South Dakota’s Ag and Rural Leadership alumni group at the Lightsey Ranch.
South Dakota’s Ag and Rural Leadership alumni group at the Lightsey Ranch.

By Connie Sieh Groop

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In January, South Dakota’s Ag and Rural Leadership alumni group traveled to Florida to learn from fellow farmers and ranchers about the challenges of raising crops and livestock in their state. Florida has a similar ag leadership program, called the Wedgewood Leadership Program, and many of the visits were coordinated with that group. One of those who visited South Dakota as part of their class was Leigh Ann Lightsey Wynn. Writer and SDARL alumni, Connie Groop ,visited the ranch where Wynn grew up and met with her father, Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales.)

In a state known for magic kingdoms, luxurious living, beautiful beaches and alligators, the Lightsey ranch showcases the jewel of agriculture as one of the state’s top cattle operations.
Standing in the wood-timbered headquarters of Tiger Ranch near Lake Wales, FL, Cary Lightsey said, “Florida is a good cow state, there is plenty of good dirt and good grass. You can raise a lot of cattle per acre. We are as conservation-minded as you could get and work to protect what we have.”
Leigh Ann Lightsey Wynn and her father Cary welcomed SD Ag and Rural Leadership’s alumni tour to their operation. Cary summarized the family history and the extensive cattle operation built by his family. The Lightseys started in Buford, North Carolina in 1712 as cow people with the tradition continuing. On the Florida spread, Leigh Ann represents the seventh generation and her son Jake, the eighth.
The South Dakotans were surprised that some of the animals in the pasture had connections to South Dakota. Cary, noting that Jon Nelson is from Lake Preston, pointed out that some of the cows came from Wienk Charolais, just down the road from the Nelsons.  Cary said he also purchased animals from Jorgenson’s Cattle at Ideal and John Christensen at Wessington. Cary said South Dakota cows lose their winter coats when they come to Florida but otherwise do well. The animals are crossed with Brangus to help the animals cope with the heat and insects. The Brangus breed developed to utilize the superior traits of Angus and Brahman cattle. The combination results in a breed which unites the traits of the parent breeds. The Brahman developed disease resistance, overall hardiness and outstanding maternal instincts. Angus are known for their superior carcass qualities. They excel in both fertility and milking ability.
According to statistics for the state, Florida is a cow-calf state. The primary cattle “crop” is calves which are shipped to other states to be finished and processed into beef. Florida beef producers own over one million cows, heifers and bulls generating a calf “crop” which exceeds 800,000 calves annually. With a total breeding herd value of over $847 million and an annual calf crop estimated at over $400 million, Florida’s beef cattle herd is valued in excess of a billion dollars.
The SDARL group climbed into pickups and a side-by-side to see the ranch, eager to look at animals and pastures on the sun-filled day. Driving through the forest grove of ancient live oaks, Cary explained bits of history involving the Native Americans who settled the area.  Cary wound through the pastures where the animals grazed on native grasses and palmetto palms. He said something has grazed these lands for thousands of years.
The Lightseys sparingly spray for weeds as they treasure the bees finding nectar in the wildflowers. Some of the beekeepers from South Dakota bring their bees to Florida for the winter months.
Kurt Zuehlke of Britton said that seeing the native vegetation and cattle on the drive through their pasture was really interesting. The sights and smells of nature there was a great reminder of places like back home away from the cities.
“The Lightsey’s are true stewards of the land, and are great people to visit,” Zuehlke said. “The Lightsey’s are great grass producers, utilizing manure and wastes as fertilizer, grazing on a rotation, and supplemental feeding.  The feedstuffs they use are unique to that area as they use wastes from bakeries, grocery stores, and processing facilities nearby.”

