OKEECHOBEE — Environmentalists may be surprised by the fact that cattle pastures produce less phosphorus than residential developments.
The Highlands Museum of the Arts presented a panel of four experts on Feb. 19 to discuss Florida Cattlemen’s Role as Environmental Stewards.
Panelists included Raoul Boughton, assistant professor and rangeland scientist for the University of Florida Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona, Dr. Paul Gray of the Audubon Society, Gene Lollis, a ranch manager for the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center at Buck Island Ranch, and James Wohl, owner of the Rafter T Ranch in Sebring.
The event hoped to raise awareness on the need to preserve corridors for wildlife and store water in Florida.
Lollis explained the Buck Island Ranch is one of the top 20 cattle producers in Florida and covers 10,500 acres. Some 3,000 head of cattle roam their pastures.
Mr. Wohl purchased his ranch in 1973 and has earned many environmental stewardship awards which include the 2013 rancher of the year presented by the Florida Audubon.
“Agriculture families want to stay in agriculture,” he said. “Most agriculturists are very concerned about taking care of soil and water. We have learned from our past mistakes.”
Mr. Boughton said cattle ranches are great habitats for birds and wildlife. He also praised them for their burn programs that keep the habitats available to wildlife.
Dr. Gray said the cattle industry is also great for the birding industry. He said they keep the land green and pristine and attract birds from all over the country. He noted Florida is the last service center for many birds that fly from North America to South America each year.
Mr. Boughton told the crowd of about 50 people that cattle ranches also provide safe haven for some wildlife. He spoke about one, a male black bear that recently was collared and tracked in Florida. It traveled some 500 miles from Moore Haven to I-4 and back again.
“Without private land and connectivity, the black bear population would be eliminated in Florida,” he said.
The bear visited much of the Kissimmee River Valley on his voyage.
Mr. Wohl discussed the recent controversy of water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers. He explained that while the lake water contains high levels of phosphorus, ranchland is an ideal storage area for water before it reaches the lake.
“We need 1 million acre feet of storage north of the Lake Okeechobee and that will prevent these problems,” he added.
Dr. Gray explained that it is highly unlikely that the Herbert Hoover dike would collapse but that water storage is needed.
“Large reservoirs are not an attractive way to fix our water problem,” he said. “We can pay these ranchers to hold the water for us.”
Mr. Boughton said the state has made some land purchases and conservation easements to store water, but not nearly enough to meet the needs of Lake Okeechobee. He estimated 1,500 acre feet of water storage has been purchased — a fraction of what water experts say is needed.
Dr. Gray said the state often wastes water when they have it. He noted this year has been a 100-year rain event and no system is designed to handle that amount of water.
“The water system has not been updated in 70 years. It’s a jalopy and you can’t bring that to the race course,” he added.
Lollis said in the past when the Kissimmee River meandered around and finally reached the lake, it took three to six months for water to flow from Orlando to Okeechobee. Now it takes 30 days.
The panel said the Kissimmee Restoration project should be a great help in cleaning up the water, slowing it down for natural treatment.
“I feel we are environmentally responsible. We also provide many jobs,” he added.
A report from the Friends of Florida 2060 shows runoff from pasture land has less phosphorus than runoff from other areas. Improved pasture was rated at 3 pounds of phosphorus per acre, far less than residential development at 14 pounds per acre, golf courses at 9 pounds per acre, dairy farms at 48 pounds per acre, row crops at 170 pounds per acre, and field crops at 6 pounds per acre.
Mr. Broughton said another environmental benefit of cattle ranches is the reduction in carbon releases into the atmosphere. He said grass lands absorb a lot more carbon than other land uses.
Mr. Wohl said if more land is kept in grazing, the environment and Florida would be better off.
“I want to stay in the cattle business. If there weren’t another pasture or citrus grove plowed up I’d be a very happy man,” he said.
Dr. Gray said cattlemen and environmentalists have a lot of common values.
He said green space can store and clean water and make the property more environmentally friendly.
Mr. Lollis said cattlemen need to do a better job of educating the public on what they do. He said his ranch has public tours to show the public what they are doing to help the environment. He said the tours are very popular and all the tickets are sold quickly.
Mr. Wohl said in the past, water management was looked at as an adversary but he noted there has been progress in that arena.
“We want the same end result,” he said. “How do we get there? We have common goals. Ranchers are slowly changing but many don’t want to be told how to manage their lands.”
Mr. Wohl said with the citrus greening problem he worries that large citrus processing plants will go out of business in this region.
Broughton also spoke briefly on a new cattle breed the White Angus which took 25 years to develop in Florida. He noted the white cattle don’t get as hot and do better in Florida pastures.
The Florida Humanities Council and the Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation contributed to the presentation.
The museum also presents a photography exhibit of Florida Cattlemen and wildlife through March 15. Photos from Carlton Ward Junior entitled “Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to OkeeFenokee” are available for viewing at the museum. For further details, visit www.HighlandsArtLeague.org.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News