According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average size of a farm in this country is now 434 acres or about 16 acres larger than when the last census was taken in 2007. Helping raise that average but also skewing the numbers is the Deseret Cattle and Citrus Ranch near Orlando, Florida. That operation covers 290,000 acres and expands out over a 30 by 50 mile radius in three Central Florida counties.
The ranch is owned and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who bought the property in the 1950s and began operating it as a cattle ranch and citrus operation. It is the largest cattle ranch in the United States as a group of Western Wisconsin farmers found out recently on a specialized farm tour to the Sunshine state.
According to Sister Perkins, one of the tour group’s hosts on the ranch who also served as a tour guide, “the ranch currently has 42,000 mother cows, 40,000 newborn calves and 1,800 home raised bulls grazing on the abundant grasslands of the ranch.” The only time the cattle get a feed supplement is during parts of the winter when the protein in the grass falls from 11% to about 5%. At that time they are given a molasses and cotton seed pellet mix The calving season will end on the ranch within the next week or two, she added.
All cattle on the ranch are crossbreds on a three year rotation to get their three hybridized breeds into their cattle string. Sister Perkins said, “ we maintain a Brahman influence in the cattle so they can stand the heat and humidity of Florida so we use a Braford, Brangus and Simbrah rotational cross to develop the replacement heifers.” She also said they have developed their own Deseret Red breed that will soon be worked into the herd as they phase out the Hereford blood in their cattle. They will also keep a straight Deseret Red bloodline which they feel will become a popular breed in the hotter climates of the United States that they can market to other cattle ranchers.
The cattle portion of the ranch, which is by far the biggest enterprise of the operation, is broken down into 12 operating units that handle about 3,500 head of cattle each. Each unit has one foreman and usually two additional cowboys, “who do all their work on horseback”, Sister Perkins said. Each cowboy is given a string of three colts from the ranch herd which begins with a herd of registered quarter horse mares. Usually there are about 120 active ranch horses working on the farm. After working three to five years on the farm and training their own colts, the ranch gives the horses to the cowboys. Most of the cowboys and unit foremen are college graduates, not necessarily Mormon, who have degrees dealing with livestock production, pasture and range management or other applicable areas of study.
The Florida operation is only step one in the farm to market philosophy of the ranch. When the calves reach about 500 pounds, the steers and the heifers, not needed as replacements, are loaded on trucks and shipped to a church -owned feedlot in Kansas that has about a 40,000 head capacity. Sister Perkins told the group that way they can capitalize on their marketing of natural, grass fed beef with the Deseret logo and also because most of the Western feedlots “don’t really like our big eared cattle.”
The ranch is also an environmental sanctuary for many types of wildlife as about 380 different species of wildlife call the ranch home, including alligators, which Sister Perkins said aren’t as dangerous to the cattle as are lightning strikes during the year. Ranch workers are especially proud of the 100s of bird species which call the ranch home, including the Woo Stork, which they feel they have saved from extinction.
While cattle are the main enterprise at Deseret Ranch, there are others. About 1,700 acres are devoted to citrus crops like oranges, tangerines and tangelos. That’s about 250,000 trees in production that they lease out to others to come in and pick and market those crops.
Other crops grown on the ranch, all under irrigation, include potatoes which are direct marketed to Lay’s Corporation for chip production, and corn and soybeans. The water used for irrigation on the farm is dispensed by the state of Florida and Sister Perkins said, ‘There is always a battle for water as others would like to take some of our water, but haven’t been able to do it so far.” The ranch recycles water and also supplies water to the nearby cities of Cocoa, Rockledge as well as the Kennedy Space Center.
While the current Deseret and Citrus Ranch is the biggest cow-calf operation in the country currently, it may not be in the future. The Mormon Church recently bought a 380,000 acre ranch in the Florida panhandle which is now in timber but eventually will be logged off in parcels and provide more land to graze their constantly growing cattle herd.