Less than a decade ago, Florida was the top calving state in the nation. Practically every major cattle ranch and dairy farm in America had cattle birthed in Florida. Those days, it would appear, are gone. According to Candi Erick, Agricultural Statistics Administrator for the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture’s Division of Marketing and Development, Florida isn’t even in the top 10 anymore of calf-producing states.
A January 31, 2014 report by the US Department of Agriculture said this year marks the lowest national inventory of cattle and calves since 1951. When one looks at the calving cow and replacement heifer numbers, national figures are the lowest they have been since 1941. Calving, as an industry, has the lowest national numbers on record since 1949. In Florida, the report showed a three percent decline in the calving industry over the past year alone. Only the dairy sector has seemed to stabilize while all other sectors of the cattle and calving industry have seen dramatic drops in production. Nationally speaking, the report shows approximately 72percent of all calves in America are birthed between January 1 and June 30 of each year.
In 2013: Florida By the Numbers, an e-book produced and published by the Florida Department of Agriculture, the only county with large numbers in beef and dairy cattle operations in Florida is now Okeechobee County. Escambia County was once a major player in the diary industry of Florida but, starting in 2007, their number of dairy cattle was so low their numbers were counted in with “Other Counties” who are not major players in Florida’s cattle industry. Santa Rosa County, since 2004, when the report begins, has not been a major player in Florida’s dairy industry. The same is also found with Okaloosa County not being a major player. Of all cattle and calves, Santa Rosa ranked at 0.36 percent of the total state industry makeup, and 38 in the state of the 67 counties, while Okaloosa ranked 0.24 percent (41out of the 67 counties of Florida) and Escambia edging out with 0.42 percent (36 out of the 67 counties of Florida). Okeechobee was the top with 8.13 percent of the total state market.
So, why is it Florida’s once glorious calving industry is now running “middle of the pack” with the other states in the nation? While the Florida Department of Agriculture refused to comment on why they thought this was taking place, and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association also refusing comment, some are still willing to speculate. Prudence Caskey is the 4-H Extension Agent for Santa Rosa County. She suggests market volatility has probably led farmers and ranchers out of the business and into other agricultural avenues. Another suggestion she posits for Florida’s drop in the calving market is the popularity of artificial insemination. Thanks to perfected AI practices, practically any farm or ranch in the nation can now have calves birthed on demand with no need for a bulls and other extraneous costs.
Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the progesterone inserts called CIDRs (Controlled Internal Drug Release), cattle are now more reliably bred than in the past. According to a report from the National Association of Animal Breeders, Cliff Lamb, an animal scientist at the University of Minnesota, said the CIDR is inserted for seven days. This causes the animal's blood progesterone concentrations to rise rapidly, with maximum concentrations reached within an hour after insertion. Progesterone concentrations are maintained at a relatively constant level during the next seven days. Upon removal, progesterone concentrations are quickly eliminated. This change in hormones stimulates ovulation. The animal can then be artificially inseminated using materials either sourced on the ranch or through a medical mail order system.
Many disagree about AI and the usage of CIDRs coinciding with decline. According to John Atkins, Agriculture & Livestock Agent for the Santa Rosa County Extension Services office said AI has been around for about 50 years. The CIDRs are just a new innovation in the science.
Instead, Atkins said a number of issues could be at play regarding the numbers reporting – especially how the numbers are reported. He is quick to point out researchers have no definitive way to account for all cattle and sales. Therefore, they have to make certain assumptions may change over time. Another issue is basic supply and demand. Multiple years of drought has caused western states, like Texas, to unload massive amounts of cattle unto the market as small farms and ranches go out of business. Along with weather, Atkins said crop fluctuations can affect feed costs as well as loss of pasture lands due to development. Farmers and ranchers, like any business, adjust resources and expenses to maximize profits and minimize loss. Just as unpredictable, and impactful, as the weather – government regulation changes can have a significant impact. For instance, Atkins said Florida is now third of states, east of the Mississippi River, for cattle production – down two places because tobacco subsidy defunding in Tennessee and Kentucky caused tobacco farmers to leave the business and get into cattle to earn a living.
In truth, as Atkins points out, there is no single answer to why calving is down in Florida and majority of the nation. For instance, while Tennessee and Kentucky are leading the market, east of the Mississippi River, their cow-calf numbers are still down. Texas has had the largest losses while some states, like Colorado, unexplainably are seeing jumps in their numbers.
Atkins said if a farmer wishes to enter into the calving market, the farmer-producer needs to first determine if they are going to be a “price taker” or a “price maker.” Price takers, he explains, raise cattle and take them to sell at auctions – whatever the price the gavel pounds at is what they take home. Price makers are the opposite in they create a price based upon some benefit, service, or virtue making the end product more valuable. For instance, he notes of a dairy in Escambia County uses a “cold pasteurization” of milk many consumers find especially appealing. Capitalizing on the “green” movement, Atkins said farmer-producers can market their herds as “grass fed,” “free roaming,” “locally produced,” etc. However, with these designations, he said are special circumstances which must be fulfilled. For instance, meat producers have to utilize a state certified processing plant to commercially sell their meats. The same is true for calf producers wishing to use some special designation. The farmer-producer needs to be mindful of infrastructure needs.
Boutique multi-purpose breeds, like Dexters, are growing in popularity with small farmers wishing to do more with less. However, Atkins said people shouldn’t overlook the commercial meat breeds. Currently, prices for pregnant, pure bred cows and commercial meat lines are at an all-time high. This means, said Atkins the cost to entry is high. Farmer-producers, entering the calf market, should also be weary of regulated designations and cornered markets with great hype and little payout. Of these, Atkins said some may find “organic” to be too regulated a designation to make a profitable operation; large groups have cornered the semen market making profit margins slim for bull semen for AI operations. However, said Atkins, money can still be made, although the chances are very low.
With over 4,000 cattle in Santa Rosa County at any given time, Atkins said any successful cattle-based market is all about the marketing and capitalizing on market demands.
Indeed, the face of the calving market is changing but there is still room for profitable farms wishing to cater to niche markets and capitalize on trends. A number of resources exist for starting farmer-producers wishing to enter into the market. However, one of the best resources is to visit Santa Rosa County Agriculture Extension Offices. These professionals have a host of resources and the latest data to help the competing farmer-producer stay viable in even the most troubled of markets.