One Family's Move to Rural Florida, and their Life on a Small Florida Ranch



We Gotta Get Out of Here!

Several years back now, the crowding and gridlock associated with residing in Coastal Florida pushed my family on a journey searching for a lifestyle with less concrete and less congestion. We waffled on this decision for a very long time, but suddenly the timing was right. We found the perfect property, and our house in the city sold in days. It all happened very quickly.

I use the term “journey” because it continues today as we live our lives filled with the highs and lows of tending animals and seeing nature up close and personal. Our relocation added so much depth to our lives. I hope to share some thoughts about what it’s like to live in Rural Florida making it easier to take that same step that we did. See, it’s not what you make by living this authentic Florida lifestyle; it’s what it makes of you.

These are our personal stories.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

We Learn What to Look for When Buying Hay


With November comes a change of seasons in our part of Florida.  

 Lack of daylight hours drives much of our change, though the end of the rainy season and the cooler nights also play a part in the pattern.


Our Bahia Pasture Begins to Fade 

Much of our pastureland on the ranch is comprised of a variety of grass called Bahia grass.  

Bahia adapts well to our hot, humid conditions, but nearly goes dormant between the late September and mid-March. 

To do well, Bahia needs at least 12 hours of sunlight daily and temperatures that don’t fall below 70.  By November, we weren’t meeting either criterion and we knew we would soon need to buy hay.  


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fields Full of Babies


The new calves came in torrents during the weeks following our waterlogged work assisting Holly in the pond.   We now had new calves in the morning, new calves after dinner, new calves through the night. 

 Here’s the funny thing.  They no longer came as a surprise.  With so much activity in the fields around us, we could now be very vigilant in our work.



There are certain things to do when cows are calving.  First, of course, is to see that that baby’s presentation looks correct and all goes well through the birth canal.  Calves are born face-first and tucked between two forefeet facing straight ahead.

Next, is to stay and see that the new calf finds the mama’s teats and physically starts to drink shortly after learning to stand. 

Standing is not as easy as it sounds.  Baby’s legs are wobbly and take a little mastery to perform.  It will take the calf a full 24 hours before they are strong on their legs, and another 48 hours after that to be secure in using them in stressful situations. 

Learning to drink is another skill.  Calves often can’t tell where to suck.  Most of the time, nature kicks in, it finds its way and the baby will be getting nutrition within the hour.    However it’s the few times when this doesn’t happen that we have to worry about, and it calls for a little intervention.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Cry of the "Ky-yote" - Our First Brush with Florida's Coyotes


Our first October in the country was a wet one.  The recent storm had inundated us with rain and pasture grass was tall.  The standing water hadn’t allowed us to cut for hay.

Folks had warned us to watch for predation, from both human and from beasts.  To keep the vigil,Davis rousted us up each evening after dinner to go out to verify the numbers in our herd.  The idea was to see that every animal was there and in no trouble and to check fence-lines for signs of unwanted visitors.

 The fact that our pastures had turned into wetlands meant that a thriving mosquito population was now residing among us.  In order to work comfortably in the evening conditions, we’d don long sleeved shirts and jeans, pull on rubber boots and lather ourselves with mosquito repellent that included DEET.  



Then Davis,  Mark and I would slog out into the fields for the early evening cattle rounds.

This all seems easy but in truth it was a trial.  Each one of us kept our own counts, and they rarely agreed with one another—so we’d count and recount and then count again.  We’d miss the calf tucked neatly in the tall grasses, then in a panic search “the wide open” before tripping over the sleeping calf.  And all the time we’d be swatting “skeeters”.

Three-quarters way through the month, we discovered our cows were beginning to show signs of near-calving.  Udders, which had been filling with milk, were now showing signs of tautness.  The tails of some cows were visibly lower as the calf was now beginning to move.  Our nightly hikes began to take on a new meaning as we were checking for any signs of labor.

Then early one Sunday morning it all began with a friendly black brindle cow with soft brown eyes named Holly.   


Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bucket Garden


Florida is a land of deluge and drought, and that first season on the ranch brought vast rainfall.  Thunder clouds would form and build each afternoon, then deposit their bounty by rush hour.  The storms left us a lot of standing water in the fields, and made rubber boots the standard choice of footwear that fall.  Like I said, we had a lot of rain.

