Buck Island Ranch This is one of a three-part series focused on communicating everyday science used on ranching operations in Florida. This photo essay emphasizes the biodiversity on cattle ranches and how the ranch land is a functioning and thriving ecosystem.

Cattle are wildlife’s friends. Ranch land provides sanctuaries to wildlife through the continuous management of the land.

Gene Lollis, Buck Island Ranch Manager and Florida Cattlemen’s Association president, said having cattle on the land helps enhance wildlife and biodiversity.

The biodiversity on Buck Island Ranch (BIR) ranges from 170 bird species, 30 reptile species and 25 amphibian species and many other types of wildlife.

BIR is part of the privately-owned Archbold Biological Station (ABS) in Highlands county. The ranch is a 10,500-acre working cattle ranch, making the land the platform for the research. The premise of the research is environmental, focusing on the wildlife, water and natural surroundings.

“I always felt what they did here on Buck Island with the science and research combined with what I love to do, which is work cows and run a ranch, was my way of giving back to the families that allowed me to grow up on their places,” Lollis said.

Ranch office used for meetings and gatherings.

Being connected to Archbold Biological Station, the ranch looks at every aspect of the land. “We look at everything,” Lollis said, “We look at the soils, our forages, and our water.”

The research conducted on BIR is to show the importance of the ranching community and agriculture, he said, hoping the research shows why having cattle on the land is important.

“A lot of people think ranchers don’t do anything but raise cattle and ship them off, but it is much more complex than that,” Lollis said.

What Lollis described is a complex agricultural system, meaning ranchers must look at everything from the soil to the cattle, and everything in between.

“It is much more than just having a cow that has a calf,” Lollis said. “We have to balance the system.” Ranch land in Florida is more than just a home for the cattle. It is home to many other native animals that depend on the open land as much as the cattle does.

“If the natural species that are here are thriving and living well then, you know you are doing your job,” Lollis said.

Cattle herded together in shade under palm trees.

“If you aren’t taking care of the land, it’s not taking care of you,” Lollis said. “It is in our best interest to make sure that our land and water are being taken care of.”

The natural land would not remain open without something to keep it that way. Without management, the land would become thick and dense woods, unable to maintain the native wildlife. Lollis said cows are just a tool to keep open space.

Just as fire is used as a tool to manage the land, cattle are used in the same way, he said. “In the Southeastern United States, we have always dropped matches which has helped the environment,” Lollis said. “It keeps the land open and doesn’t let it over grow and a cow is the same thing.”

BIR has made enclosures on the land and removed fire and cattle management from those fenced-in areas. These areas were created to demonstrate what happens to the land without any form of management.

“The area becomes an extremely dense thicket, so much so, even the birds will not land in it,” Lollis said.

When Lollis first started working at BIR, he said all of the scientists were ornithologists and studied birds. He said this was a benefit because it showed the habitat and all of the birds that exist on a ranch.

“It’s not atypical for the neighbor’s ranch or a ranch somewhere else in the state to have the same birds,” Lollis said. “We just happen to have scientists out here that count them.”

Group of cattle relaxing in the shade

Although committed to researching the ecosystems and biodiversity on ranch lands, BIR also focuses on water quality on the land.

Lollis said some of the public assumes cows are bad for the water, well they actually aren’t, he described.

“We have been studying water quality for 20-30 years. Back in mid ‘90s we did a large replicated study on stocking rate,” Lollis said. “It showed that the cattle had almost zero effect on phosphorous runoff off the property.”

Lollis said the cattle haven’t changed, meaning they are still an animal that is used as a tool to help manage the ecosystem on the land. Ranchers have improved their management practices over time, including increased drainage and increased forages to improve the environmental impact of ranching.

“We look at things we can mitigate the impact from our operations, so we have learned you don’t necessarily have to have a maximized production system, but you have to optimize the production system,” he said.

Lollis said some of the public is not willing to look at all the benefits of ranching and the supporting science.

“We are trying to tie both of these things together,” he said in reference to how ranching and science are used together.

Lollis said the biggest misconception he sees and hears is that cattle are bad for the environment.

“They are just a tool, if managed right,” he said. “None of us try to overdo things, we just try to balance the system.”

Lollis said he thinks ranchers need to do a better job at advocating to the public by sharing their stories and facts about the beef industry. He said most ranchers just get up and go to work, focusing their time on only the land and animals, not communicating with the public.

“We have to get out and start sharing our stories and telling people what we do,” Lollis said.

Created By
Milli Jones