On the move: Florida beef industry meets challenges
Florida might be known for its beaches, but our economic history doesn’t start there. It starts with cattle, first brought to our shores by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521.
And while the cattle industry is still strong, with 4 million acres of pasture land and 1 million acres of grazed woodland, it’s an industry that has undergone changes in perception and faces challenges in a changing market.
Florida is mainly a cow-calf state: calves born here to be sent somewhere else for fattening and slaughter. Lee and Collier counties both have under one percent of the state’s cow-calf operations, while Charlotte has 1.27 percent and Hendry has 3.8 percent, according to data provided by the Florida Beef Council.
Raymond Crawford, of Hendry County, has around 400 heifers and is strictly a cow-calf rancher. In operation since 1972, Crawford partners with his son, who will continue on the family ranching business. “Business is pretty steady,” Crawford explained. “The price of calves is really good right now, and that makes everyone think they can buy cows and make millions. There is a lot more interest now than there was six years ago.”
That interest is partly because of the high price of beef, which is partially in response to the public’s changing views of beef.
According to a 2013 Consumer Beef Index, perceptions of beef are improving statewide, particularly about beef’s nutritional profile. While beef was briefly considered unhealthy, it is now seen as being a good source of protein and providing essential vitamins and minerals. Recent nutrition plans, like the Paleo diet and the Atkins diet, have a protein-heavy focus with beef as a healthy option.
“People are becoming more educated about their food,” said Ashley Hughes, Director of Beef Marketing & Promotion for the Florida Beef Council. Part of that is thanks, in part, to the Internet, and the wealth of scientific information available to consumers, and, conversely, misinformation. “They are looking at both sides of the story, regardless of whether you are a grain-fed person or grass-fed or however you like it, people are understanding that there is an incredible nutritional value to including beef in your diet.”
Even with the changing positive perceptions there are challenges facing today’s beef industry.
One of those challenges is public perception. “As a whole in Hendry County, there are some amazing ranchers,” explained Lindy Wiggins, Vice President of Hendry County Cattlemen’s Association and Regional Livestock Extension Agent for University of Florida/IFAS. “Some are on the fifth generation on the same piece of land. You cannot get any more sustainable than that. They have to be doing something right.”
One way the Florida Beef Council is trying to change that public perception is through education and farm tours, where groups of influencers (including members of the media) are taken through areas such as feed lots, ranches, and areas related to the cattle industry. “We have nothing to hide,” said Hughes.
Another challenge, and one that has been a challenge since cattle ranching began in Florida, is predators. “Predators are the biggest challenge of all,” said Crawford. “Panthers and coyotes, especially with the baby calves.” Government regulations make it difficult for ranchers to defend their herds against predators, a challenge that shows no signs of ending any time soon.
And then there is the changing market, which includes the growing grass-fed beef market. What started as a small niche market has grown significantly in the last two years. “Consumers are getting more aware,” explained Marilyn Noble, Communications Director for the American Grassfed Association. “They are concerned about their own health, the environment, and animal welfare. Even if grass-fed does not become the major production method, conventional beef production will change because consumers are demanding it.”
But there is more to raising grass-fed cattle than just turning your herd out into a pasture. “It has to do with the amount of pasture you have, and the genetics of your herd,” said Noble. “Some breeds are more suited to grass. A lot of our producers have worked hard to get their genetics correct. You want animals that finish well on grass and meat that tastes good and is palatable to customers.”
One area farmer who is currently focusing on growing her 100 percent grass-fed herd is Rose King, owner of Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers. King originally started with a small herd of Brangus (a cross between an Angus and a Brahman). She began phasing out the Brangus and currently has a herd of around 50 Longhorn cattle which she has managed for about a year. “The cows are born here,” explained King. “I don’t sell anyone else’s cows or bring in others to sell. Because we are building our herd, I keep the female heifers as my replacement heifers.”
King’s operation is not just grass-fed, but also organic, which brings its own special set of challenges. “When we are planting forage crops we plant thinking of future crops. Each item we plant puts nutrients into the soil to keep the cycle going,” said King. “Just being grass-fed is a challenge.” For example, to raise a grass-fed cow from birth to slaughter, it takes 23 months, while it only takes 15 months for a grain-fed cow, according to King. And then there are the weeds.
“We have to have thistle and dog fennel removal days,” explained King, and those weeds are removed by hand in all pastures, part of King’s commitment to organic farming. “We are not certified organic, but one day we will be.”
One sign that grass-fed beef is growing? King regularly sells out of her beef, before it is ever available for sale at her market days.
And while grass-fed beef is more expensive than grain-fed beef, a growing part of the market is willing to pay the premium. “People are eating less meat and are prepared to spend more money on better meat when they eat it,” explained Noble.
The Florida Beef Council, though, has a different focus, and is working to educate the public on how to prepare all cuts of beef, including the value cuts, through information on its website (floridabeef.org) on choosing the right cuts and right technique, or grilling once and using that cut of meat for two different dinners.
“There is a lot to be done from an educational standpoint,” said Hughes, who is spending much of May, which is Florida Beef Month, doing grilling demonstrations and traveling the state to educate the public about beef. “There is so much good science out there. There is a lot of research that has been done by us and by third parties, that really show the benefits of beef and how it can be included in a healthy diet.”Read the article on The Southwest Florida News Press site