FRUIT COVE, Fla. - An ancient and hearty breed of cattle from Florida could be your next healthy meal.
Known as Cracker Cattle, they are descendants of animals that arrived in Florida with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521.
While little-known outside the Sunshine State, ranchers say the cattle are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in Florida, mostly because the animals are easy to care for and less expensive to maintain than other breeds. They seem to be made for Florida's harsh terrain: they thrive on low-quality grass and in hot, humid and swampy climates. They were dubbed "Cracker" cattle after the nickname for the state's earliest settlers who cracked whips to drive the cows.
"At one point, they ran feral in Florida, well into the forties," said Dr. William Broussard, who owns the state's largest Cracker Cattle herd at his ranch in St. Cloud. "They had to adapt."
Even today, the cows are bit wild.
On a recent day at the northeast Florida ranch of Sarah Bailey, a brown-and-white speckled cow ran briskly beside Bailey's golf cart and nudged at the cart's side with its horns as she showed a visitor around the Cracker Cattle herd.
"Shoo, shoo," said Bailey, who is 86 and started the ranch along the Julington Creek in 1960 with her late husband.
Today, her son Clark Bailey raises the Cracker Cattle and other animals, one of about three-dozen farmers who own Cracker Cattle in the state.
Bailey has one of the only ranches left in an area swaddled with housing subdivisions. Their 40 head of cattle graze under moss-draped oaks, as Nina, a brown-and-white Spaniel, romps in the pasture.
Clark Bailey appreciates how low-maintenance the Crackers are.
"A Hereford or Angus probably couldn't handle surviving in this heat," he said.
There's also a renewed interest in the cattle due to the state's celebration of its 500th anniversary. Although the cattle did not arrive on Florida shores during the Spanish explorer's first voyage in 1513, they were brought by de Leon on his second voyage to the new world. Historians say de Leon brought a small herd of Andalusian cattle from Spain with him, but when the Calusa Indians forced de Leon back to his ship, the cattle didn't follow.
They are believed to have run wild into the swamps around de Leon's landing site south of present-day Fort Myers, according to Stephen Monroe, Florida's Cracker Cattle expert for the Department of Agriculture.
Similar events happened on Florida's Panhandle in 1540, and when St. Augustine was founded in 1565, some 200 calves were shipped there to help feed soldiers. Soon after Jesuit and Franciscan friars began large-scale ranching, said Broussard, who is a 10th generation cattleman whose family raised cattle in Louisiana.
"Large scale ranching was invented in Florida, not Texas," he said.
Broussard says the meat from the animals is tasty and low in fat, high in Omega Three fatty acids due to the fact that they graze on grass, not corn.
Over the centuries, cattle thrived in Florida. At one point in the mid-17th Century, more than 20,000 head of Spanish cattle were counted in a census for that country's tax collectors.
These cows freely grazed the swampland. They were among the state's first non-native, invasive species, said Broussard.
By the 1960s, the number of Cracker Cattle had greatly diminished because development prevented them from roaming freely and they were interbred with other strains. Still, some ranching families preserved the cows, and between the late 1970s and 1980s, then-Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Connor started the Cracker Cattle Association and implemented a breeding and selection program. The state also installed herds of wild grazing cattle at various state parks, including the Withlacoochee State forest in Brooksville and Paynes Prairie near Micanopy.
Owners of the Cracker Cattle in Florida have their own association and gather each November for an animal auction.
Cracker Cattle have a unique look, as well; they are small (about 600-1,000 pounds, compared to an Angus which is around 1,300 pounds) and have horns that tip backward.
Cracker Cattle meat has not yet gained the popularity of other heirloom food; it's difficult to find in stores but some restaurants do offer it on menus.
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