Git Along Little Doggie

Few people know or appreciate that agriculture is Florida’s second major industry — and that cattle ranching is a significant component of the equation. Florida, in fact, is the birthplace of this country’s cattle industry. The state ranks 11th in the nation in cattle and boasts several of the largest cattle ranches in the U.S. Some of them are in Northwest Florida.

Git Along Little Doggie The cattle industry is a thriving segment of Florida’s agricultural economy By Lazaro Aleman,  Photos by Scott Holstein

From the back patio of his hilltop Spanish-style ranch house, overlooking his 2,000-plus acre spread, Herman Laramore gives me the bird’s eye view of his vast domain: 1,000 head of cattle grazing peacefully on different pastures; large swaths of frost-browned fields interspersed with stands of oaks, pines and autumn-touched hardwoods; and six large-sized ponds that sparkle like green gems in the soft yellow sunlight of a late October afternoon.
He points out his boyhood home site, far below and now embedded in his ranch. Way beyond is the barely visible line of the interstate; a tiny white water tower that rises above a sea of green, indicating the nearest small town; and the bluish-green band of the distant horizon, some 10 miles out.

“Let’s take a ride,” he says. “I’ll give you a tour of the place.”

We climb aboard his pickup, where he keeps a Winchester rifle handy for any buzzard or coyote that may attack a newborn calf or calving momma, and we plunge directly downhill, bumping and jouncing across the uneven terrain as his Australian Kelpie cow dog runs alongside.

Laramore meanders through newly-mowed hay fields and browning pastures, past herds of cows and heifers — each herd distinct in age and calving stage, and each animal earmarked with a color coded and numbered tag containing its individual history. He points out several of 50 bulls that are kept strictly for siring purposes. The tour includes various weatherworn structures housing heavy equipment and feed supplies, as well as the central processing facility with holding pens and a hydraulic chute, where the cattle are brought for branding, castrating, dehorning, vaccinating and pregnancy testing, among other procedures.

All the while, as we’re bouncing across pastures and dry washes, traveling down dirt lanes, rolling over cattle guards, and weaving around and through herds, Laramore  talks about the operation. He’s also assessing the condition of the herds and individual animals, and checking to make sure the day’s necessary activities have been accomplished — a task he performs daily, often on horseback.

Welcome to a working cattle ranch. Not in Texas, Oklahoma or Colorado as you might suspect, but in Florida — in Jackson County, the heart of Northwest Florida, to be exact. Most visitors and newcomers to the state, not to mention a great many longtime residents, typically associate Florida with tourism and readily identify its beaches, warm weather and theme parks among its major attractions and assets. Tourism indisputably remains the state’s number one industry, notwithstanding whatever black eye the Great Recession and Gulf of Mexico oil spill may have dealt it. But agriculture is Florida’s second major industry, contributing more than $100 billion annually to the state’s economic vitality; and beef and dairy cattle operations are a significant component of the equation. Nationally, Florida ranks 11th in beef cows and 19th in milk cows, as well as boasting several of the largest cattle operations in the United States.

Where’s the beef?

Granted, Northwest Florida is nowhere near the player that Central and South Florida are in terms of beef and dairy operations. Jim Handley, vice president of the 5,000-member Florida Cattlemen Association (FCA), will tell you the overwhelming majority of cattle herds are south of Interstate 4, with Okeechobee, Osceola and Highlands the top-ranking cattle counties. Even so, the 16 counties of Northwest Florida, from Escambia to Jefferson, hold about 170,000 of the state’s 1.63 million head of cattle and calves, per the latest published statistics from the Florida Department of Agriculture.
These figures, of course, are fluid as herds increase or decrease depending on the seasons, production costs, market prices and other factors. Generally speaking, however, the state’s numbers hold true. If you then consider that milk cows represent 114,000 of the 1.63 million, that the Northwest region is home to 16 of the state’s 138 dairies and that the average dairy herd is 400, you get an idea of the limited number of milk cows in the region. That said, Jackson County ranks first in total cattle in the Panhandle, followed by Holmes, Walton and Washington counties.

CattleRanching_2Some general things to keep in mind about the cattle industry: Florida is a calf feeder or cow-calf state, meaning it largely produces calves that are weaned at about 600 pounds and shipped west to be finished, or grown and fattened to their full weight for slaughtering and processing.

The average herd in Florida is less than 50 head, with individual counts ranging from a few cows kept for pleasure, personal consumption or as a sideline income, to upwards of 40,000 head in the larger commercial beef operations. Beef producers are paid per the pound on their animals; hence, the greater an animal’s weight at sale, the more money it brings. Preconditioning — meaning the calves are weaned, vaccinated and trained to feed on their own prior to shipping, so they are ready to gain weight as soon as they hit the feedlots — increases their value.

