Visitors to Florida may be surprised to discover that this tropical state known for its warm climate and beachfront properties is also home to a large and thriving cattle business. It’s not unusual when driving down the highway to see fields full of grazing cows. In fact, the cattle industry in Florida has been around for almost 500 years thanks to the state’s natural wide open spaces. That might be hard to imagine today because of the many cities and towns that have popped up throughout the state but Florida is still a major player in the nationwide cattle business.
Florida cattle can be credited to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Upon discovering Florida in 1513, he saw a great opportunity for pastureland and brought horses and Andalusian cattle, the ancestors of the Texas Longhorn, back with him in 1521. This makes Florida the oldest cattle-raising state in the U.S. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Florida cattle, though. Early ranchers had to contend with raids from Native Americans, sick cows, storms, and swamps. Despite all these challenges, ranches continued to spread throughout Florida, especially after the railroad made its way to Florida and cattle could be shipped to other parts of the country. At this time, cattle could roam freely because there were no fenced pastures. Cowboys would round cows up over miles of pastureland and the herds could number anywhere between 5,000 to 50,000 cows.
These early days set the stage for Florida’s powerful cattle industry today. Florida raises the third largest number of cattle a year of all the states east of the Mississippi and ranks twelfth overall for beef cows. Just about half of all of Florida’s agricultural land is used in cattle production with four million acres of pastureland and one million acres of grazed woodland. Florida is known as a cow-calf state. The calves of Florida cattle are actually shipped to other states so they can be processed into beef later. Four of the ten largest cow-calf operations in the United States can be found in Florida. While Florida cattle are primarily used for beef, dairy cows are also quite common in Florida. The most common dairy cows in Florida are Holsteins, the black and white variety that most people envision when it comes to cows. There are only 122,000 dairy cows in Florida compared to the one million cows used for beef production but they collectively produce about 2.34 billion pounds of milk a year.
Cattle are an incredibly important aspect of Florida’s history, economy, and landscape. They came here with the first European settlers and have made such a huge impact that Florida would be very different without their presence. Not only do Florida cattle feed people throughout the country but they have also played a big role in the preservation of the natural landscape, providing space for wildlife and native plants that may have otherwise been destroyed due to development.