Title: Grazing on the Florida Landscape
Steve Handley: I've been in the cattle business for 19 years. The only way that I could enjoy this type of life is to lease public land. The only way I could have raised my children in the woods and not on concrete and asphalt is due to public land. Most of the cattlemen that I know that lease public lands, or that own land and graze cattle, view it as a way of life. It's not just a job; it's a way of life. And it's a way of life that we love.
Narrator: Steve Handley is one of the many cattlemen who are involved in a unique partnership with public agencies. Through grazing of public lands cattlemen and land managers form an alliance, working together to protect and preserve Florida’s diminishing natural landscape. With more than 700 people moving to the state every day, Florida's population has doubled in the last two decades.
Ken Harrison, Cattleman: It’s hard for me to imagine so many people a day or moving to Florida to stay. What I’ve seen is a -- is a terrific change, it's a physical change where by traditional agricultural land, some of it untouched native land is being converted to housing. And when I say housing I’m talking about housing developments, trailer parks, malls, shopping centers, highways, the whole deal.
Frank “Sonny” Williamson, Rancher: In the past 20 years, we've lost about 2 million acres of farmlands in Florida and projecting into the future, there’s no particular reason that we can see that it’s going to change that much, about 100,000 to 130,000 acres a year lost to urbanization. So we can look at about five million acres of farmlands going out of production in the next 20 years if we don't change public policies. That’s about half of our remaining farmlands. That’s not a good policy for Floridians. (...)
It’s not a good policy because we need those lands for food production. We need them as a buffer from the natural areas and the urban areas. We need them as preserving a way of life. Just an extremely important thing that we change some of those policies and start thinking about preserving those lands.
Narrator: As more property is lost to urbanization, the state has recognized the need to protect these sensitive lands through acquisition programs, such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever. Florida has spent $3 billion over the last decade in acquiring conservation land, whether through direct purchase or conservation easements, these funds have preserved native habitat, protected water resource lands, and provided recreation sites. In addition to purchasing the land, decisions must be made regarding management and use of the property.
Fritz Musselmann: The legislature in the last couple of sessions sent a signal out to the state’s agencies, the state’s land managers. And I think it was an appropriate signal and that was the districts, the water management districts and the other agencies, should start looking at multiple use of some of the public’s lands, provided those multiple uses are compatible with the purposes for which the lands were originally acquired. So what we do in our first step after acquiring a piece of property is kind of look at it in four approaches. (...)
One is what portion of the property might be able to be used for timber management to generate revenue. Also for cattle and hay to generate revenue. Also we have a mandate from the legislature that we are to also restore portions of our properties that have been altered so we look at that. And then last, but not least, is what recreational use can those properties be put to, since the taxpayers are paying for the properties they ought to be able to use them. So those are the four things we take a look at.
Fred Davis, Director, Land Stewardship Division, South Florida Water Management District: We’ve never not considered multiple use. We’ve always felt that public lands should always be used to their maximum extent possible. Again, given that you have, you pay close attention to the purpose for which the land was bought, what was the public purpose for purchasing the property. Our program has always had to balance natural areas management, protection of the natural resources, restoration of natural resources with allowing maximum allowable recreation. So that in itself is a multiple use.
Fred Davis: Grazing is a tool that we believe is useful in the management of the property as we transition form a purely privately owned piece of property being used for commercial or agricultural purposes, to a public piece of property being used to restore and protect and preserve water related resources. As we transition from the status of the property at the time of purchase to where we would like it to be eventually, limited grazing activities can play a very important role.
Craig Evans, President, Florida Stewardship Foundation: One of the problems we have in Florida is, the first thing we do is ask the private landowner to leave. We take all the cattle and all the production off of it and then we wait two or three years to be able to develop a management plan. Then we have to have the funding and the staff to be able to implement that management plan, so there's a delay between the time the land is purchased, and every management activity is stopped and we can start management again. In Florida it’s a very sensitive state, particularly where areas have been disturbed and a lot of things can happen in that interim period.
Ken Harrison: The property changes, and it isn’t a subtle change, most especially if there is a domestic pasture there, we have these undesirable plants come in. If there is native pasture the fuel loads increase and the threat of a fire increases with that and if it happens, a true damage, permanent damage is done, most especially to the trees and possibly to surrounding property owners.
