Illustration of Brahman Dad and His Calves

Bhraman Dad and His Calves - Illustration by Steve Hall 

The Cattle Business on the Space Coast

A look into the industry that MOOOOOves the Space Coast 

100 years ago -- before there were big hotels on the beaches and weekly rocket launches --  there was farming, cattle ranching, cowboys, citrus, and sawmills in Florida and on the Space Coast. And it’s still thriving here.

My friends up north are shocked to hear that Florida isn’t just sand, palms, and tiki bars from coast to coast. Here are some stats:

  • Agriculture is the 3rd biggest industry in Florida after tourism and space.
  • There are more ranches with 1,000 head of cattle in Florida than in Texas.
  • It takes only a couple of acres of grassland in Florida to raise a head of cattle, while it takes well over 100 acres in Texas.
  • Florida cattle ranchers produce some of the finest, award-winning, beef in the country

There’s a deep history of agriculture in Florida. The Great Florida Cattle Drive of 2021 is coming next year. This is the quincentennial (that’s 500 years) celebration commemorating 500 years since Spanish Ponce de Leon brought cattle and horses to Florida in 1521. 

We don’t see much “Ag” when we vacation on the space coast. There are no ‘Ag Land’ theme parks on the Space Coast. There are no Hilton Cattle resorts [not a bad idea, btw]. We don’t see grazing cattle from the balconies of our beachside hotels. Ag interests aren’t heavily promoted on Interstate 95 billboards alongside the beaches and space.

After you’ve researched where you’re going to stay on the Space Coast you might want to do some reading about Florida and Space Coast Ag business. Then, like me, after you’ve walked the beach for the umpteenth time wondering why you don’t move to the Space Coast, you can climb into your car and drive west. But, even then you’ll only scratch the surface of the Ag business, seeing only the roadside perimeters of the tens of thousands of acres of agriculture and cattle land.

A good friend of mine -- a patriarch of an Ag family that settled on the Space Coast over 100 years ago and raises cattle today -- said, “If you want to understand the cattle business you need to meet genuine cattle ranching people,”  and he gave me a name and number to call.

This genuine Ag family -- the Kempfer Cattle Company -- just west of Melbourne, has been in the sawmill, farming, and cattle business for six generations. It’s a family enterprise. Their children go to universities and more than not come back to work on the ranch. On their 25,000 acres, they crossbreed and raise three or four thousand head of cattle with some of the finest Brahman bull sires in the country. It’s a data-driven, scientific, university-supported, innovative business with genetic testing, frozen embryos, and portable incubators. And they aren’t even the biggest cattle ranch in Florida.

Ag people keep to themselves and they fly under the fancy, modern-life radar. Henry, one of Billy Kempher’s twin sons, tall and 50-ish, agreed to meet at their ranch 10 miles west of Melbourne to talk about Ag and cattle ranching. We toured in his late model and well-worn Ford pickup over miles of bumpy dirt roads, past acres and acres pasture land, tree stands, and grazing cattle. The day before Henry had been part of an Ag delegation to Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, to remind, lobby, educate, and cajole state reps and senators about Florida Ag interests.

Dressed in dust and dirt covered jeans, button-down shirt, boots and Stetson hat, Henry explained cattle breeding, the auctions, genetics, and how their calves get shipped 2,000 miles west where they’re fattened up and turn up in our supermarkets and dinner plates.

Crossbreeding is how they get there. The beef business today is about increasing the number of good genetic traits and reducing costs. Reproduction, growth rates, maternal traits, breed stock, quality of the sire, and the texture and taste of the end product are all part of this science-driven business.

Here are websites to visit for info on cattle, citrus, and farming in the Space Coast and Florida:

Kempfer Cattle Company

Deseret Ranches

Pastures, citrus groves, wetlands, and woodlands spanning 295,000 acres

Florida Cattlemen’s Association