Title: 2007 Ag-Environmental: Butler Oaks Farm
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
The Kissimmee River once meandered from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee. But shallow and prone to flooding, the river was channeled by the United States Army Corps of Engineers creating a 56-mile-long drainage canal known as the C-38. While it opened the region for development, the project eliminated the surrounding wetlands and the river’s ability to filter out phosphorus runoff. Now runoff from housing developments and agricultural operations was transported directly downstream into Lake Okeechobee, threatening the heart of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. Soon, operations along the banks of the Kissimmee River -- like Butler Oaks Farm of Highlands County -- became lightening rods for environmental regulators. Recognizing that dairy farms like his were releasing phosphorus into the river, Robert Butler Jr. made it a priority to find new and more efficient ways to manage the nutrients that come off his land.
Following Dairy Best Available Technologies, Bob Butler became one of the few operators to voluntarily participate in an intensive Southwest Florida Water Management District water quality program. Reconfiguring his water management system, Butler encircled the dairy’s entire production area with an edge-of-farm treatment system. Designed to withstand a 25-year flood event, the series of ditches and berms would capture and contain virtually all his surface water runoff from the farm and pastures before delivering it to a retention area. Should any stormwater need to be released, it would undergo chemical treatment before leaving the property. These best management practices were expensive, labor intensive, and carried considerable risk, but for Butler, it was the right thing to do.
In September 2004 the system was put to the test. Within a span of two weeks, Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne ripped across the Okeechobee Basin. Stormwater quickly overwhelmed the inner retention ponds, but the runoff was prevented from leaving the property by the outer berms. The edge-of-farm system was a success.
Like many dairy farms in the Okeechobee region, Butler Oaks Farm, had its roots in Broward County. Bob Butler’s grandfather, Ben Butler built his first milking barn there in 1935 and later, with his son, Robert, provided milk for the Miami area. In 1965, urban sprawl forced them to move the dairy operation to Highlands County, where Robert’s son, Bob, would step in to lead the next generation. By 2004, Bob Butler and his wife Pam, who manages the office, had raised their family on the farm. While daughter Katie and her family were living in Oklahoma, son Ben was assuming management of the day-to-day operations of the farm. Their youngest boy, Will, a student at the University of Florida, worked summers at the farm, and planned to return to Butler Oaks after graduation.
But the Hurricanes of 2004 were devastating. Faced with the arduous task of rebuilding, the Butlers were forced to make a very difficult decision; they could rebuild the existing barns, though EPA regulations would force them to reduce their herd size; they could convert to a new confinement system and possibly increase their operation, or they could sell the land outright and leave agriculture behind.
Bob Butler: “So we actually sat down, had the family meeting. We brought in even our daughter who today is not involved in the farming operation and sat down and kind of explained the options. And, of course the boys, they opted that, Dad, we want to stay with it. We want an ability to grow. So let’s put in free-stall barns so that we can look after the cows at the same time that we can control the waste stream enough that we have the possibility to grow rather than downsize the business.”
The original layout of the Highland’s County dairy was designed for open grazing on its 700 acres of pasture, with the milking parlor situated in the center for easy access to all cows. After the storms, the farm was converted to a free-stall confinement system with an advanced self-contained wastewater management system to better hold and recycle nutrients. The free-stall barns are flushed daily through a series of gently sloping channels. First, sand is separated from the wastewater for reuse in the barns. The water and other solids are then pumped into a series of concrete vats where they are separated in a three-stage cycle. Then, from a large holding pond, the treated water is pumped to flush the barns or sprayed on the fields where nutrients are absorbed by the crops, which are fed to the cows, completing the cycle.
Lactating cows, once kept in open pastures, are now housed in barns with giant fans, water misters and cool, sandy beds. The cows are fed a mixture of hay, silage, and grain. Well-fed and under less stress, the cows are in better health, which often translates into greater milk yield. Milking about 900 head of cows, Butler Oaks ships an average of 6,000 gallons of fresh milk each day through Southeast Milk, Inc., a co-op helped founded by Bob’s father.