Pete Deal, State Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Servies: When the property changes hands, if the water management district or the land managing agency, whatever it may be, if they do not have a management plan designed and are planning to implement it right away, I would recommend that they work with the former land owner or land manager to conduct the activity similar to what has been done in the past.
Ken Harrison: You know, historically cattle have grazed south Florida since the Spanish brought the cattle here. If you think about it, almost exclusively, 99 out of 100 acres have been grazed in this country. Cattle grazing is not anything new. It isn't untried. It isn't something that, that is negative. It is something that has been in place to create these relatively pristine untouched tracts of land that are being purchased today.
Narrator: While grazing has existed for centuries in Florida, scientists and specialists still monitor popular grazing management practices and investigate new techniques as well.
Larry Campbell: In the early part of my career you based grazing on what you thought might be the carrying capacity was. Systems today are completely different. All of them are designed through the cooperative efforts of the NRCS grazing specialist, University of Florida, and our wildlife biologists that go together. And they design a system and we -- it’s based on forage production and the range resources that are available to us today that we can use.
Pete Deal: The land use inventory would look at the forage resources by ecological community, the distribution of the ecological communities across the property, and the location of the physical facilities, the fences, water, streams, you know, wetlands and how all that would fit into a management plan and how the recreation that may be used out there and other items may fit in.
Larry Campbell: Each grazing lease that we have on each management area that we have cattle on is a site specific system. It’s designed specifically for that particular unit and it’s derived through a scientific process set up by these folks that are grazing specialists that we follow.
George Tanner: The idea of proper grazing is tied to adjusting the number of cattle using an area to the amount of forage that’s there over a given period of time. So it’s a matter of doing the accounting of allocating a certain portion of the vegetation for livestock grazing and for consumption and use, and, and saving a portion of the plants there to maintain health of the plants themselves. And this is where the proper grazing comes into account.
Pete Deal: If we find that some grasses are invading the site such as West Indian Marsh Grass or Torpedo Grass we may want to increase the, the number of animals on the site to utilize these invaders and allow the native grasses or native plants to compete instead of using chemicals to control these weeds.
Fritz Musselmann, Director of Land Resources, Southwest Florida Water Management District: After we’ve identified a piece of property that we want to lease for cattle purposes, typically what we will do is have a bidders list of people that are interested in leasing cattle grazing rights from our district.
So we will send out a notification to all of them and advise them that a particular property is going up for lease, where it’s located, and that we’re going to be having a meeting to discuss it and have them come to that meeting, understand where the property’s at, what our expectations are for them and vice versa, what they would expect from us and then, if they’re interested we’ll send them a complete bid package and then we’ll go through a formal process of bidding it out.
Larry Campbell: But all of these go through a public bid bases and it’s all public record. There’s no good old boy network that you go out and you select someone and you bring him in as your lessee. This is all business and it’s competitively done. They have to bid on an open market for those leases and then they have to produce once they get there.
Narrator: Once a lessee is selected, the administrator may allow the individual to perform services in addition to what is called for in the lease.
Steve Handley: We built fences. We built cow pens. We disced fire lanes. We roller chopped. We built roads. We installed cattle guards. And all the facilities that are here now and were provided through in-kind services that the lessee did instead of cash payments.
Alan Alshouse: We make an assessment of what that value of would be. And then we back it out of the actual lease payment. It’s called in-kind services. Another benefit to having cattle grazing on public lands is security. Currently the St. Johns River Water Management District owns about 600,000 acres of public land. And our staff can’t be on every single piece of property every minute of the day. So having the cattle lessee on the property is a great benefit for security purposes as well. It works well for the district and also for the cattlemen. It’s a win-win situation.
George Tanner: The Florida environment evolved under a fire regime. So the vegetation is adapted to being periodically defoliated by fire and by grazing animals. The livestock can assist in managing fuel loads, especially the finer fuels associated with grasses and some shrubs, in keeping the buildup of dead material from occurring. It’s important that the numbers of livestock be managed such that they are not detrimental to the composition of forages.