Trends in the industry are toward larger operations, more women owners and managers, and migration of dairies to the West and Midwest. Lastly, genetics plays a key role in cattle operations, as producers seek to improve their herds and maximize profits.

Talk to commercial cattle people and you begin to get an appreciation of the intricacy and complexity of their enterprises, as well as the degree of forethought and calculation that goes into their products’ making and marketing. You learn they are essentially resource managers, with established production goals, whether these be to achieve higher calf yields per calving period; work for the greater feed efficiency of their herds; or improve the quality of their beef or milk products. You begin to understand their many challenges, which include high production costs (feed, fertilizer, freight, etc.), weather (too much or too little rain); animal diseases and insect infestations; competition from pork and poultry producers; and government regulations. You become aware these individuals are fairly conversant with the research in the animal sciences, if they don’t actually have college degrees in the discipline. And you get a sense that, grumble as they may about some aspects of their enterprises, they love what they do.

It’s All About Genetics

Besides overseeing the six-county 14th Judicial Circuit as Public Defender, Laramore manages and works the Bar L Ranch, which he co-owns with his brother, Gordon. A commercial operation consisting of Charolais and Brangus cattle, the Bar L — six miles south of Marianna — ships 1,000 calves and cows to the feedlots annually. It also boasts Florida’s third highest elevation, which explains the view from Laramore’s back patio.

Fifty years in the cattle industry, Laramore remembers when his father’s wood cattle roamed free, before Florida’s stock laws went into effect in 1950.

“Once people began fencing their animals, they started improving the genetics,” he says.

CattleRanching_3Laramore uses both bulls and artificial insemination for breeding purposes. The semen for the artificial inseminations comes from Midwestern companies that sell interests in their prize-winning bulls. Laramore owns interests in two bulls worth $250,000 and $90,000 respectively. Upon request, the companies will ship him frozen semen via UPS. The goal is to produce calves with specified genetic traits.

“You want calves that grow fast and that have the genetic markers for tenderness, low fat, docility and such,” Laramore says.

He also breeds for visual attractiveness.

“Part of the pleasure is to produce animals that are pleasing to the eye,” he says. “The visual is all you get; the other is on paper.”

The cows generally calf within a 75-day period, starting in early November and ending in mid January, with the calves preconditioned in July and shipped to the feedlots in August. The cycle is calculated to have the animals reach their optimum weight for slaughtering and processing in spring, when consumer demand for meat products goes up.

Data is recorded on each animal from birth to death, with the information serving as an indicator of the animal’s place of origin, vaccination history, feed efficiency and quality of meat, among other things. Producers utilize the information to further improve their herds.

“It’s getting harder to have a cattle operation,” Laramore says. “It’s getting harder to find land that’s reasonably priced and contiguous. If we weren’t getting good prices for cattle right now, we’d be upside down, as input costs are so outrageous. Bigger operations have the advantage. They can more efficiently spread their costs over more cattle.”

Overall, however, he is satisfied with ranching and the benefits it affords him.

“It’s something I love doing,” he says. “I stay in physical condition and build an asset at the same time.”

Cows Over Politics

Tuten and Tuten Farms in Jefferson County, the easternmost of Northwest Florida’s 16 counties, is a commercial operation headed by J.N. “Junior” Tuten, who manages more than 1,000 head of cattle singly or in partnerships.

A former county commissioner and lifetime cattleman, Tuten has a deep and abiding love of cattle and the ranching lifestyle. But he is also a savvy, clear-eyed businessman whose enterprise happens to be beef production. Ultimately, it comes down to producing a quality product at the least possible cost and selling it at the highest possible price.

“Our desire is to produce a product that’s tasty, tender and reasonable,” Tuten says. “In order to do that, you’ve got to be aggressive with the genetics. It used to take eight to nine pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef. With genetics, that’s down to around 5½ pounds of grain per pound of red meat. That’s a savings to John Doe housewife, who in the end is paying the bill.”

Tuten breeds his cattle in 75-day cycles to assure for the continuity of production and uniformity of the calves in terms of age, size and condition — factors that enhance their marketability.

“We have three or four different management programs,” he explains. “The cattle get the same shots and basics done in each program, but one set of cows may carry in October, November and December; the next in November, December and January; and another in February, March and April. You have to be versatile to market them year round.”

Typically, he keeps the top 15 to 20 percent of calves as replacement heifers for the maintenance and upgrade of the base herd and sells the rest. The aim always is to produce cattle whose beef will grade choice or prime, as these represent “the high dollar cuts.”