As all folks who move to the country, I had spent years dreaming of putting in my own garden.  In our first year, however, the water table on the ranch wouldn’t allow it, and time was of the essence, so I decided I’d plant my garden this year in containers.  

You can throw out much of what you learned elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere about gardening cycles when you come to Florida.  Our seasons are somewhat inverted.  We can’t plant our standard vegetable garden in the summer months due to intense sun and water.  We plant many of our vegetables in September, and others come the spring.  


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two Cars Aren't Cutting It


I mentioned that our move happened quickly.  After years of careful shopping, our farm came into view and then into our lives within a short 3 month time span.  During June and July, we made home improvements and then marketed our city house ourselves.  It sold, we packed, we moved.  The enterprise of real estate consumed our summer but by mid-August we were living on the ranch.

We were city-dwellers and we had city ways.  One of those ways was what we drove.  We owned two cars.  They were great on the Florida Coast where the vehicles fit the lifestyle, but they simply didn’t work on a Florida farm.  We needed a truck, and we needed it now.

We pooled all our money to purchase cattle and property so we found ourselves cash poor at the moment.  In order to buy a pick-up, we’d have to find a great deal because our budget didn’t allow a lot of wiggle-room.

The truck needed strong hauling power because we’d be carrying cattle.  It had to have good handling because a man, a woman and a teen would be driving it.  The truck needed to be roomy because we’re a very tall family.  And we needed it to have 4-wheel drive because we’d be using it working out in the fields.  Hmmm….sounds like an expensive proposition to me.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

There's Always a Ring Leader


Watching over my cows that first month, I came to learn some things about bovine behavior.  These aren’t groundbreaking discoveries, but they were new to me.  So today I’m going to share four things about cows that were new knowledge to me. 

Number one.  There are attack cows in the some herds, and ours was one of them.  These girls are the most aggressive in the bunch and ready to defend.  They’re the first to run to help when there’s trouble.  You always hear about how cows are so docile?  Well beef cows are tough cookies.  They’re not in and out of the barn each day getting touched and being pampered by human beings.  Beef cows are out in the fields where they face down coyotes and bobcats, foxes and panthers, vultures and dogs, so they’ve learned to adapt to the environment.  This isn’t always easy because both a panther and a pack of coyotes can kill a cow.  But I’ve had several killer ladies who would run toward the fury when the herd was in danger, not panic and flee like the others. 

The strange thing was that these were always the least likely looking cows for the job.  Mine were sleek bodied long-legged girls.  When they got wind of danger, they would pick up those legs; and when they ran you’d swear you were looking at stallions.


Monday, April 9, 2012

We Don't Know Nothin' About No Cattle - Part 2


You Can Lead a Bull to Water But….




The thing about August is that cows go through water.  Yes, this is Florida and it rains a lot, but on a ranch in the summertime the water tanks need filling come rain or shine.   

Now a cow will drink 25 gallons of water a day easily.  In the August heat they consume twice that much--at least 50 gallons a day.  Clean, fresh water is important to the health of the cow.  While they’ll drink from a pond, pond water always contains some type of contaminants and since it’s not as pure as we’d like, we encourage the cows to drink from our tanks. 

Our ranch is a small ranch as things go.  The big ranches will have solar water pumps to keep clean water available at all times, but they’re expensive to install and quite hard to maintain with our Florida wind.  We have wells on our ranch and an antiquated system that has us checking our tanks several times a day.    

As I explained a bit earlier, we purchased cows that were already bred; meaning that each cow is currently pregnant.  We’re expecting our herd to calf late in autumn, so there’s no work for bulls quite yet.  At this point in the year we can keep our bulls out from the cows, separated in a different pasture location.  Bulls are commonly out of the herd for maybe three months each year in order to fatten them up and generally lessen their stress before breeding season kicks in.  We must maintain good water in our bull pasture also to keep them in good health.

Our bulls are friendly guys.  They were chosen not only for good muscle and bone structure but also for a friendly disposition and ease of handling.  Attitude is an important trait in a bull, especially when you don’t keep daily help around to assist you. These are pure-bred Limousin bulls, a breed originally out of France.  Limousin cattle are raised for their lean beef, and so when you see lean beef at the market, it just might be from Limousin stock. 


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Our First Labor Day – In more ways than one!



Labor Day Weekend is celebrated in style in my part of Rural Florida, and as new residents of the county, we jumped in with both feet.  Our plan was to participate in every festivity during our first holiday weekend in town, and we would be busy!

