Researchers and cowboys ride together on this Florida ranch.
Researchers and cowboys ride together on this Florida ranch.
By Charles Johnson
Head to Archbold Biological Station near Lake Placid and you get a look at the ‘real’ Florida, the one visitors to theme parks and beaches never see. Here, in the station’s nearly 9,000-acre Florida Scrub ecosystem, many threatened and endangered birds and plants live in undeveloped patches of land. Cowboys on horseback work the station’s nearby 10,500-acre Buck Island Ranch with caracaras flying overhead, rare storks strutting, and alligators sunning on banks, as researchers conduct tests in the pastures.
It’s an all-too-rare landscape located at the headwaters of the Everglades in south central Florida. Among these ancient sand dunes, creatures exist that can be found nowhere else. At the ranch, scientists study the ecological impact of cattle management techniques, with an overall goal of being a leader in demonstrating environmentally-friendly ranching.
The ranch, home to the MacArthur Agro-Ecology Research Center, has about 3,000 mostly Brahma crossbred cows and 150 Angus or Charolais bulls. That makes it one of Florida’s top 20 ranches in cattle numbers. Tourists may never realize that Florida still has more than a million beef cattle grazing pastures mostly in the central part of the state.
“We manage natural areas and working areas and restoration landscapes. It’s a squeeze between science and land management. This area lost 83% of its natural scrub landscape to development. Now there are a lot of efforts to protect what’s left, and we are compatible with that. In doing this, we work with a lot of agricultural neighbors doing fire management, which is necessary. What we have here are islands in time,” says Hilary Swain, Archbold’s executive director and a Ph.D. zoologist.
A new pride. “There is increasing cooperation and respect between the agricultural community and the conservation community, all to preserve these wild species. What’s changed is there is now a pride in these special places, particularly those protected through their own land management. Both parties have to do some learning. We are sharing information about managing this land. The conservation community has learned from the people who have owned the land for five or six generations. “
Buck Island Ranch stands on its own, with profitability the aim. This is not a pie-in-the-sky scientific play-ranch.
“We have to make ends meet,” Swain says. “We are tethered by physical reality. Our operations have to be representative of a working ranch. It’s like running a giant natural laboratory. How do we understand this as a viable ecosystem yet remain economically viable over time? We have to stay in business and also keep ecological and environmental sustainability over time,” she says.
Living labs. Out on the ranch, Betsey Boughton, program director, points to on-going research areas as well as cattle. “It’s a living laboratory to help understand how to maintain biodiversity and a productive ranch. We have university researchers, graduate students and interns out here conducting experiments on a wide range of things,” she says.
“On the operational side, we have to keep it similar to what other ranches in the area are doing because that gives validity to the research. On the other hand, we are willing to try some things that are a little bit different. Other ranchers look at their operation as an asset and at us as a resource. We are not fulfilling our mission if we are not sharing.”
They share marketing, as well. They joined with 12 other ranches to market cattle to retailers, labeled “Fresh from Florida.”
“We hope this market will grow. We’d like to see as many as 10% of Florida’s calves marketed as being born, raised and fed in Florida. There’s a brand value to Florida, and these are good quality animals,” says Gene Lollis, Buck Island’s ranch manager.
Lollis started working here in 1993. He grew up in nearby St. Cloud. “If I can do something today to help us stay in business another day or ten more years, that’s what I’m going to do. What I do isn’t that different from managers on other ranches in the area,” he says.
A rotational grazing program based on pasture conditions keeps cattle moving around the ranch. Forage is mostly bahiagrass, which is tolerant to both dry and wet conditions and tends to be long-lived, with 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre applied to it each year. They’re also growing more clover and other legumes, which require no nitrogen and contribute to a more diverse forage system.
Wet and dry. “Some native grasses still grow in the outskirts of the ranch. When we have dry seasons, they can be very tough on the cattle, so we give some supplemental feed then to help them get through,” Lollis says.
Since 1988, the ranch has contributed information to the national agricultural library about soil moisture, air temperature, rainfall, humidity, and wind speed and direction.
“The biggest impact on an operation is weather, so we monitor that very closely,” Lollis says. “We try to find some interaction between weather and ecosystems. We have over 500 miles of drainage ditches, and have water monitors for both quantity and quality. This is about a three million acre watershed and about one million acres of it is ranchland.”
Low-cost water structures in ditches can hold water in place so moisture is available during the fairly-frequent periods of drought. Archbold led the way to a state and national partnership arrangement providing payments to ranchers to retain water on their property. It holds water for future use, and reduces excess water downstream, as well as nutrient runoff in the Glades.
“We’re doing Environmental Protection Agency research to see what other benefits there might be for wetlands, soil microorganisms, fish and insects. We also want to see if there are any negatives like an increase in mosquito population or whether we lose forage because of it,” Boughton says.
“We want what we’re doing to be beneficial to fish and amphibians. If there’s a little loss in forage, that can be replaced by other forages. The goal is to make pastures more productive in dry weather. If we can lengthen by 30-40 days the period when we don’t have to pump water into the ranch ditches, that will save us $12,000 in a month. We would like to turn the ranch into the sponge it used to be.”
Preserve and restore. More than 40 wetlands dot the ranch. Researchers are interested in pinpointing what sort of cattle management system is best for wetland preservation and restoration. They’re finding that both controlled fires and moderate grazing best preserve native wetland plants.
“Research here shows that without controlled burning and some grazing, the wetlands degrade. Fire has to be a part of the management program. Historically, fire was a natural part of the ecosystem,” Boughton says.
