Ranching In Florida; Grazing Ground and Gathers
- September 5, 2023
- Marisol Tarango
Recently my family took a road trip to visit friends in South Dakota. Traveling from the heartland of Florida through the Pine Belt, the Bible Belt, and the Corn Belt, I saw many different landscapes and more corn than I cared to see. I had been through or flown over most of the states that we went through before, but the diversity in the landscapes of this great country never ceases to amaze me. While there are similarities in the woods of the Smoky Mountains and the pines of the Black Hills, and the open fields of Missouri to South Dakota, each place has its own unique personality, like cousins from a big family. In this big family of landscapes, Florida is probably more akin to the thick woods of the Smoky Mountains, only without the mountains and with more water.
On the coasts of Florida there are the estuaries, where the land meets the sea and creates what is essentially a brackish (a mix of salt and freshwater) swamp, that gets saltier the closer you get to the sea. One of the main trees in the estuaries are mangrove trees, which is something like a willow tree, but with roots that come out of the water, especially during low tide. Although there are old pictures of cattle herds being held on beaches before being shipped to Cuba, these lands are not used for ranching.
Swamps can be the most beautiful, yet dangerous landscapes in Florida. They are filled with snakes and gators, and you can bog your horse down before you know it. But they are also quiet. The trees and the water seem to swallow sound and make you feel like you are walking back in time. The only noise you can hear is the splashing your horse makes through the water and the squeak of the saddle. If you happen to look through the cypress trees and Spanish Moss, you might see another member of the crew, sitting on his horse in a trance of his own, like you are seeing a ghost from the past that will disappear with the wind. When you come out on the other side and the sun hits your eyes, it’s like waking up from some sort of spell as your horse shakes off the water. When we are in the swamps it is usually in pursuit of one or two cattle who are trying to escape to some secret island that they know.
If you are not in the swamp in Florida, the rest of the pastures are a mix of woods (that sometimes become swamps if it rains a lot) and open grass (which can also turn into a marsh). Sometimes these woods are full of oak trees and other times they are full of pines with palmettos growing everywhere. When we gather pastures like this, some riders go into the woods to gather the cattle out, while others wait out in the open to keep them going in the right direction. Gathering in the woods can be fun, maybe not in the moment, but when the chase is done, everyone has a smile on their face. I can remember as a kid trying to keep my dad in sight while my horse was dodging trees and jumping logs in woods so thick it was almost dark, while I was trying not to get hit in the face by a branch. Other times it is slow, precarious work. One time, I was picking through some dense woods that these semi-wild cattle were hiding out in, thinking surely there is no way a cow could be hiding in here. Especially after attempting to follow a cow trail that dead ended into a tangle of branches and vines that I had to turn my horse around in. As I was working my way back out with my horse tripping over logs and underbrush, we almost stepped right on an old granny cow that was hiding underneath a dead shrub. I think she was just as surprised as my mare and I were. But we didn’t have time to waste, after all of the cows were out of the woods, it was a mad dash to stop the herd before they ran back into another set of woods. Part of the prairie that the woods opened up to was a marsh, right on the edge of the woods. As I ran my horse across the marsh it felt like I was running on top of the water trying to turn the cows.
Even though it would seem easier if all of the landscape in Florida was all wide-open pastures, the swamps and drier, open spaces complement each other in different seasons. In the height of the wet season, the higher, open spaces provide a relief from the moisture and suitable grazing ground for the cattle. In the winter and during drought, swamps provide a rich grazing ground in the nutrient rich and moist swamp muck. So, just as there is a season for everything under the sun, there is a time for swamps and there is a time for prairies.
About Marisol Tarango
Marisol lives on her family’s ranch in Central Florida where she grew up working cattle and horses with her dad and four siblings, while being homeschooled by her mom. Today she balances her life between working on the ranch, working as a church secretary in...