Home on the Range: Mormon Church is finding new ways to preserve wetlands and wildlife

Published: Tuesday, July 23 2013 10:00 p.m. MDT

Cowboys move cattle, rotating them to a different pasture in the morning fog at Deseret Ranches of Florida. Sub-herds consist of approximately 3,500 cattle.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

ST. CLOUD, FLORIDA — As the sun begins to make the day's first appearance, the cattle ranch already bustles with activity. A handful of cowboys saddle up quarter horses to move herds into new pastures, while others prep corrals and chutes for branding calves. Eagles and hawks look to circle the morning sky and share it with heron and cranes, while deer and rabbits make their way back to woodland edges, as do the wild hogs.

Meanwhile, massive tractors, graders and front loaders are lined up, to be used to reshape the land, while ranch airboats are primed for the waterways. Laborers prepare for the day's harvest in the citrus groves, while every mammal — including ranch hands and their dogs — will keep a wary eye out for nearby alligators.

Heron, airboats and gators — oh my! And, no, Dorothy, we're not only not in Kansas anymore, nor anywhere near the traditional cattle ranches of Texas or the Rocky Mountain West.

Welcome to Deseret Ranches, its nearly 300,000 acres spread over three counties in central-eastern Florida, tucked in between Orlando and Disney World to the northwest and the Kennedy Space Center and the state's Space Coast corridor to the east.

Yes, cow-punching thrives in gator country. So shed those West/Texas mindsets, since four of the nation's seven largest cow-calf operations — including Deseret itself — are found in Florida.

Deseret Ranches is an umbrella title for the multi-use ranch's various operations, with Deseret Cattle and Citrus the headliner among other smaller for-profit operations. And besides blending beef production with growing oranges, Deseret Ranches is successful in meshing seemingly unrelated or even contradictory matters.

Like crafting a puzzle-like pattern of pasturelands, woodlands and wetlands to benefit both agriculture operations and local wildlife. Like following a "drain and retain" mentality of water conservation that not only preserves much-in-demand underground aquifers but also enhances water forwarded to regional waterways. And like not only creating cattle crossbreeds for adaptability and growth but providing programs and habitats on the ranch to sustain and enhance wildlife.

"If you think of it in an integrated manner, you can make the wildlife and the cattle work," said Erik Jacobsen, ranch general manager and operational vice president. "In my mind, they kind of play off each other."

The result is a ranching operation where "stewardship" and "environment" are not merely buzzwords but part of Deseret Ranches' long-term vision for agriculture and wildlife.

Mike Dennis, president of the Breedlove, Dennis and Associates environmental consulting firm based in nearby Winter Park, Fla., hails the integrated management scheme.

"It's a real stewardship model that other folks in our business try to emulate," Dennis said. "And the ranch has done a great job of it for the past 60 years."

Cattle the catalyst

Owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through its Farmland Reserve Inc., Deseret Ranches dates back to the early 1950s when the bulk of the existing property — then mostly low-quality, cut-over timberland and long stretches of wire grass, between the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and the St. John's River — was purchased.

While some initial employees and others over time have been brought in from outside to work the ranch, many Floridians were also hired — the first being the father of current cattle manager Gene Crosby, with four generations of Crosbys having called Deseret Ranches home.

"It's a good place to raise a family," said Crosby of Deseret, where nearly 100 employees work, most with families and homes onsite.

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