Buck Island Ranch

July 2001

The Buck Island Ranch covers 10,300 acres 15 miles southeast of Lake Placid in Highlands County. The main ditches surrounding the Ranch (from which it derives 'the island' connotation) drain directly into the Harney Pond Canal, a major drainage way for central and south Florida. The Harney Pond Canal connects the region to the larger regional Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades watershed which ties us to the major water quality concerns of the entire region.

Buck Island Ranch

Buck Island Ranch is on a 30-year lease from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to the Archbold Biological Station with the primary mission to conduct long-term studies on relationship between cattle ranching, citrus production and changes in wildlife species and ecosystems similar to the vast prairies that support most of Florida cattle. Hence, the Buck Island Ranch has become synonymous with MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center or MAERC.

Operationally, Buck Island is maintained as a full-scale working ranch and grove, with a research design. It offers the opportunity to measure how agriculture and the environment interact over the long term. The ranch was the venue for a visit and tour by Florida's Grazing Issues Working Group on June 6, 2001.

According to a report by Hillary M. Swain, Executive Director, predominant physical features of MAERC are its climate, soil, hydrology and flatland. Climatic conditions at the Ranch are monitored by four weather stations that collect continuous data on temperature, rainfall, wind speed and direction, and solar radiation. Soils are poorly drained sands or very poorly drained organic soils with low to moderate fertility. Adequate moisture, high temperatures, and long growing season have allowed for production of improved grasses, such as bahiagrass, on better-drained areas for summer pastures. Currently, there are 4,500 acres of bahiagrass pastures. Native grasses and marsh plants dominate the more poorly drained 5,640 acres of native range used for winter pastures. These dominant landscape types provide the basis for an extensive seasonal rotation in which cattle are stocked more heavily on the bahiagrass pastures in the summer and are moved to the semi-native marshes in the winter. Ranch Manager, Gene Lollis indicated that total cow herd size on the Ranch has fluctuated between 2,000 and 3,500 as management evaluates the carrying capacity of the system. The ranch has a 160-acre citrus grove.


Minor variations in topography control variation in plant communities. Wetlands and marshes occupy poorly-drained, low-lying areas and cabbage palm or live oak hammocks occupy higher, well-drained areas. Landscape depressions due to cavities in deep limestone formations have resulted in the development of more than 500 isolated wetlands which are critical resources for wildlife. In addition to natural wetland, there is an extensive network of more than 400 miles of drainage ditches to facilitate draining of surface water and prevent flooding during the rainy season. The mosaic of habitats - improved pastures, semi-native range, forests, and wetlands - supports distinctive wildlife species such as sandhill crane, burrowing owl, river otters, crested caracara and wading birds, as well as the common white tailed deer, alligators, wild turkeys and meadowlarks.


In 1994, three organizations (MAERC, IFAS, and SFWMD) came together with an outline of new research programs designed to examine the relationship between management practices of the Ranch and environmental issues and economic sustainability of beef cow/calf operation in central Florida. In 1966, the Florida Cattlemen Association and the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) joined the Advisory Committee to oversee and coordinate research at MAERC. This multi-disciplinary group meets several times a year to review the status of projects, develop new projects and seek new research funding.

The water quality concerns of south-central Florida motivated MAERC and their partners to establish in 1966, a 1,225-acre array of 16 experimental pastures, each as a separate hydrologic unit. In 1988, four cow/calf pair stocking rates of 0, 15, 20 and 35 were randomly assigned to a set of 8 summer improved pastures (each 50 acres in size) and a set of 8 winter native pastures (each 80 acres in size). Each test herd occupied summer pastures during May-November and winter pastures during November-April/May.

The stocking rate influence on growth and consumption of grasses in each pasture is monitored by IFAS personnel. The quantity and quality of forage available to cattle has economic bearing on cow calf production at the Ranch. Cattle conception rates, weaning percentage and weaning weights are determined by MAERC personnel and used to evaluate economic consequences of alternative management practices. Surveys conducted by IFAS personnel of birds, frogs, toads, and snakes in pastures provide an index of wildlife use relative to cow stocking rates.

The 16 experimental flumes and automatic water samples continuously measure the amount and quality of water draining from pastures, separately, during periods of flow. Water quality samples are analyzed are analyzed at the Habor Branch Oceanographic Institute Environmental Lab for total nitrogen and phosphorus, ortho-phosphate, ammonium and nitrate. Initial findings show that phosphorus loads in drainage waters are greater in summer than in winter pastures, but very little variation among stocking rate treatments. The nutrient information, combined with flow volumes, will help determine loading rates for P and N relative to stocking rates and will provide an understanding of nutrient loading from beef cow/calf operation, which are essential for calibration and verification of computer models. Weather data from the summer/winter pastures do provide information to estimate evapotranspiration and to calculate water budget.


Finally, the stocking rate study provides a means to monitor the health of a wide variety of wildlife populations in a pasture landscape. MAERC earnestly hope this research will help develop management practices for cattle industry that are both economically sound and environmentally sustainable. (excerpts from Archbold Biological Station website)

Return to top