In other words, that they do not take out plants or result in erosion or nutrient loading and this sort of things. But the fact that they can serve as somewhat as a surrogate to fire in a minimal standpoint to reduce some of the, the potential for wildfire in some areas.
Pat Cockrell: That’s one of the real positives for grazing is to reduce that fuel load and it’s a natural way of reduction. You don’t have to put tractors and equipment in there or labor to physically cut it out and drag it out. The cattle do a nice job of harvesting that fuel load for us. And that’s the benefit of cattle. They take a relatively unusable product, some of this coarse, rough vegetation we've got and can turn that into meat or milk, raise calf off of it, and benefit all of us.
Alan Alshouse: We have a cattle grazing lease in Lake County, Lake Norris Conservation Area where we’re at today. Again, the historical use of the property was cattle grazing when we bought the property and so we chose to continue the cattle grazing until other land management plans could be developed for the property. And, and currently it seems to be working out having the proper amount of stocking rate of cattle and it’s keeping the area open and where the public can com. If we were to discontinue the grazing program, then in order to maintain a viable burrowing owl population and the gopher tortoises...
...we’d probably have to spend a lot of money in doing a lot of mowing and burning, where here we have a nice mosaic system where the deer are improving and we have quail and turkey. They do a lot better in areas that are grazed properly. So both for hunting aspect and for endangered species and wildlife viewing, our cattle programs on a few selected properties have been working out very well.
Pete Deal: You know most of the threatened and endangered species that occur in Florida occur on rangelands that have been managed for grazing and/or timber. The crested kera kera relies significantly on open lands, maintained pastures that, that are kept free of wood encroachment and haven’t been planted to grow crops or to citrus.
The Florida panther habitat recovery area. A significant portion of south Florida is primarily relying on, on grazing lands and keeping those lands in grazing. If they are converted to urban areas or converted to citrus or crops, then the wildlife habitat will decline and the food sources for the panther will decline. Grazing land agriculture allows the land manager to maintain those sites in a diversity of conditions and habitats.
Narrator: Not only is grazing conducted on rangelands that provide critical wildlife habitat and buffer spaces between the state's urban centers and environmentally sensitive resources. Grazing can help pay for any research carried out on the property.
Barry Burch: We have a contract with the cattlemen on this property and contracts with the Division of Recreation and Parks. We can use the monies from the contract to do land management practices or for instance here we’re going to do research on the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which is an endangered species. Instead of that money going back to Tallahassee, it stays right in this park and helps the staff manage the park property.
Narrator: Research on the effects of grazing is an important part of the work being conducted at the MacArthur Agroecology Research center.
Patrick Bohlen: Our initial results show that stocking density, the stocking densities we have don’t seem to have an influence on the phosphorous loads in the surface water. But the land use type has a large impact on surface water nutrient loads. We have these experiments set up in both improved pasture which are fertilized and have a long term history of fertilized use and semi-native prairies which are less intensively managed and have never really received any nutrient inputs.
And the phosphorous loads coming off of our improved pasture are nearly in order of magnitude higher, seven to ten times greater, than in the semi native prairies. The nutrient levels we see coming off those native prairie areas are relatively low, are very low indicating that the cattle can be maintained on a landscape without greatly increasing nutrient loads to surface water.
Sonny Williamson: Dairy cattle are concentrated in one area and they’re milked at least once a day, maybe twice a day and the nutrients are, are concentrated so that has to be handled in a very localized nutrient treatment system. Beef cattle are very different in that they’re spread out across the land, and beef cattle at low stocking rates do not bring to the equation new nutrients.
In fact, there’s a lot of reason to believe that from the standpoint of the nutrient phosphorous, which is one of our biggest problems, beef cattle ranchers can use up phosphorous and still continue to market beef cattle. So I think that beef cattle at lower stocking rates, appropriate stocking rates, with a close eye on the nutrients, input of phosphorous particularly, will be there forever in our South Florida ecosystem. Can be one of the climax land uses.
Fred Davis: From the public’s point of view there’s a perspective that any cow standing next to a creek is a source of pollution. And I guess in some sense it is, but our research and other people’s research show that at a stocking rate in the neighborhood of one cow to ten acres or one cow to fifteen acres, which is about what we run. From what we can figure out with our research, they're not contributing significantly to the degradation of the water supply.
