Corn is the key to keeping cows at home in the Sunshine State.
by Laura Anders Lee
Florida is the 10th largest state in the country for cattle production with more than 1 million head of cattle. Of the top 25 cattle ranches in the United States, seven are in Florida, including the country’s largest cattle ranch, Deseret Ranch in Kissimmee.
Yet 95 percent of Florida’s cattle, or some 920,000 cows each year, are shipped out of state to feed yards in the West, where they are processed for market. By the time that beef reaches consumers in Florida grocery stores, they have no idea where it’s from—until now.
This year, Florida Cattle Ranchers will start selling their home-grown beef in a major grocery-store chain for the first time ever (about to be announced as Edible Orlando goes to press).
Beef from Adams Ranch in Osceola, St. Lucie, Madison and Okeechobee counties is already in specialty stores like Whole Foods, but this is the first major, mainstream partnership. So why now? The answer is twofold: increased consumer demand and the ability to locally grow corn.
“In the last three years, Millennials started calling the ranch and wanted to buy our beef,” says Cary Lightsey, a seventh- generation rancher at Lightsey Cattle Company in Lake Wales. “Every day we were getting three or four calls—we couldn’t believe it. People want to know where their beef comes from. They want it home-grown. They want to know how it’s been treated and how it’s raised.”
So in 2015, Lightsey became a founding member of Florida Cattle Ranchers, a group committed to quality, humane treatment, transparency, conservation and sustainability. Key to the issue of quality is that familiar yellow staple: corn.
While grass-fed beef has seen an uptick in popularity over the past 10 years due to its perceived health and environmental benefits, the majority of consumers prefer the flavor of beef that has been “grain- finished.” With this method, cattle are fed grass until the last 150 days of their life, then switched to a grain-based diet, of which corn is a key component. Corn has traditionally been grown in Texas, where it’s more cost effective to produce. But recently, Florida farmers have figured out how to grow high-quality corn for local feed lots.
“In our research we found out that our results here are as good as out West,” says Lightsey. “The yield is unbelievable, the quality is great.”
Now that the corn can be grown locally, more cattle can stay home. Not only does this cut down on the carbon footprint of a tractor-trailer traveling 3,000 miles, but it’s better for the well-being of the animals.
“If you let them finish their life where they’re from, they do better,” Lightsey explains. “There’s no snow on their backs, no ice storms. My dad had an old saying: ‘If the cow’s happy, I’m happy.’ If they’re happy, they’re having calves and making milk.”
The Florida Cattle Ranchers already have more than a dozen members who will be providing beef, and they’ve lowered their minimum requirements to allow for smaller, first-generation farms to participate.
The ultimate goal of the Florida Cattle Ranchers is for consumers to know where their meat is coming from, and while many of the ranchers’ personal stories are online at FloridaCattleRanchers.com, consumers also will be able to scan the bar code on the new Florida beef packaging to read the story of the rancher on their mobile device.
The Florida Cattle Ranchers also are working with the Florida Beef Council to educate consumers on the health benefits of beef. “Ten daily essential nutrients can be found in a small serving size, including protein, zinc, iron and vitamin B,” says Ashley Hughes, executive director of the Florida Beef Council. The ideal serving size is about 3 ounces, which is the size of a deck of cards.
Jenna Braddock, dietician, author and instructor at the University of North Florida, says that red meat can fit into a healthy lifestyle. “There are 38 cuts of lean beef with less than 10 grams of total fat and less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat,” she says. “The American way is to have this big piece of beef with fried stuff. The basis of a good diet should be fruits and vegetables, healthy grains and then balance that with meat.”
Besides fat content, consumers’ chief concerns with beef are hormones and antibiotics. “One thing to remember is everything is highly regulated,” says Hughes. “We have good science, we have good research, and the cattle cannot be processed until after all antibiotics are out of their system, so technically all meat is antibiotic-free.”
Consumers who want beef that has never had antibiotics should look for organic beef. While there are currently no certified organic cattle ranches in the state of Florida, there are a few—such as Adams Ranch, Deep Roots, Pasture Prime and Clear Creek Farms—that either sell their hormone- and antibiotic-free beef through smaller chains such as Whole Foods or directly to the consumer at markets and via mail-order.
According to Hughes, Florida cattle, like most commodity beef, are given growth hormones, but at very small levels. “In one 3-ounce piece of steak, there are 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, while 1 cup of soy milk in a latte has 30,000 nanograms,” she says.
In Orlando-area stores, Florida beef will be identified by the big red Florida Cattle Ranchers logo with the state of Florida. Because of increased production costs of doing business on a smaller scale, the prices will be slightly higher than commodity beef.
“Every farmer I’ve met really cares about what they do,” says Braddock. “They want to do it better and in a more sustainable way because it’s their family and their livelihood.”
Greens or Grain?
These Florida ranchers think grass is where it’s at. Their grass-fed and finished beef is available through these area retailers:
Cowart Ranch, Sumterville: available at Orlando Meats (storefront opening Spring 2017; currently at Audubon Park Community Market in Orlando).
Deep Roots Meat, Greenville: available at Homegrown Co-Op in Orlando and Hoover’s Market in Altamonte Springs.
Tracy Lee Farms, Hawthorne: available at Fresh 24 and Florida & Co (at East End Market) in Orlando.