, but controllable, patch of myrtles.

“But you can’t believe how much wildlife hangs out in the five acres of myrtle we left,” Allen said. “The hen turkeys we raise; every year we have numerous hens that build nests in those myrtles. We enjoy our wildlife. Numerous afternoons that’s our treat and we go out and watch the wildlife. We plant fields every year and we keep some feeders going so we have a place for them to go. And we take care of them. We take care of the place not just for our cattle, we also take care of the place for the wildlife.”

Allen and Nicki have cross-fenced the ranch turning the original three pastures into 20. This allows for more distinct areas for rotational grazing and for better forage production. Frequent movement among pasture also promotes even manure distribution, which reduces nutrient overload.

“Cows come after you’re a grass farmer,” Allen said. “You have to be a grass farmer first. So I guess I consider myself a grass farmer.”

Good forage is critical for good nutrition and good nutrition is critical for good herd health. And Allen’s passion is forage.

“We have so many good forages that the university has come up with, and those forages produce a lot more per acre than our native Bahia grass does,” Allen said. “Our cattle thrive on the forage that we plant. So when we can produce a grass that will give us six, seven tons of forage per acre a year, we not only can graze that, but we can put that forage up. So we bag our forage and put haylage up and also graze these new forages.”

Said Allen: “A few years ago, Nicki and I decided we were going to plant five acres of Tifton 85. By the time we got those square bales loaded up and I was about whipped, I told her at that time I would build a machine that would not kill us to plant grass. So, I built a machine that will take a round bail. It unrolls the round bail. It fluffs it at the top and it distributes it out the back. And then we also built a set of rollers that mashes it in the ground and packs it. We now are capable of planting approximately 15 acres a day, the three of us, myself, Nicki, and my best friend and worker who works here, Trino. So the three of us can do about 15 acres a day. That’s cutting the material in the morning, getting it to the field, and planting.”

Once word got out about the innovative planting machine that Allen designed, other local ranchers have asked to use it.

Looking at the long-range sustainability of Southern Accent Farm, the Smiths installed the largest commercial solar array in Florida’s cattle belt. While the system currently produces half of the electricity used on the ranch, the barn roof has been reinforced to allow for additional panels.

“I mostly take care of the horses,” Nicki said. “We have 10 now, so it’s a lot of horse chores, cleaning the stalls and keeping them groomed and keeping them legged up and fit. We use the horses to work cows. And it’s an everyday thing. It’s really fun. I really enjoy it.”

Said Allen: “I love every minute of being out on the horse. It’s a way of life. I mean it’s something you have to love. It’s not easy but we enjoy every minute of it. We work all day and at six o’clock at night we’ll be tired and we’ll look at each other and say, let’s saddle the horses and go out and rope steers or let’s go ride and check cows. It’s just something in your blood. You can’t come in until it’s dark.”

With a few modifications the cow pens now double as an arena where Allen and Nicki can rope, relax and visit with friends.

“We get done with our chores and we have people over,” Nicki said. “We cook and ride and just enjoy the outside. We, we don’t like to be inside. We really enjoy being outside.”

Since moving to Okeechobee in 2002, the Smiths have become very involved in the community. Both are on the board of the Okeechobee Cattlemen’s Association. Nicki’s a past president of the Okeechobee Cattlewomen and serves on the boards of the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Okeechobee Area Ag Council. Allen is on the board of the Okeechobee County Cattlemen’s Rodeo Committee, a member of the Southeastern Brangus Breeders Association and past board member of the Florida Brangus Breeders Association.

“We like the community,” Nicki said. “It’s a great place to live. You want to make it as good as you can make it or try to help make it better, and we want to be a part of it.”

Allen and Nicki sponsor the Okeechobee Youth Livestock Show, which they feel strongly about. The challenge as Allen sees it is to get young people involved in agriculture.

“The average age of a cowman today is about 62 years old,” Allen said. “Today, a young farmer, a young man or a young woman who would love to do what I’m doing, they could not buy a place and start from scratch. Unfortunately, unless they inherit a place or is given a place, with the cost of equipment, cattle, land, it’s not going to happen. We have got to make sure that some young person can afford to own this ranch some day when I’m gone, whether it be through conservation easements or whatever it takes. We’ve got to do something. We have to do something. We own a small piece of heaven right here. We do. And we’re a small farm. We’re not big at all. But I’m going to tell you what. We are the luckiest two people in the world, and we say that to each other two or three times a week. And we know we are. And we’re glad somebody brought us to this place. Somebody was looking out for us when he sent us to this place. And we’re so glad we’re here.” -- 2012


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