Title: 2007 Ag-Environmental: Buck Island Ranch
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
The only one of its kind, Buck Island Ranch is a combination you might not think possible -- a commercial cattle ranch, a renowned ecological research facility, and a bridge between the ranching community, environmental organizations and regulatory agencies.
In 1988, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation generously donated a 30-year lease of the 10,500-acre Buck Island Ranch to Archbold Biological Station. This established the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center to conduct long-term ecological research on the interactions between cattle ranching operations and the native species, habitats and ecosystems of South Florida.
Located in Highlands County, southeast of Lake Placid, Buck Island Ranch is a mosaic of improved and semi-native pastures, wetlands, and hardwood hammocks. It has over 600 small seasonal wetlands, a network of more than 400 miles of ditches constructed from the 1940s through the 1970s to improve drainage, and the South Florida Water Management District’s Harney Pond Canal, a major regional waterway that bisects the ranch and affects its entire hydrology.
Even though Buck Island Ranch is a setting for research, it still operates like any other family ranching operation -- its existence depends on generating revenue to pay its bills.
Hilary Swain: “We don’t have any other source of income for the operations other than our own agricultural activities, and we rely on that revenue to pay for all of our expenses. We’ve got to worry about maintaining ourselves as an economically viable operation. And in fact, that is a very good, strong dose of reality for us, because it makes us very representative for a working cattle ranch. It also makes us unlike most of the university research centers.”
Buck Island Ranch derives income from bahiagrass sod production, hunting leases and occasional cabbage palm harvests, buts its primary source of revenue comes from cattle sales. The ranch’s herd size fluctuates around 3,000. Managed by Gene Lollis, Buck Island’s progressive practices have helped improve profit and environmental sustainability, making the cattle operation among the top 20 producers in Florida.
The ranch uses an electronic identification system -- Cattle Star, developed by Archbold -- to track each animal’s history from birth to the feed lot. Source-verified cattle bring a premium in the marketplace.
Gene Lollis: “It let’s me know their weights, whether they’ve been treated with vaccinations, whether a cow has been pregnancy tested, whether she’s bred, she’s open. So it gives me a touch-button record-keeping system.”
The ranch also uses Pasture Star -- a similar program designed for pastures.
Gene Lollis: “And that keeps track of all our pasture activities, whether it be burning, fertilizing, mowing, chopping, rotational grazing or grazing patterns, how many cows we’ve had in a certain pasture for a given time, also what minerals we put out, what supplemental feed we put out. And it just pinpoints how much of anything that we put in a given pasture."
These two systems provide a big picture for determining the most productive and environmentally sound practices.
The ranch has improved cattle productivity including conception rates, calf weights, herd health, and beef quality. Net revenues have increased. All of this has all been achieved without compromising the environment, but rather by improving the management of the ranch's resources. It has minimized use of herbicides and other chemicals products for cattle and forage health as well as reduced the use of fertilizer.
Buck Island Ranch is located in the watershed just north of Lake Okeechobee where many of Florida’s cattle ranches occupy a large land area. Nutrient runoff has long been an issue for the agricultural community there. Several major research projects at Buck Island are addressing water quality and the ability of cattle ranches to protect the state’s fresh water.
To spread out and more evenly distribute the herd -- thereby reducing the concentration of nutrients in the improved pastures -- groundwater wells were installed at various locations to provide water for the cattle. Powered by solar panels, these well pumps did not increase electricity or fuel consumption.
The ranch has committed two separate areas totaling over 700 acres to the USDA Wetland Reserve Program and is researching how restoring wetlands impacts ecological communities and hydrology.
Long-term testing of soil and water quality has helped evaluate the effects of management practices on amount and movement of nutrients throughout the ranch and in runoff from the ranch.
In a partnership with state agencies and the World Wildlife Fund, the ranch has installed new riser boards and culverts to increase water storage in the interior pastures and ditches, which also provide water to the cattle in the winter. This system enables the movement of water to different pastures when necessary.
