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Water Wranglers: How Florida Ranchers are Rounding Up Water

February 10, 2014

By: Darden Restaurants,

Water Wranglers: How Florida Ranchers are Rounding Up Water

Pictured: The Florida Everglades

Photo Credit: Pictured: The Florida Everglades

Jimmy, can you tell us a little about the Rafter T Ranch?

Rafter T Ranch was purchased by my parents in 1962.  The 5,178 acres were unimproved native land from which pine timber was harvested during the 1930s.  This purchase culminated a series of ranch purchases and sales in conjunction with south Florida’s population pushing west and north from the coastline of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Can you describe what an “improved pasture” means?

An improved pasture involves replacing native vegetation with other plant varieties selected to provide a higher yield of more nutritious forages than what naturally occurs on Florida soils.  At Rafter T Ranch we have about 2,200 acres of improved pasture in addition to natural vegetative communities.  Cross-fencing is used to divide the ranch into various pastures so they include both improved grasses and woods.  We find the cross fencing to be an invaluable tool to promote rotational grazing.  Rotational grazing has proven to be instrumental keeping our grassland, and our cattle, healthy and productive.

Florida’s water management districts are now partnering with ranchers and farmers. Why?

The concept of paying private property owners, especially ranchers, to provide water storage and treatment has become frequently discussed, and in some instances, put into practice by the South Florida Water Management District.

After the effects of multiple hurricanes in 2004 adversely impacted Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries, South Florida Water Management District determined a method by which adverse impacts from excess water and flooding could be mitigated.  This method required finding one million acre feet of water storage north of Lake Okeechobee, which could be accomplished economically by paying ranchers to do the job.  South Florida Water Management District has determined that retaining water on private ranches has numerous benefits.  It precludes huge public capital expenditures to buy land and construct storm water treatment facilities.  An added cost savings is that the rancher assumes responsibility for water management duties.  In addition to economic benefits, it has been proven that the practice of “Dispersed Water Management” on ranches has far reaching wildlife benefits.

Since the turn of the century, the cumulative impacts of urban development and intensive agriculture have altered our hydrology to such an extent that we are finding excessive nutrient imbalances and rapid drainage to be damaging Lake Okeechobee, its estuaries and the Everglades.

Reversing urban development or curtailing production of food and fiber would have extraordinary economic consequences.  A viable alternative is to incentivize ranchers to retain water on their land during the rainy season thus preventing excessive unmanageable flows into Lake Okeechobee, its estuaries and the Everglades.  Furthermore, retaining the water is a method whereby excessive nutrients are removed before being released into public waterways once the rainy season ends.

What made you decide to get involved in water management?

When presented the opportunity to become a participant in the pilot study called Florida Ranchland Lands Environmental Service Project (FRESP), I was anxious to be a guinea pig.  The intention was to develop a transparent quantifiable methodology whereby a rancher could be compensated for providing environmental services.  In this case, it was retaining water onsite when Lake Okeechobee could not take any more and remove excess nutrients before it is released.  Ironically, we now use the original dike my father built to keep water out of the ranch, only now we use it to keep water on the ranch.  Furthermore, we receive compensation for doing so.

A short video highlighting these efforts can be seen at: https://vimeo.com/61143683.

How much of your land is “under water”?

Dispersed Water Management is the name used to describe the services we provide, so I think the term “under water” is a misnomer that creates the wrong perception.  Dispersed Water Management involves an approach to recreate natural hydrological conditions which occurred pre-development.  We have about 1,400 acres of marshland that once was Arbuckle Creek flood plain.  Now, it once again functions as a flood plain. 

During the rainy season, the water rises inside the dike as Arbuckle Creek rises outside the dike.  As Arbuckle Creek recedes after rainy season, we begin releasing water to mimic what Mother Nature intended.  Our effort to mimic Mother Nature is not accomplished without infrastructure and a strategy.  We have constructed a 150 acre water retention pond with a cost share grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quantity Incentives Program (EQIP).  All our engineering design and permitting was paid by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to expedite this pilot project. Prior to Dispersed Water Management, our water was pumped directly into Arbuckle Creek.  Now, all the water is pumped into the retention area where it is treated for excessive nutrients before flowing into Arbuckle Creek.

Have there been any changes in the wildlife?

We’ve seen a significant increase in wading birds, alligators, raptors, including bald eagles and ospreys, ducks and teal.  We never saw fresh water pelicans or roseate spoonbills on the ranch until implementation of FRESP.

Have there been any changes to your cattle raising practices?

The combined impacts of FRESP and implementing other practices to retain water for longer periods on other areas of the ranch makes for a wet season that lasts much longer than our rainy season.  We found this to be a good thing since surface water and soil moisture used to be gone soon after the rainy season. 

The most significant change made to our cattle raising practices has been to restrict our calving season to 90 days.  The calving season begins October 1, after the rainy season ends, and by the time the rainy season begins in the first week of July, all calves have been weaned.  This lessens the stress on the cows when it’s hot and forage quality is low, while still allowing them to gain weight after raising a calf for eight months.

We are grateful to Jimmy Wohl for his time and to the Rafter T. Ranch for being a pioneer in water management practices in the state of Florida. Look for more stories on our supply chain in the coming weeks!

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