Scott Penfield: The program that we started out with 23 years ago when I started here is nothing like the program that we have right now. The program has always been focused toward a single goal. To improve the grass resource.
We basically are managing grass height and we have the rules and the regulations written up in the leases that simply identify that hey, we’re going to graze the grass down to six inches in height and then we’re going to wait until it goes back to twenty inches in height.
We go ahead and manage the resource simply the way the environment happens. If you get a rainy season, things have to change to accommodate that. If you have a dry season, things accommodate that. And the grazing lease is designed to pattern after what naturally occurs out there.
Pete Deal: Some plants are more suited to short recovery periods. They have actively growing portions throughout the year. And other plants, typically range grasses that have an upright growth form, need longer recovery periods between grazing. The act of grazing is similar to surgery, major surgery on a human, and after we go through a surgical procedure we need time to recover and let our tissues regain their strength and regain energy, and plants are the same way.
Craig Evans: Overgrazing is really a management issue. Overgrazing happens because you have too many cattle on an area that is perhaps sensitive and you keep too many cattle there. You don’t move those cattle around. You don’t rotate the cattle. So, therefore, you impact the streamside, you impact, you bring the grass down, you cause erosion. That can be easily modified simply by moving the cattle around, keeping the number of cattle appropriate to the type of area that you’re in. If it’s a sensitive area you have fewer cattle. So someone who is watching what they’re doing who understands what they’re doing, you can very easily avoid overgrazing.
Narrator: The Florida Cattlemen's Association has developed water quality best management practices for cow/calf operations. Written as a cooperative effort of cattlemen, scientists, and range land specialists, these environmental guidelines are an excellent example of the public and private sectors working together to protect Florida's environment. These best management practices are being adopted by cattlemen on both private and public lands. While lessees regularly use best management practices, some citizans still oppose grazing on public lands.
Scott Penfield: There’s also an aesthetic issue about just seeing a cow out on the property. People may think that’s inappropriate. Interestingly enough, when people come on the property, 80 percent of the property doesn’t have any cows on it, so they don’t even see cows. A lot of times people can go out here a whole weekend and not even see cows out here because we’ve got them only on 20 percent of the property at one time. That’s how we’ve dealt with it. Of course, the other issue is fencing. People don’t like to see fences.
George Tanner: Some people just do not like to see fences on the landscape. But I think if they’re educated to the point that these fences are beneficial to the overall management of the site, then some of the aesthetic displeasement may be adjusted. It’s something that’s needed to have an assurance that the land is being properly managed.
Jim Handley: There’s no doubt in my mind that public interest and cattlemen’s interest can coexist, that given the opportunity a rancher can show the public how well he will take care of a piece of property. He will maintain the roads, he will maintain the fences, he’ll rotate his cattle, he’ll take care of the land just like it were his own, and the public can go and enjoy that property. They can camp. They can picnic, they can trail ride, they can hike, they can do all the things that they would do without it being grazed. We have a tendency on some of these properties that aren’t grazed to allow it to get overgrown and in a condition that, that's not quite as user friendly as far as the public is concerned.
Quite honestly, they’ll get probably more enjoyment if it is being grazed because it’ll be a more productive wildlife environment and a more pleasant experience for the public land user.
Narrator: Management experience and scientific research are showing that grazing can preserve and enhance Florida's remaining open spaces. Cattlemen and public land managers share many goals including conservation, water quality, and control of exotic species. By working together in public-private partnerships they complement each other's efforts to preserve and protect Florida's environment.
Larry Campbell: I think it’s just another one of the tools that we have that we use to manage our land management systems and these conservation lands today. It’s suited in some situations and it’s not suited in others. And like any tool, you have to be careful not to overuse it or abuse it. It does provide a lot of revenue for you, and it provides some services that you don’t have. It also is a wise use of a resource that’s renewable for you out there to use.
Steve Handley: I thank God every day that I’ve been able to live my life the way I’ve lived it, to raise my children the way I’ve raised them, and to enjoy being outdoors every day working with my animals. It’s a joy to me and it’s a joy to my family and has been and I hope it continues to be.