All of the ranch’s ditches and canals drain into the Harney Pond Canal which flows into Lake Okeechobee. Buck Island has worked with the South Florida Water Management District to rebuild five major water control structures to retain more water and nutrients on the ranch.
Patrick Bohlen: “Our program here at Buck Island Ranch could not persist, could not be successful, without our collaborations. The Florida Cattlemen’s Association has been a critical partner to us, reaching out to producer community. The Florida Department of Agriculture and the South Florida Water Management District have helped fund our research. The University of Florida and other universities in the state have faculty and administrators that are involved here.”
Leaving native pastures in their natural state provides habitat for a variety of wildlife as well as many federal- and state-listed threatened and endangered species including the crested caracara and wood stork. Researchers inventory the natural communities and wildlife species throughout the ranch, providing valuable information that is essential for understanding the role of Florida’s cattle ranches in providing habitat.
Buck Island Ranch is a living laboratory. It has attracted researchers and students from around the world who study the complex interaction of people, animals and the environment on a working cattle ranch.
Hilary Swain: “Because of the long history of Archbold, we have tremendous credibility and tradition. And therefore, we bring those data with a high degree of confidence, and people are very interested in our findings and in what we have to say about the landscape.”
The ranch is viewed as a vital testing ground for demonstrating the feasibility and effectiveness of different practices, and findings are used by a variety of groups. They’re shared throughout the scientific community. Ranchers incorporate them to enhance production techniques and conservation efforts. Policy makers and regulatory agencies use Buck Island’s research to establish statewide policies and practices.
This unique setting also fosters dialogue.
Gene Lollis: “It actually is kind of unique, because we do bring a whole bunch of different aspects of life together that typically would never have come together. So I guess you could kind of say we’re kind of a gathering pot to have regulatory agencies come together with Cattlemen’s Association and different ag operations and sit down and talk over issues, where use to, you would not see those organizations sit and talk together.”
With good management, cattle ranches provide ecosystem services that society depends upon -- cleaner water and air, reduced storm water, buffer lands, and space for animals that require large areas to roam.
Patrick Bohlen: “People in urban areas don’t understand how important agriculture is for the environment. So it’s very important to reach out to the urban community. It’s very important for me to reach out to the scientific community, because not all scientists are aware of the importance of private operations and private ranches to conservation goals. So it’s really important that we reach out to a broader community. And we’re very active in doing so.”
Not only is effective communication with the wider public important, the exchange of ideas on the ranch is essential.
Patrick Bohlen: “Another very interesting thing is that everybody who works here lives here. So we have basically a group of researchers and a ranch community living together in one place. And that brings together a set of perspectives, I think, that benefits both by having that overlap. When we have a problem or a conflict, we work it out. We try to understand where each other is coming from, both from the research perspective and from the operation perspective. And so we’ve worked very hard over time to communicate effectively so that we can make this whole operation run smoothly.”
Buck Island is more like a family ranch than a commercial operation. The shared love of the property and commitment to their work makes for tighter bonds.
Gene Lollis: “You know, my family lives here. My kids are just like any other ranchers’ kids. They help me through the summer. They do their chores. I think it gives them the opportunity to see what it actually takes to raise livestock and live on a ranch, where many kids don’t get that chance today.”
Patrick Bohlen: “I really didn’t have a background in ranching when I came here, and one of the really great pluses is being able to live on Buck Island Ranch, raise my family here, and have my kids have that wonderful experience of growing up on a ranch. It’s been a really, really key aspect of my position here.”
Gene Lollis: “Our hearts are in this for this to be a functioning ranch, for it to be a viable operation that educates not only other rancher, but regulatory agencies and also the general public. And in the long haul, I think that’s what most every other family ranch is all about, is making a living and keeping it environmentally sound. If there’s one positive thing that comes out of the research that goes on at Buck Island Ranch that can help those families stay ranching one more year or 10 more years, this place is well worth it.”