Far from the world of beaches and tiki bars, there is a Florida of cowboys on horseback and cattle grazing on vast pastures.
Cattle ranching in Florida is a $500-million-a-year business, and if you drive through the byways of Central Florida, you’ll get a glimpse of it.
The best way to learn about cattle ranching in Florida, however, is to take a tour of a Florida cattle ranch — the largest “cow-calf” cattle ranch in the United States, in fact.
The cattle ranch tour, located about an hour southeast of Orlando, is free, and most people who visit will learn a lot about a little-known feature of Florida.
For starters, I’ve lived in Florida for 40 years and I never knew there was a vast – 290,000 acre – cattle ranch between Orlando and Cocoa that has been operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the 1950s. (Members of the church are commonly called Mormons, although the church discourages use of that term. )
Called Deseret Ranches, the operation produces about 25,000 calves a year, which it raises from birth to more than 500 pounds within a year, when they are trucked off to Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to be fattened up to about 1,200 pounds, according to our ranch tour guide.
I discovered the free tours of Deseret Ranch when I was planning a trip to the St. Cloud area, the closest community to Deseret Ranches. On TripAdvisor, folks raved about the “free cattle ranch tours” in St Cloud.
Free ranch tours? Sounded unusual. But on examining the website, it made sense when I saw the church connection. While the tours does not mention the church’s beliefs (no proseletizing at all) , it is an opportunity to demonstrate the church’s commitment to the environment and church members staff the tour operation.
The Deseret Ranches tour: Learning about cattle ranching in Florida
As you approach the Deseret Ranch visitor center, you will have been driving through the vast ranch for many miles already. The church started buying this land in 1950 to create a profitable operation to fund church activities.
Over the years, it perfected its operation, creating a crossbreed herd that can stand the heat and humidity. (Brahman cows, originally from India, are a big part of the mix.) It also devised the best pasture grass – a mixture of rye, Bermuda, Bahia and Hemarthria grasses.
The tour begins in a restored 1920s cedar-wood Florida cracker farmhouse that is decorated with wildlife exhibits, like a 12.5-foot-long alligator named Gus, who ended up stuffed in the visitor center because he was trouble in the citrus fields.
The tour guide, a church member temporarily living in Florida as part of what the church calls a mission, explains the objects in the room, each of which illustrates a point or story.
After a short video, visitors climb onto a modern bus and ride the bumpy shell-rock roads through the ranch. Visitors are not allowed to leave the bus or approach the cattle.
Cattle ranching in Florida? Bet you didn’t know this
The tour explains the ranch’s operation and is full of interesting facts:
- The biggest predator for cattle? Florida lightning. The cows out in the fields all day are vulnerable to lightning, which kills as many as one percent of the herd each year.
- Do cowboys still ride horses? Yep. And each cowboy has two because during the summer, the horse has to be rested after a half day of work.
- What do cowboys actually DO? Among other things, replace fences. With 1,400 miles of barbed-wired fencing, each cowboy has a yearly quota of replacing two miles of fencing.
- How many bulls are needed? These are busy bulls. It takes about 45,000 cows and about 2,900 bulls to produce 35,000 calves each year.
While touring the ranch, our guide was always on the lookout for wildlife to point out, and we saw plenty: baby alligators in a ditch, a sandhill crane, anhingas drying their wings, a flock of whistling ducks, turtles and fish.
The ranch lands, which extend along the St. Johns River, include a bird rookery that has developed in a manmade wetland for treating runoff water . The ranch also licenses a number of hunting camps on ranch lands.
The highlight of the tour, though is when the bus got close to a herd of curious cows, who crowded the fence as though as we were handing out treats.
Reserving a spot on the free Florida cattle ranch tour
While a farm tour with cowboys and animals sounds ideal for kids, this “talky” tour would probably not hold the interest of most children.
Deseret Ranches Visitor and Information Center
3584 Orchid Circle
St. Cloud, Florida 34773
Tours are Monday through Friday, at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. Tours are not available on holidays or Sundays. Tours should be scheduled in advance by calling 407-498-0388, our guide said. In the winter, several hundred people take the tour each month.