Other researchers on the ranch focus on issues like air quality. After a decade and a half of work, a team of scientists from USDA, the University of Illinois and other colleges, have data showing the ranch releases 10,000 metric tons of carbon equivalents into the air.
“But the other side of this is that we are also sequestering carbon. So, do the emissions balance with the sequestering? On our 10,500 acres on the ranch, it’s looking like our total impact is neutral,” Boughton says.
“The University of Illinois has a tower here that measures the amount of carbon and methane in the air from a 300-foot radius. It shows that the pasture during the day is drawing carbon in. At night, it’s releasing carbon mainly through microbial activity and roots. When the soil gets wet, bacteria release methane. There’s a study since 2012 comparing methane released from cows to methane released from pastures. Only 30% came from the cows in a subtropical environment. Most came from soils, particularly wetlands and really wet environments like this area. These measures will help refine global modeling in order to get better estimates,” Boughton says.
Bouncing back. Boughton points to the crested caracara, a black and white orange-beaked raptor with a four-foot wingspan, as a good example of a species on the ranch whose numbers have bounced back in recent years.
“It’s an emblem of biology and ecology. It’s kind of unusual in that it’s a little bit of the west that over time got left in the east in this ancient ecosystem. We used to rarely see a caracara. Now we see them pretty often. They’re an impressive bird. I’ve started looking for them out here. When I think that I haven’t seen one today, there one is, sitting on a fencepost or soaring overhead,” she says.
Other rare birds, like wood storks, can often been spotted on the ranch, as well.
“When threatened species are doing good, hopefully it’s a sign that our beef production system is doing good, too,” Lollis says.
Swain says 161 bird species have been spotted on the ranch along with more than 400 plant species, plus black bears, Florida panthers and bobcats.
“It’s a very unique place,” she says. “We’re very blessed to have it and we want to manage it in a way that preserves its character.”
Invaders. Wild hogs remain a serious problem on the ranch. They dig up forages and harm wetlands, irritating wildlife ecologists. With each sow giving birth to many pigs every year, they’re difficult to control.
“We estimate there are 500 to 1,500 feral pigs on the ranch at any given time. Feral pigs are a big problem. They can ruin a wetland. So are coyotes. People don’t associate coyotes with Florida but they’re here. Florida has lots of surprises,” Lollis says.
Scientists at Archbold, naturally, study the wild hogs to learn their habits and sequence their genetics. They are also studying the potential of disease transmission from wild hogs to cattle and wildlife species.
Back at station headquarters several miles away, scientists stay busy doing an entirely different sort of research.
Reed Bowman, a research biologist, has data on Florida scrub jays going back to the 1960s. He tracks families of the jays, seeing how they are affected by environmental conditions. “I’m interested in what makes bird population go up and down,” Bowman says. “I do a monthly census of the scrub jays at Archbold. Basically, I have to know each individual jay. I can tell you who’s related to whom. They’re really territorial. The whole family defends territory against jays not in the family. There are 80-to-85 families of scrub jays here. Every jay is banded so it can be easily identified out there.”
Bowman’s ongoing avian research project shows that the population of scrub jays on the Archbold Station property is stable. In surrounding areas, however, it is declining.
“The number of new birds coming here has decreased, so genetic diversity has declined. We rarely see pairings between close relatives but we have seen a slight increases in in-breeding and it carries costs. The hatching success of eggs has decreased slightly because of inbreeding,” Bowman says.
A win-win. “The take-home from this, what farmers and ranchers need to know, is that even a small habitat and a small population of wildlife is important. Conservation works out for everyone. A lot of ranchers like to maintain habitat for hunting leases. It turns out that bear, deer and turkey evolved in the same landscape as the scrub jay, so what’s good for them is good for the jay, too. What ranchers are doing helps a lot. Florida ranchers are responsible for the wildlife success along the Lake Wales Ridge, the scrub country.”
The ridge, he explains, is 120 miles long and just a few miles wide. It has been above sea level for a couple of million years.
“It’s sand. Plants here adapted to almost desert conditions. It’s tough to make a living on it. The Florida scrub jay has to have 25 acres to make a living on acorns and other things. The jay mates for life. They’re monogamous. They have social networks and strategies to make them pay off. They have distinct personalities. Some are bold and aggressive. Some are timid. The longest-lived ones here are 15 years old, pretty long for a bird.”
Bowman also does work with sparrows and woodpeckers but finds scrub jays most interesting. He began working at Archbold in 1990 and never wanted to move on from this place that became home. “Archbold is a great place to do science,” he says.
Founded on science. Mark Deyrup, a senior research associate at Archbold Station, is just as focused on ants as Bowman is on scrub jays. In fact, Deyrup wrote the book on Florida ants, all 239 known species of them, 128 of them present at Archbold. He’s a talented artist, and produces accurate line drawings of each ant species.
“I was able to take what interested me and kind of run with it,” Deyrup says. “We’ve really worked hard here to document arthropod diversity. It’s a good baseline place for diversity in a lot of ways. It’s good to be working in a place where science is considered something of value and importance.”
Founded in 1941 by Richard Archbold, described as an aviator/explorer, who ran it until his death in 1976, the station from the beginning welcomed scientists with inquisitive minds and a creative bent.
“He had quite a history of exploration in New Guinea and other places before he got here but after he set this up, he facilitated the work here for 37 years. He had fantastic people working here, and scientists as collaborators. He recognized the importance of this ecosystem. Then he gifted the land, buildings and his wealth to endow it,” Swain says.
“We continue to learn about the scrub ecosystem, and have people here with tremendous knowledge. The ranch is an opportunity to do it in a working landscape.”