Conservation Pioneers

Cattle and Wildlife Dominate Where Gators, Mosquitos and Outlaws Once Roamed

The Platts-Jenna, Carol, Shane and Josh (left to right)- plan to keep this ranch going for a seventh generation.

The Civil War was over, and it was time for Confederate foot soldier Thomas Whaley to walk back to Florida, where he settled on a patch of wet and wild land at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Here along Lake Tohopekaliga, the Sixth Florida infantryman staked his first claim on what is, 152 years later, the 1,200-acre Kissimmee Park Properties Ranch LLC. This is where Shane Platt, Whaley's great-great grandson, and his family live and work.

A humid, inhospitable area once chiefly home to "gators, mosquitoes and outlaws," Shane notes, is now a sprawling wildlife refuge, orange grove and cattle ranch 30 minutes from Disney World. Walt's kingdom may be magical, but to Shane and his wife, Carol, this patch of grass, woods and water near St. Cloud is heaven on earth. "I know you folks up there think you're in God's country," Shane tells his Iowa interviewer, "but we think we have that right here. Going out to the pastures and watching the cows is my relaxation therapy."

Amid ever-encroaching urban sprawl, the Platts have preserved the land for not only themselves and their livestock, but for the eagles, gopher tortoises, Osceola wild turkeys, deer and bobcats that call Osceola County home. "We're blessed with wildlife," Shane says. "We have five eagles' nests, and some stack their nests so they get to be 8 to 10 feet tall. One of them is only 900 feet from our house."

Less beloved and, fortunately much farther from the house, are the alligators. "Lake Toho is loaded with them. Eight to 12 feet long is not unusual," Shane says.

Water Quality. One of his pastures is bordered by a 2-mile stretch of Lake Toho. To protect the quality of water in the lake and his animals, Shane extended a barbed-wire fence only far enough into the water so the cows can drink and cool off, but not walk or swim in the shallow water. "I have not identified a gator as taking a calf, but these are big enough to take them down in water," he says. "Makes you wonder if the two cows' missing calves at the first working were victims."

Shane and Carol are recipients of numerous conservation awards during the years, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Environmental Stewardship Regional Award and Florida's Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award.

"For five generations, the Platt family has represented the best of the best in safeguarding the environment and conserving our natural resources," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says.

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Shane's great-grandfather Alexander Whaley added substantially to the ranch by buying adjoining homesteads. Alexander's son, Cecil, laid the groundwork for the shape the ranch has taken over the decades. "Grandfather did a good job of making a nice ranch holding," Shane says. "At the end of World War II, he was able to get some surplus construction equipment to clear some of the cypress and pine. He formed the property with wildlife corridors leaving the native grasses. He could have cleared it all, but he didn't. He wanted to leave natural habitat."

To honor Grandfather Cecil, Shane made sure the ranch was officially recognized as a Florida Century Pioneer Family Farm. "I wanted to get that done while he was still with us. He's the one who kept the ranch together," he says. The award acknowledges the benefits family farms and ranches provide to the state.

Shane and Carol's children Josh, 27, and Jenna, 22, the sixth generation of the Whaley-Platt line, share their parents' love of the land and appreciation of family heritage. Both have plans to continue their family's work of expanding and diversifying the ranch operations when their parents hand over the reins.

Sharing Their Message. The Platts share their land and its wildlife with friends and groups.

"To highlight agriculture in our area and [to show] the importance of providing a safe and nutritious food source in both beef and citrus, we host tours so groups can see where their food is coming from," Shane says. "We recently provided a tour of the ranch with the Florida Cattlemen's Association for the dieticians and nutritionists at a national conference held in Orlando."

Carol often shares the lessons she has learned from living off the land. "I think it's essential that every child grow up with a connection to the land and the food that sustains them, from a container garden to living and working on a farm or ranch," she says. "That sense of responsibility for the future and the land that sustains us all can make a huge difference in our lives. I think that successful sustainable stewardship can't rely on or be regulated by the government. It has to come from the heart."

For several years, the Platts have opened the ranch to Operation Outdoor Freedom, a veterans program sponsored by the Florida Commission of Agriculture. This Wounded Warrior Project provides outdoor recreation for Purple Heart recipients and disabled soldiers. Their wounds vary, from amputation to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are allowed to shoot or hunt, but not all do. "Most of them are not hunters," Shane says. "We just want to get them out in the woods where they can relax and talk."

One-third of the ranch is wooded, with timber wending throughout the property. The Platts manage the undergrowth and improve the tree stands with controlled burns.

"I have no problem with the amount of acreage in timber and the amount in production," Shane says. "We are in the process of converting more of the prairie areas into improved grass, but that won't affect the woods."

The Platts run 250 Brangus-cross commercial cows on improved bahiagrass and Aeschynomene legume pastures, and on semi-improved bahia- and carpetgrass pastures.

Rotational grazing is employed in all pastures, which range in size from 10 to 230 acres. With assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Platts installed six water troughs that are fed by 2 miles of new water lines. The work allowed them to develop 12 new pastures. With five miles of new fencing and a new rotational-grazing system, the Platts were able to increase their herd size by 67%.

Test Plots. In an effort to continually improve both pasture and feed quality, Shane fences off 1- and 2-acre test plots, where he experiments with various plants and rotation cycles.

Last year, he planted their first field of pearl millet in a rotational-grazing program with the bahia pastures for first- and second-calf heifers. "That was very successful, and we will add additional acreage as we start renovating the bahiagrass with sod harvesting. The harvested sod areas will be replanted to Argentine bahia, and, depending on the season, we'll use either pearl millet or ryegrass seeded into the bahia as it regrows."

Shane also plans to convert 30 acres of semi-improved pasture to Hemarthria, or limpo grass, for expansion of the cow herd.

The Platts also tend 60 acres of citrus. They have converted an old irrigation system to low-volume jet irrigation. The system has made their irrigation practices 50% more efficient. Water and fertilizer are applied only to the root zone of the trees. With a small amount of fertilizer applied to the trees once a week, instead of three larger applications over a year, Shane points out his production rose 40% in the first year.

(AG/SK)

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