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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.

Of course, most Floridians have trouble pronouncing Deseret ("dez-er-RET"), let alone knowing the word is derived from the LDS Church's Book of Mormon and means "honeybee." But the ranch's brand — an outline of a beehive — underscores the name.

Deseret is first and foremost a cattle ranch, with 44,000 cows and 1,300 bulls divided up among 13 different management units, each with a foreman and two cowboys over a sub-herd of some 3,500 each. Most units are cow-calf operations, with three being herd-development units — all use the latest health, nutrition and handling innovations.

Born between January and March, 33,000 calves are weaned annually in the fall at 500 pounds and shipped west to feedlots to finish off at a market-ready 1,200 pounds.

The ranch's breeding program mixes Brahman with the Hereford, Black and Red Angus, Simmental and Red Poll breeds to create Braford, Brangus and Simbra crossbreeds, which are tolerant of Florida's hot, humid climate while providing quality growth and reproductive traits.

Beyond the beef

With 160,000 acres of Deseret Ranches given to pasture land for cattle, another 1,700 acres host some 240,000 citrus trees. Besides some fresh oranges, tangerines and tangelos, mostly Valencia and Hamlin varieties of oranges are harvested as the ranch produces an annual crop the equivalent to 50 million glasses of orange juice.

Elsewhere on Deseret property, third-party operators

cultivate sod, palm trees and palmettos for landscaping and roadway projects;

mine large deposits of fossilized seashells used for road base;

cut pine, cypress, palm and other hardwoods;

and harvest small stretches of commercial crops ranging from chipping potatoes and corn to wheat and black beans.

Another ranch operation oversees the wildlife leases to some 40-plus hunting and fishing clubs using select property locations. With limited public lands in the East, most hunting has to be done on private lands.

"They're paying for an experience," Jacobsen said. "Some want to come out and hunt; some want to just come out and camp."

At Deseret, the popular game draws are the Oceola turkey, white-tailed deer, feral hog and large-mouth bass. Game laws are followed, and a full-time, on-site wildlife biologist administers monitoring, measuring and indexing programs of game taken off the ranch, using the data to help monitor population size and species health.

"It's an integrated part of the management of the ranch — if you don't manage it, you've got all sorts of problems," said Dennis, adding that non-management of wildlife results in "feast and famine cycles."

Nongame animals — such as alligators, which can grow to lengths of 12 to 14 feet — are monitored as well. Some live gators are harvested annually to manage the population, while half the alligator eggs are collected yearly and sold to local alligator farms. This and similar efforts for nongame species all follow state wildlife regulations.

Enhancing wildlife

Wildlife management for Deseret Ranches' 380-plus documented species is more than just taking away — the ranch giveth as well. A prime example is Deseret creating a wood stork rookery — one of Florida's largest — where hundreds of island nests of storks and other avian species are protected by deep, moat-like waters and trolling alligators watching for the snakes, raccoons and other animals that prey on the birds' eggs and young.

It's one of a number of efforts the ranch makes in trying to sustain and enhance the endangered and sensitive species found on the property.

Another example is how Deseret Ranches deploy what is called an "edge effect," purposefully positioning a patchwork of woodlands and wetlands in and around pasture areas, rather than just clear off all land for grazing.

Wildlife thrives on edges – alligators and shorebirds at water's edge, deer and turkey at woodlands edge. "We describe it as a mosaic of pastures, wetlands and woodlands," Jacobsen said.

Deseret's water ways

Besides shaping pastures with bigger woodland buffers and longer wetlands corridors, Deseret Ranches is moving land and creating waterways to both drain and retain water and tap into existing natural watercourses and centuries-old canals.

Ranch property manager James Payne underscores the area's ironic water issues, given Florida is a swampy, water-surrounded state and central Florida receives an average annual rainfall of 52 inches, mostly from June to October.

But, as Payne points out, without elevation variations and canyons, a flat Florida can't store water. Drenching rains either pool on pastures or mostly rush off into the St. John's River.

In addition donating land for the massive Taylor Creek Reservoir and selling 16,000 acres of riparian water at nominal rates, Deseret Ranches already has constructed a handful of retention reservoirs, such as the shallow, 500-acre Jug Island Reservoir, that enhances drainage and retention.

The reservoir allows the slow-moving waters to go through a natural water-treatment process to filter and reduce natural pollutants before the runoff waters advance to the St. John's. The reservoir also doubles as additional wetlands for wildlife and plant growth.

And ranch water-management practices focus on using surface water for irrigation, rather than pump from underground aquifers.

Always being watched

Deseret Ranches recently earned "best in region" honors from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for environmental stewardship and land management.

And ongoing cooperatives and community involvement range from working with local universities — particularly the University of Florida, the state's land-grant university — in a myriad of research, experimentation and application projects to hosting a popular annual rodeo and making its scenic Sun Grove area available for Scout and church youth camps.

But plaudits and successful performances in land and resource management aside, outside challenges come with the territory.

Surrounding counties and cities benefit from a tax-paying, non-subsidized, profitable ranch providing jobs, commercial interactions, community benefits and wide-open spaces, but they can't help but see those wide-open spaces as target areas for urban growth.

Wildlife groups and enthusiasts love what Deseret Ranches has done to enhance the numbers and health of many endangered and threatened species, but they can't help but want even more stringent protections and designations on the property.

And water utilities and users enjoy the water-quality efforts and storage capabilities provided by Deseret Ranches, but they can't help but want to take more water from off the ranch.

But Deseret Ranches wants to preserve most of its property as a multi-use operation in coming decades, not to turn over tens of thousands of acres for community development. It wants to avoid losing property use and control to restrictive wildlife-preservation designations. And it wants to retain enough control and use of its water resources to continue its extensive, ongoing agricultural purpose.

"As a ranch, we're trying to cooperate with the regional Water Management District and trying to make this all work," said Payne, adding that cooperation is needed to needed for long-term water-supply solutions.

So it is with land and wildlife issues as well. Rather than be acted upon, Deseret Ranch wants a proverbial seat at the table so that its future is in harmony with its neighbors' future, rather than a casualty because of it.

"The ranch creates a diverse environment for everything from agriculture to wildlife to ground-water recharging," said Jacobsen, the Florida native who once was a Deseret unit foreman and later returned to oversee the entire ranch operation. "The whole concept of creating a diverse landscape is that it allows multi-use philosophies, from a profitable cattle ranch to a diverse habitat for wildlife."

And the goal of good property stewardship is long-term decisions than increase and enhance sustainability, he added.

"We tend to look at the next 50 years, and not the next quarter."

EMAIL: staylor@desnews.com

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