Rancher Wes Williamson Talks Ranching, Sustainability

Wes Williamson

Here’s more of what Wes Williamson had to say, from the challenges of ranching to Florida’s clean water crisis.

Background:

I have been here since I was six months old. My dad would come here in the summertime as a teenager and work in the cattle camps—he’d live in the camps. Dad graduated from Clearwater High and University of Florida in three years, came back here and he and mom moved to Fort Lauderdale and worked a few years then came back here.

There’s not a specific date [I took over]. My dad and my granddad worked together. I worked with my dad, I’m working now with my son and daughter, and so we kind of run things together. He’s 89 years old, and my mom is still alive—she’s 86. I didn’t see a lot of families who are able to get along, especially in the business world; they have to have really clearly defined lines, and that is somewhat important. But we’ve been able to work together and go along and make decisions together.

On why ranching is tough:

Cattle ranching has never been a very profitable business; you cannot pay for land with a cattle ranch.

It’s very low income; you’d rather have your money in the stock market than the cattle business. Even more so in cattle than in farming. It’s just low income and expensive and we sell our product and we hope to make ends meet…you have to provide grass, fertilizer, a little supplemental feed, labor, water, equipment costs—at the end of the day you may spend $400 for every cow on this ranch in expenses and some years you might get $500 for that calf or maybe a little more and in some years you’ll be in the red. It’s totally supply and demand.

There is a lot of land here and around the world that is really only suitable for cattle grazing. It’s not good enough to raise valuable crops.

Our price for our calfs totally depends on how many other calfs in the U.S. are for sale, and supply and demand by people for beef in this country.

An economist explained this to us once: Do you know what the consumption of beef will be in the country next year? I can tell you exactly what it will be. It will be exactly how much beef we produce, minus what we export, plus what we import, that’s how much. The only thing that has not been determined yet is the price.

It’s very cyclical.

How it works

We have cow-calf operations here. A cow gives us a calf every year; a cow’s gestation is nine months. When a calf is born, it weighs 60 to 80 pounds. And then it has the milk, but it also starts to consume grass, so by the time they are eight months old they weigh 500 to 600 pounds. Those calves will put on about 2½ to 3 pounds a day. Then that calf is put in a truck in South Florida and sent to the grain-producing states. A lot of them go up north (6 to 8 months of age) to feed lots to consume grain and they come out weighing 1,300 pounds. Our market is the feed lots.

Our cattle have a little bit of Brahman blood in them, which makes them better for the subtropical environment. (Brangis, a cross between Angus and Brahmin.)

On having a seat at the table and the phosphorous issue

Okeechobee County has about 40,000 total people, but we have 200,000 head of cattle—or five times as many cattle as we have people. Yet we live 150 miles from 10 million people. The challenges to me are making sure that people know what we do over here, making sure they are correctly informed.

There has been a lot of genuine, well-placed concern about phosphorous that goes into Lake Okeechobee. I sit over here and enjoy watching the sun come up or working on my horse or enjoying the grandkids. I want this way of life to continue. I need to talk to those people over there. I need to make myself available to those people so they can know what I’m doing where they don’t say for instance, dairy farming and cattle ranching in the same sentence—those are just as different as apples and oranges.

I need to tell them on a cattle ranch in regard to phosphorous. If we are talking about that pollutant, if it’s in excess going onto Lake O and causing unnatural phosphorous, let’s talk about how phosphorous comes onto that property. I bring it in sometimes in fertilizer. And each amount of feed that comes in has phosphorous in it. Phosphorous can get rained on, go down to the lake, wind up in the lake—which is a problem, problem, problem all along the way.

But how do I export phosphorous off this ranch? Every pound of beef—7/10 of 1 percent is phosphorous. Whenever I haul cattle off this ranch I am exporting phosphorous. And in most years I actually export more phosphorous off this property than I import.

We may be responsible for some of the phosphorous as I believe everyone in South Florida is. What can we do to help it? When we sold our water conservation easement and they store water here on our property, does that help? Yes, it does. It actually kind of stops the quick flow of water off the property.

The challenge in my lifetime and that of my dad—he was chairman of the SFWMD in Lawton Childs’ s day—through his eyes were a lot of the politics and misinformation—and not a lot of compromise.

We’ve got to talk, we’ve got to come to an agreement. I genuinely do not want to have a negative impact on the environment. I’ve got children. I’ve got grandchildren. I don’t want them one day to say, “Wow, why was Wes doing this? He didn’t help things; he made things worse here.”

I want top leave things as good or better.

On sustainability

There are several buzzwords you hear all the time. One of them is sustainability. Is what you are doing sustainable? On a beef cattle ranch, there are two aspects of sustainability. No. 1: is what I’m doing having an adverse effect on the environment? If so, it is not sustainable. But there is another things we have to remember. I have to at least be able to be profitable because if I am not, if I’m in the red, at some point I am going to have to go borrow money and at some point I’ll go bankrupt. And at that point what will be planted here in place of this cattle ranch, which has a lot of wildlife, a lot of cattle. It’s got people whose grandfather worked for my grandfather, who pay taxes in here, you know what will go in its place here? What my grandfather called the final crop: Houses. That would be so unfortunate.

On overcoming hardship

We’ve had rough economic times. We’ve had the disease that affects citrus, that made it become not profitable. Two of the worst hurricanes of my life happened 21 days apart in 2004. Frances and Jeanne came straight in from the east coast, and blew most of our citrus crop to the ground. We were able to go through that. You go to work then. Life is not defined by “poor me, I got hit by this.” It’s how you respond to things. You get up and go to work.


This story was inspired by our March/April 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.