The comfort of non-lactating cows is also addressed. Prior to calving, dry cows are given a vacation. For 60 days they roam the enclosed pastures, as well as the preserved cabbage hammocks and oak stands. When its time to resume milking, they are rounded up in a fashion somewhat unique to diary farmers.
Will Butler: “A lot of operations have a milking center directly in the center of the piece of property and you can basically gather cattle on foot or use one or two horses. Our operation is a little different. We’re a little more spread out, so we’ve got to haul our dry cows and our heifers and non-lactating cows. Usually it’s going to take three or four good riders to get those up and into the pens, where we need to work them and move up closer to the milking facility.”
Ben Butler: “Being a good steward of the land, the one thing that grandpa taught Dad, and Dad’s taught us, is that what he gives us to use, the land. Something that he may pass down is nothing but a tool for us to make a living. And in order for that tool, or the land, to continue to provide a living, we have to keep it sustainable. And keeping it sustainable means that we preserve some of the, some of the natural beauty that goes along with the land. And it’s going to survive we have to help preserve it.”
For the Butlers, preserving the environment and allowing others to share in the natural beauty of the nearby Kissimmee River is a family tradition. In 1966, Bob’s father donated the use of six acres of land to create a county park for camping with access to the old Kissimmee River and the open waters of the C-38. For Bob Butler and his wife Pam, the most memorable stop along the waterway is a patch of land under a spreading oak tree. It was here that Bob’s grandfather, Ben, would often come to think and reflect.
Bob Butler: “You would find him pulled up down there in a pickup truck, you’d find both doors open. He’d be laying in the seat, and his heels would be up in the open window of an open door. And that was his naptime, but he also said that, Son, that’s my planning time. And, and I’ve come to realize that it truly was thinking and planning time for him. A lot of his, their vision has come when they could sit on the natural beauty of this farm and think ahead, what are we going to do for the next generation?”
Planning for the next generation has been a hallmark of Butler Oaks Farm. For years the operation has worked closely with outside groups on a number demonstration projects to improve management practices, not only for the diary industry but for Florida agriculture as a whole. For example, in a partnership with the NRCS, Butler Oaks is experimenting with new ways to process waste from the barns to generate manure suitable for marketing.
Southeast Milk, Inc., the Florida Beef Council and the Kissimmee River Advisory Committee are only a few of the organizations to benefit from Butler’s leadership skills. Once named Florida’s Outstanding Young Dairy Farmer, and past president of Dairy Farmers, Inc., Butler also brings the farming perspective to regulatory and agency meetings as a member of the South Florida Water Management District Water Resources Advisory Commission’s Lake Okeechobee Committee.
A graduate of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, and student of agricultural economics at the University of Florida, Butler knows the importance of educating the public about today’s farming community.
Bob Butler: “The single biggest problem that I see that faces the dairy industry in Florida today is perception. People are so far removed from the farm today. The average consumer is, that we’ve got to do more to educate them on what still goes on.”
As spokesmen for the industry and for conservation, the Butlers frequently open their farm to educational tours to demonstrate the latest in environmental technology and Best Management Practices.
Pam Butler: “Bob and I both feel that it is very important to open our farm, our home, to tours and educate the public, not only about where their food comes from, where milk comes from, but about the environmental practices that, that are done here on this farm.”
Through these tours the Butlers have helped enlighten thousands of students, policymakers, regulators, activists, and members of the media about the importance of agriculture. They highlight the farmers’ efforts to provide a sustainable food supply for a growing population, and they stress the importance of the natural beauty of a healthy environment.
Bob Butler: “The natural aspect of this farm is probably one of the things that drew my dad and grandfather, originally, to this area. They started farming in Broward County. And we had a lot of oak groves and so forth there. And -- so to find a parcel of land that had the cabbage and oak trees that we have here and even being on the river -- it’s pretty important to us. And we would like to see those thing maintained. It’s just natural Florida.”