We were up at daybreak to attack our chores.  Davis and Mark went out checking the herd as I made up beds.  Once tanks were all topped, the men found the  table.  They devoured breakfast and were off to the shower.  We wanted to get to town early this morning to watch the Saturday parade.  

Each one of us wore our best highly starched jeans along with a pair of recently shined cowboy boots.  This is a cow-town, after all, and we want to look sharp to fit in with the local scene. 


Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Beginnings of Friendship


Neighbors in Rural Florida are a real blessing.   While much of the country thinks we’re all rednecks and hillbillies, the reality is quite different.  Hidden within the wooded hammocks and quiet prairies of Rural Florida are friendly and caring folks whose skill and talent and self-motivation are prime character traits.  James and Betsy Cantor are two such people, and the day we met them was our lucky day.

Davis was the first to come across the Cantors.  Heading home from the hardware store on Saturday, he was flagged down on our road by a man waving madly from the window of a small red truck. 


Saturday, March 24, 2012

We Don't Know Nothin' About No Cattle


And so it begins…

So just how did we talk ourselves into raising beef cattle?  We were told we could do it. 

Closing on our ranch in August just a mere 100 days after first seeing the place, we acquired our herd of cattle by private treaty the same day. 

The ranch’s previous owners, George and Cheryl Ann, graciously left us with mountains of reading material about cattle-raising in Florida as well as all of their notes on everything that had happened over the years so we’d know what to expect. 

In order to hit the ground running we decided it would be my job to read everything in this stack, meet the neighbors and learn the ins-and-outs of a cow-calf operation.  My husband Davis works full-time off the farm so he’d have to lean on me for schooling us both on the working of cows.  Davis would undertake the task of learning about the infrastructure of the ranch and how to maintain it in the time he had available.  So we had a plan.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Perfect Place on Earth


The Search Begins

Everyone keeps a wish list of what they want in their next home.  We were no different, although our list didn’t trend towards house amenities.  What our perfect Florida home needed was open sky--clear views of the sun rising each morning and setting at night.   Water.  We wanted water.  Our next property must have water in some form which would in turn both attract wildlife and calm our harried souls.  “Authentic.”  That’s the word we used.  We wanted to live in authentic, natural Florida.

We pulled out an atlas and drew a 50 mile radius circle extending out from my husband’s employer.  I was a freelancer and self-employed.  I could live anywhere.  He, on the other hand, had to commute, and the distance he would need to drive would be an issue.  So with map in hand, we’d take weekends and explore the areas rationally available to us.  Driving through little communities and the countryside surrounding them, we began to understand our options and to develop preferences based on our travels.

                             


We started our search looking for an acre or two of land.  You know, enough to plant a garden.  But as our hunt wore on, our ambitions grew larger.  Maybe five acres; no ten acres; given a little time, perhaps we could scrape together enough for twenty acres of Florida land.  We asked ourselves “how can we afford the real estate taxes if we buy that much land in Florida?” Real estate taxes are always an issue in the cities. This question led us into a new hobby researching agricultural practices in the hopes of finding ourselves a practical business enterprise capable of securing an agricultural tax exemption for our land. 

                                

We’d plant trees for the landscape industry, we decided enthusiastically after receiving help from local advisers.  And off we charged into the study of horticulture, and the development of a business plan we could cultivate into our next business venture!

That Little Ad

It was a Tuesday morning in early May.  Cup of coffee in hand, I was skimming the Sunday paper ads looking for anything of interest when it caught my eye.  There among the larger real estate lists was a tiny little 2” x 2” advertisement for a small home with a good bit of acreage, and although priced near the top, it was just in our budget.  “It must be awful,” I commented to the empty room around me, “to be so reasonably priced and have that much land.”  Expecting the worse, I dialed the long distance number listed in the advertisement.
                



                         


A sweet-speaking Southern woman answered my call.  She identified herself as a broker, and it was her own home she was selling. She explained that her husband had been fighting cancer for some time and the place had become too much for the two of them to handle.  They decided it was now time to sell. The couple ran a cattle ranch, she went on, but the land was flat and could be converted to another enterprise should we prefer to do so.  In spite of my trepidation, I set an appointment to see the place on Saturday, not knowing, really, if we would keep the appointment or not.