By Megan Mann, Livestock and Natural Resources agent
The word “cowboy” often evokes images of the old west…but in truth cattle in America could be more accurately associated with the “old east”. Ponce de Leon, of fountain of youth fame, first introduced cattle to the new world via Florida in 1521. These first Florida cattle were small statured with sharp horns and a knack for eking out a living in an inhospitable environment. Despite the heat, biting insects, swampy terrain, and lack of nutritious forage, the scrappy Spanish cattle not only survived but thrived, paving the way for economic development and growth in Florida.
Modern cattle industry
Nearly 500 years after the first cattle set hoof in Florida, the beef industry continues to play an important role in the economy and culture of our state. Modern Florida is considered a “cow-calf” state with the majority of ranchers caring for brood cows on pasture and raising calves to sell at the market. Weaned calves are typically sent west to grow and mature on rich pasture for several months prior to being moved to the feed yard where they are finished on a grain-based diet. Florida is home to an estimated one million cows (mature females), bulls (mature, intact males), and heifers (young females who have not yet had a calf) that produce approximately 800,000 calves per year. The total value of cattle in Florida is estimated in excess of one billion dollars and the Florida beef industry has an economic impact of 900 million annually. Many Central Florida residents would be surprised to know that the largest cow-calf operation in the U.S. is located a short drive from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks, and that five of the ten largest cow calf ranches in the U.S. are located in Florida.
When it comes to purchasing and consuming beef, consumers have more choices now than ever. There are 60 unique retail cuts of beef available, each with its own best use, taste profile, and degree of tenderness. In the mood to grill? There’s a cut for that! Do you want to “set it and forget it” in the crockpot? There’s a cut for that as well! Consumers also have options as to how their beef was raised and fed. You may have seen beef labeled as “grass finished” in the butchers case and wondered what that means and how it differs from conventional beef. All beef cattle live the majority of their lives on pasture. Grass finished beef remain on pasture until processing, while conventional beef cattle are fed grain during the last several months of their life. Grass finished beef tends to be leaner with less intramuscular fat (marbling) and a slightly different taste profile. Regardless of the cut of beef, or how the cattle were fed, consumers should feel confident that their beef is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. Each 3 oz serving of lean beef provides approximately 25g of protein, nearly half of the daily recommendation. Beef is also an excellent source of zinc, iron, selenium, and B vitamins such as riboflavin, B12, and Niacin.
Cattle and the environment
Beef cattle in Florida do more than stimulate our economy and nourish our citizens; they also serve to protect green spaces from further development. Cattle ranchers are considered one of the original stewards of the environment, with ranches often being cared for by multiple generations of Floridians. Over 4.5 million acres in Florida are currently used to graze cattle. These green spaces not only help to filter water and recharge our precious aquifer, they also serve as a habitat for numerous species of birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals. As Florida continues to grow and develop, these habitats will become even more critical to the survival of native wildlife and may play a role in protecting vulnerable species from extinction.
Next time you are out and about in your community I encourage you to notice and appreciate the pastoral beauty of our local ranches, just one of the many ways that agriculture helps to make and keep Florida a wonderful place to call home!
For more information on the beef industry, agriculture in general, or making healthy diet choices please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.