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Environmental Impacts of Ranching

Looking out over the picturesque fields of lush green grasses growing and cattle grazing may be the best view of all.  How does that view affect our environment?  Depending on which day it is, you may come across a news story showing how ranchers are destroying our environment. While other news stories show how they are some of the best stewards of the land.  So what is the environmental story behind the view?

Ranchers have long recognized the importance and value of preserving these natural resources.  When ranches are managed properly, they can provide wildlife habitat, store carbon, contribute to purifying air and water, and preserve soils.  Ranchers can serve an important role in mitigating the impacts of many invasive species that threaten native plants and wildlife.  In Florida, the dollar value of these services has been estimated at $4.6 billion annually, as documented in the UF/IFAS Florida’s Pastures and Rangelands infographic.

Ranches with a combination of improved pastures, wooded native areas, and wetlands offer a diversity of ecosystems.  These diverse ecosystems provide habitat and open space for many wildlife species to prosper.  In these areas, you can find many native and endangered plants and animals.  Some plants you may find are bromeliads, scrub palmetto, bald Cyprus and bluestem grass, just to name a few.  Animals you may find are alligators, gopher tortoise, or the bald eagle.  The Caracara and the native Florida panther, depend upon ranchland for their continued survival.  For example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that more than 50% of habitat used by Florida panthers exists on privately owned land, most of which supports cattle ranching.

Another resource ranches can provide is water storage.  Depending on the time of year and amount of rain we receive, ranches can provide areas to store water.  Ranches can also provide resources to clean water prior to it reaching waterways.  Wetlands provide an important resource to clean and filter water.  Through the Best Management Practices (BMP) program, ranchers have installed structures in waterways to slow the flow of water.  In some instances, they have also returned areas of the ranch to its native state.  This allows the water to spend more time on the ranch and clean the water.  This water is also able to infiltrate the soil and replenish ground water sources rather than running off to larger bodies of water like lakes or the ocean.

The carbon footprint is reduced on the ranch by improving efficiency.  Over the years, the overall efficiency has been improved to produce each pound of beef.  Well managed grazing systems and improved feed production systems can both be contributors to this reduction.  Along with the reduction of the ranches carbon footprint, these changes can also slow climate change.

Along with providing habitat for wildlife and plants, assisting in providing clean water to our waterways and reducing our carbon footprint, preserving the land for future generations is also important.  More ranchers are beginning to enroll parts of their ranch into conservation easements to preserve the natural areas for future generations to enjoy.  Conservation easements are provided through federal, state, and private organizations.  Entering into these agreements, ranchers are selling their development and land-use conversion rights to achieve environmental protection goals.  These easements are voluntary to enroll.  The conservation easement allows current and future owners to use the land for detailed purposes such as ranching or agricultural operations.

There are two different programs in the state of Florida to conserve natural resources and protect land, Florida Forever and Rural Family Lands Protection Program.  These programs are administered through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  Citizens of Florida voted, by 75 percent, in 2014 for conservation funding.  The level of funding varies from year to year.  On the federal level, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also has a conservation easement program that protects land and simultaneously conserves natural resources as long as the easement makes economic sense for the agricultural operation.

The Florida Conservation Group was developed to focus on conserving natural and agricultural lands. This group is comprised of representation from a variety of groups including the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

Ranchers in Florida are going above and beyond to preserve their lands for future generations.  Assisting in providing ideal habitats for some of Florida’s endangered species, cleaning and holding water, reducing carbon footprints, and preserving the land.  Ranchers are ensuring that we will have those picturesque fields to enjoy for many generations.