Lightening biggest killer
Twisted tree branches and mangled undergrowth led to questions about damage from the hurricanes.
Leigh Ann said during the storms the cattle remain in pastures and follow their instincts for survival. The animals will turn in a circle, trying to put the wind at their back. Cary said seven of their structures went down in the storm but there was no major damage. Each year, lightning kills about 50 animals. Coyotes kill a number of calves and Cary said he’s shot 140 of the varmints over the last 4 years. Wild pigs are a real nuisance and about 4,000 are trapped each year.  
Zuehlke noted both South Dakota and Florida have challenges: hurricanes instead of blizzards, wild hogs instead of pocket gophers, heat and humidity vs. cold and drought and lightning storms which can kill several head with one strike.
Wanting to preserve their cattle operation for the future, Cary and his brother Layne decided in 1989 to protect their investments by putting their land into conservation easements. They were the first in the state to do so. Now 85 percent of the family land is in these agreements. Most of the land is lakefront property, which everyone wants. The family retains ownership of the property and the right to continue using it as they always have. Government agencies or conservation groups buy the rights to keep the land from being developed.
“It’s been a win-win for us, with no restrictions,” Cary said. The brothers are safeguarding the ranch land for the families of their three children and their 18 grandchildren.
About 10,000 head of cattle are spread across the properties. The Lightsey operation includes Tiger Lake Ranch and West Lake Wales Ranch in Polk County, the XL Ranch in Highlands County, and Brahma Island in Osceola County. The Lightseys also lease five other ranches where they raise cattle. The land on Brahma Island offers guided commercial hunting.

Alternative feeds
Cary and his workers marked and branded cattle for the previous five weeks, putting in 12-hour days in the saddle. It is hard work, “but work we love. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.” The crew burns the pastures to keep them healthy. It revives some of the native grass species and some species, such as the scrub jay. will only nest in areas that have been burned. They burn pastures every three years and marshes every year.
The South Dakotans learned that the Lightseys use several byproducts to supplement the diets of his animals. The Lightseys use the yeast left from a local brewery, bakery feed (leftover batter from cookies, cake, etc., that has been heated), cotton gin trash, and vegetables/fruits from Walmart which are ground up and mixed with the other items. Cary said the animals receive three lbs. of supplemental feed per animal three times a week.
By adding this additional feed, the Lightseys run 260 cows on 190 acres in this pasture. Cary said, “When we bring in byproducts, we test everything. We want healthy animals.” The protein and fat content are taken into consideration when giving the slurry to the animals. Cary said the animals like it so well they will climb a fence to get to the supplement.
Cary explained that one day their crew was working cows about five miles off one of the main roads. “We had the dogs holding the cows in a circle to settle them down. A car drove up and four young women got out and said, ‘We want to buy some beef.’ I told the gal, ‘You understand you can’t just pick one out and take it home. We have to feed it until it’s mature and then it has to be butchered.’ I chose my words carefully as I wondered if the women were there to protest the treatment of the animals.”
The young woman said they wanted to buy beef directly from a ranch and she wanted to see how the beef is raised. Cary said the cowboys thought that was the craziest thing they’d ever seen.  But Cary said he likes to know where he gets his tomatoes and he’d rather have them grown in the US rather than in a foreign country. He agreed to sell her a beef. She called every week to see when her steak would be ready.
This experience stayed with Cary as he thought maybe this was the way to connect with the Millennials. He met with the Florida Cattlemen and they started, “Fresh from Florida Beef.” It’s been quite successful and led to the Lightseys setting up a feed yard. The calves go to Texas to the yard about the first of May. The Lightsey operation includes animals in Texas and Georgia.
It was interesting to note that horses are vital to working the animals. Cary said to work for the ranch, a cowboy must provide his own horse, a spare horse and a good working dog.
In visiting about common experiences, Leigh Ann noted that she’ll never forget her trip to South Dakota and being able to visit the ranches. It was after Storm Atlas devastated the herds of western ranches and they stopped at the Slovek Ranch at Philip. “It was heart-wrenching to hear those stories,” Leigh Ann said.
With admiration in his voice, Cary said, “I consider you all pretty tough people, I don’t know how you do it up there.”