Tours are no longer offered at Deseret Ranches, according to a spokesman.
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.
Deseret Ranches is the largest “cow-calf” cattle ranch in the United States\.
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. )
The ranch 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.
When Deseret Ranches offered tours, we learned about cattle ranching in Florida
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.
From the Deseret Ranches visitor center, we rode many miles through the vast ranch to a restored 1920s cedar farmhouse 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 missionary, explained the objects in the room, each of which illustrates a point or story.
Today, church missionaries are no longer assigned to the ranch, according to spokesman John Peck, and the tours were suspended.
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.
Deseret Ranches 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 was when the bus got close to a herd of curious cows, who crowded the fence as though as we were handing out treats.
Visit the Deseret Ranches website for more background.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.