GAINESVILLE, Fla. — You won’t see this cowboy rope calves, brand steers or ride into the sunset on a cattle drive. But Barry Viljoen has big plans for his tiny ranch in Clermont, Fla., where he manages 14 head of cattle on just 14 acres. A half hour west of Orlando, Mr. Viljoen is making a living on his small-scale suburban operation by breeding and raising high-value Wagyu cattle mixed with Brangus. And he is doing it sustainably, moving two groups of cattle sometimes as many as two or three times a day.
Every day, a single line of cows follow Mr. Viljoen down a path cutting his property in half, leading to one of the 14 one-acre sections of pasture. Portable electric fencing subdivides each into one-fifth acre paddocks. He varies the size of the paddock and the length of time the cows graze depending on the season and the herd weight. His herd weight is approximately 7,000-8,000 pounds, with his medium-framed cows weighing approximately 1000 pounds each. Even during winter when the cattle are eating hay, they still get to graze a few hours a day on stockpiled pasture.
“It’s all about intensively managing the grazing,” Mr. Viljoen said. During winter he supplements their diet with a grain mix to help them produce more milk. “Wagyu cattle are notorious for low milk production.”
After they graze, Mr. Viljoen leads them back to their pen. Each has its own personality. “Sparky, the full-blood Wagyu bull is quite a character. Some people have a bull dog, and Sparky is mine,” he said. Sunshine, a full-blood Wagyu cow, is the friendliest of them all, quick to approach strangers and give them a lick on the hand. Buffy is the ugly one and 13 is somewhat skittish, but she produces fast-growing cows with long bodies. Hoppy, one of four bull calves, is a handful. “He is a hooligan, but also the smartest, always in trouble, with the others following,” Mr. Viljoen said. He doesn’t name the ones he sells.
“A handclap means come my way – and I never clap my hands unless it has to do with eating. Cattle have no desire to follow you unless they know there is food at the other end,” he said. He never raises his voice. One stern word, “back,” is sufficient. When they are restless, he holds their ears to calm them down, a trick he learned from an old timer in Missouri. “My cows are so well behaved, the gates to my pastures are just two electric wires across the entrance,” he said.
Mr. Viljoen’s approach to raising cattle completely changed after reading Mary Temple Grandin in 2013. An animal science professor at Colorado State University, she is an advocate for the humane treatment of livestock and an expert on livestock grazing behavior. As a famous autism spokesperson, her first-hand experience has influenced her work developing livestock handling practices. When cattle are stressed, it increases cortisol in their bodies, which toughens the meat, Mr. Viljoen explained. But he is also concerned about safety, and calm animals aren’t as dangerous. “I have developed a reputation for selling docile bulls, and that is why I am able to sell them before they are born and at the time of weaning,” he said.
The herd consists of full-blood Wagyu, Wagyu/Brangus and two Brangus cows. He is slowly rotating out the cows until he has a herd of full-blood Wagyu. He sells full-blood Wagyu bulls and steers for beef. “Grass fed beef is the current rage, and I don’t have the acreage to finish my steers on grass, so I send them to the ‘fattening farm’ at seven months where they are grown until 18 months and delivered directly to the butcher,” he said.
“Consider that the average small commercial operation requires two to three acres per cow/calf compared to my one acre per cow/calf: where I use 14 acres of pasture for my one bull and 13 cows, a conventional cattle operation requires at least 26 acres of pasture,” Mr. Viljoen said. He grosses approximately $3,000 per steer sold as quarters of beef after paying to have them fattened. “Assume I sell 13 steers in a year at about $3,000 each, my gross income is $39,000. The commercial operation that sells 13 seven-month old steers at a sale barn for about $1,200 each grosses $15,600 only,” he said. The commercial operation uses 54 acres for one bull and 32 cow/calf pairs to produce $39,000. And because Mr. Viljoen’s operation is small, his expenses are less.
“My beef is flavorful and extremely tender with abundant intermuscular fat in the meat. I use no antibiotics or growth hormones on my cattle,” he said.
Mr. Viljoen cleared the former tree farm 2012. “The property had enormous soil erosion, and I was able to reclaim the land,” he said. His first stop was to USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in Tavares, Fla. District conservationist Suzy Daubert and range conservationist Pete Deal made a site visit. “We didn’t think it could ever work, there was no pasture. But he did. He made it a success,” Ms. Daubert said. They helped him identify natural resource concerns, develop a conservation plan and navigate the application process for financial assistance to apply conservation practices. The first year he built interior fence, splitting the property in two for grazing management, which he further divided into one-acre pastures. He installed water troughs. The second year he built a compost facility that he plans to use to fertilize the high tunnel he will build next year to raise produce to sell. He is growing plots of pollinators for his vegetables.
Next, he will plant fruit and nut trees to create Silvopasture. Between it all, he expects to earn a steady revenue from Substantia Micro Ranch. The former mechanical engineer said he could have retired and watched TV in his air-conditioned condo, but that would have started him down the slippery slope of ill health. “Since I started farming I have lost 25 pounds, eat like a horse and sleep so well dieting and gyms are no longer part of my vocabulary,” he said.
Note: Florida ranked 10th in beef cows and 18th in total cattle nationally. All cattle and calves on Florida farms and ranches as of January, 2016, totaled 1.69 million head, up 10,000 from 2015. The three top-ranking cattle-producing counties are Okeechobee, Highlands and Osceola. Beef cows in Florida were 915,000 head, up 9,000 head from 2015. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
–USDA NRCS Florida
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