“We’re constantly looking to improve the base herd,” Tuten says. “Years ago, they just turned cattle loose and then gathered them, but that day is gone. You can’t survive doing that because you can’t get your calves big enough. In those days, a 350-pound calf was considered big. Now, we’re weaning calves at 680 to 700 pounds. That’s how much the quality of the cattle has changed. My job is to get the maximum quality and gain off the resources I have.”

Tuten once tried managing a furniture/appliance store but found it insufficiently challenging. He tired of commission work after two terms, deciding politicking wasn’t for him. Cattle ranching is in his blood and satisfies his need for problem solving, notwithstanding the long hours and associated risks.

“I think challenges are extremely important throughout one’s life,” Tuten says. “Complacency will put you out of business.”

A Family Business

Cindale Farms LLC, six miles north of Marianna, is a family dairy owned and operated by Cindy and Dale Eade and daughter and son-in-law Meghan and Brad Austin. The Eades started the dairy in 1994, and the Austins joined it in 2009, after earning degrees in the animal sciences and working elsewhere for a time. Cindale encompasses 517 acres and milks 350 Jersey, Holstein and cross-breed cows, whose product is sold to a cooperative for processing and distribution to Publix, Winn Dixie and other outlets across the state. Dale is vice president of the cooperative, a post he has held for 11 years.

CattleRanching_4The cows are milked twice daily at midnight and midday, 365 days. It takes 5-and-a-half hours each time for the process, using a mechanized system that milks 24 cows at a time. The 12-hour intervals allow for the cows’ production of milk. They’re also calculated to maximize yields and relieve pressure on the udder, as cows not milked will experience discomfort and eventually dry up.

Why the strange milking hours?

Dale explains that family considerations dictated the original schedule.

“When our kids were young we decided we wanted to milk at times that would allow us to have three meals together, and it just stuck,” he says.
A cow eats 100 lbs. of feed daily to produce 10 gallons of milk. Ideally, cows are milked 305 days and allowed a 60-day dry period for recuperation and rebuilding of their milk-producing glands. They are generally impregnated in March, so they will calf and be ready for renewed milk production in January.

“We do embryo transfers in our herd,” Dale says, adding that the goal is to improve 30 specific genetic traits through artificial insemination. The desired traits range from the obvious ones of feed efficiency and increased milk production, to improved feet and leg structure, to a better angle of the rump and tilt of the udder.

He notes that the science has gotten to the point that it can be predicted with 90 percent reliability whether a particular sperm cell will produce a female, which is what dairies want. Male calves, and old cows that have ceased producing, generally go to the slaughterhouse.

Given liquid milk’s perishable nature and generic characteristic, producers find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of branding or pricing their products.

“We have absolutely no control over price,” Dale says. “We don’t brand liquid milk. It comes down to supply and demand.”

Which is where the cooperative comes in. As part of a 280-member organization that represents dairies across the Southeast, the member dairies get a degree of collective bargaining power in the determination of pricing, Dale says.

Overall, however, liquid milk consumption continues dwindling as the population ages, he notes. Fortunately, the industry has made inroads with cheese and yogurt manufacturers, which has helped. Too, dairies have gotten a bump from McDonald’s, Starbucks and such franchises in terms of milk use; and foreign demand is up. Production costs, however, also keep rising.

“On the surface, it all looks good,” Dale says. “But at the individual level, it’s a struggle.”

Exciting to the Eades is a soon-to-be-implemented plan that involves bringing their younger, marketing-whiz daughter into the business and branding their dairy.

Improving the Nation’s Herds

Southern Cattle Company (SCC), about 10 miles northwest of Marianna, is a purebred seed stock operation that only recently branched into commercial cattle sales. The owner, John Downs, is an Alabama steel manufacturer who started the enterprise in 1992 with the Charolais breed and eventually added Angus, Brangus and Beefmasters. Today, SCC encompasses 14,000 acres and numbers nearly 6,000 head of cattle, with its Angus herd reputedly ranked in the top 10 in the country. SCC is a specialized operation, evident in its spacious, well-appointed sales barn; its more affluent clientele, reflective of the Angus side of the business; and its focus on the production of prizewinning bulls and dams for breeding purposes.

“We breed cattle to sell to other people to put into their programs and improve their herds,” explains office manager Leigh Ann Ennis, a Penn State graduate with a degree in dairy and animal science. Her husband, Lamont, manages the operation. “This is the largest seed stock operation in the Southeast.”

CattleRanching5Take the bulls. SCC essentially produces breeding bulls with specific genetic traits that are almost guaranteed to produce offspring of whatever the desired quality, whether it be animals with enhanced marbling or leanness of meat; better able to gain weight on less feed; or capable of increased milk production.

To achieve its goals, SCC employs artificial insemination, embryo transfers, and donor and recipient cows. As Ennis explains it, the goal is to maximize the production of calves from the best cows, so that instead of prized cows producing one calf each per year, they simultaneously produce multiple offspring. The complex and complicated process includes administering hormones to cause super-ovulation, removing the multiple eggs produced, artificially inseminating them with a prized bull’s seed and implanting the fertilized eggs into recipient cows.

“You’re taking your best product and making more of it to sell to more people,” Ennis explains. “This is what we did when we focused solely on seed production.”

Starting in 2011, SCC also began selling its commercial, or lesser pedigreed, cows and calves to the feedlots. The calves, Ennis points out, are preconditioned prior to selling.

“You don’t see as much sickness in these calves because they’re not as stressed,” she says. “There’s a lot of stress to pulling a calf from the cow and immediately hauling it away. It’s an easy way to do it, but it’s crueler. Our buyers appreciate that our calves are in good health and vaccinated and they pay more.”

SCC welcomes visitors and will give ranch tours by appointment, especially to school children. The operation is proud of its accomplishments and its state-of-the art facilities.

A Thriving Business

All things considered — notwithstanding the recession, drought and increasing production costs — the cattle industry is reported doing well. Indeed, per state agriculture officials, sales of cattle and calves generated $502 million in 2010, up from $375 million in 2009. Sales of milk products were $439 million, up from $350 million the previous year.

“Overall, the state of agriculture is quite strong,” confirms Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. “Our cattle producers especially have seen strong prices due to the dramatic reduction of cattle inventory because of the drought out West. The western feedlots are looking to the Southeast and Florida in particular to fill the large demand for calves.”

Handley of the Florida Cattlemen Association agrees.

“The industry is doing fairly well,” he says. “Demand has been strong, both domestically and internationally. Some of it is due to the value of the dollar and increased exports. If cattlemen manage their costs well for the next three to four years, they should see a profit on their cattle.”

John Miller, the agriculture department’s bureau chief of dairy industry, echoes the sentiment.

“Milk prices are rising,” he says, noting that Florida dairies produced more pounds of milk in 2010 than 2009 and that annual per-cow production is also up. He attributes the increased sales in part to exports to Asia.

The biggest challenges Putnam and Handley see — aside from the ever possible weather-related disasters — are increasing government regulations and rising production costs.

Even so, Putnam sees reason for optimism.

“Despite the challenges, the future looks bright,” he says. “We’re seeing much innovation in agriculture. A lot of young people also are returning to the farm as a way of life. And you’re actually seeing some ranchers taking advantage of the bust in the real estate bubble and buying back land at lower prices. Land values are more conducive to running cattle operations than at any time in the last eight years. I feel optimistic about the future of agriculture.”

Florida Cattle Facts

»  The first record of domestic cattle in the continental United States is of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon bringing long-horned Andalusian cattle into Florida in 1521.   
»  Spain’s promotion of cattle raising as part of its missionary work explains how Native Americans learned the industry.  
»  By 1700, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 cattle roamed in Florida from the St. Johns to Apalachicola rivers.
»  After British-Creek forces nearly destroyed Florida’s budding cattle industry in 1704, it was the Seminoles that revived and maintained it throughout the 1700s.  
»  Cattle rustling and range rights contributed to the Seminole wars.
»  Florida cattle were so important as a source of beef products to the Confederacy that a special cavalry was formed to protect herds from Union raiders.
»  Today’s Cracker or scrub cattle — a hardy breed particularly adapted to Florida’s climate and scrubby pinelands — are descendants of the first Andalusian cattle.  
»  The Seminole Tribe remains one of Florida’s top beef producers today.

The Future of Cattle Ranching

It’s no accident that the University of Florida’s North Florida Research Center is in Jackson County, given the latter’s distinction as the epicenter of the cattle population in the region.

Besides agronomics and education, the center focuses on beef cattle research, with particular emphasis on bull testing, cattle management, livestock nutrition/forage and feed efficiency.

Take the latter, which relates to an animal’s ability to convert feed into weight. To producers, animals that gain more weight on less feed are most desirable, which explains the economic impetus behind the tremendous increase in feed efficiency research during the last decade.

“In beef cattle, 50 to 75 percent of the input costs are feed related,” explains Cliff Lamb, assistant director of animal sciences at the center. “Producers can’t survive without selecting for feed efficiency.”

He offers that tools being developed now will in the future be more accurate at predicting the genetic traits likely to be transmitted from parent to offspring, such as feed efficiency, tenderness of meat or increase of the rib-eye area.

“We will be able to take a blood sample or hair follicle that contains DNA and target specific traits with greater reliability,” Lamb says.
The caveat, he adds, is that DNA can’t account for environmental variables such as weather, climate and nutrition, which also influence the outcome.