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Success Story

Conservation and Ranching Create a Winning Combination for Landowners and Wildlife at Pearce Cattle Ranch in South Florida

A man on a horse herds cattle on a Florida ranch.

Matt Pearce is an eighth-generation cattle rancher who is passionate about ranching and wildlife, His long-time interest in protecting wildlife led him to protect and rehydrate his land through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service (UDSA NRCS). 
 

A Florida rancher leans against a fence against a blue sky with a tree behind him.
Matt Pearce is a cattle rancher who is passionate about ranching and wildlife. His long-time interest in protecting wildlife led him to protect and rehydrate his land with the help of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Matt Pearce is an eighth-generation cattle rancher handing down and training the ninth generation of Pearce Cattle Company to his children Taylor, Aubrey and Chandler. His family has resided in Florida for over 200 years and operated their family-owned cow/calf operation with locations throughout South Florida and Central Georgia. Passionate about ranching and wildlife, Pearce’s long-time interest in protecting wildlife led him to protect and rehydrate his land through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service (UDSA NRCS). Pearce manages about 700 head of cattle on over 8,000 acres of leased land that is part of a 12,000+ acre Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) near Lake Okeechobee, in South Central Florida. The conservation easement program helps protect, restore and enhance wetlands which have been previously degraded due to agricultural uses.

“We ranch on the most critical environmental areas in Florida, including near Lake Okeechobee and north of the Everglades,” said Pearce. “We’ve done a lot of conservation efforts and land stewardship through private ownership, management of public land, or leasing.”

"We try to educate people on conservation. We educate people on the water and stormwater on land, how important it is to somebody in Miami for flood control, for flood protection for aquifer recharge, for wildlife habitat – all those things that they might not understand." 

- Matt Pearce

Through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a competitive financial assistance program, Pearce has been able to treat and remove invasive exotic plant species including Brazilian Pepper and Peruvian Primrose-willow. NRCS has also provided Pearce’s ranching operation with financial and technical assistance for pasture management, through fences used for rotational grazing. This conservation practice allows his cattle to graze one pasture field to an optimal level and then move to another pasture, to rest the previous one.

“I can go back five years ago when we started here, and you couldn't see across that field because the primrose was (so tall). With that canopy, you don't have your wading birds coming in; you don't have your raptors coming in to catch mice. You couldn't see a ground cover,” said Pearce.

“This was all farm fields, intensively farmed peppers and tomatoes. So, we've come here with cattle, and cattle are always complimentary to wildlife because they build trails and mimic mechanical aeriation of the soil and get crustaceans and invertebrates coming out of the ground. With the help of NRCS financial assistance, we roller chopped the brush. Now, what we have is a lot of native plants that are coming back, because cattle are grazing here.

A bull grazes in a Florida pasture under blue sky with cattle in the background.
Florida Cattle in motion as they are sorted at a ranch in South Central Florida.

“They'll graze out some of these less desirable, exotic plants and leave the native plants. We see more wading birds that weren't here before, because we took out the brush and exotic vegetation.”

Pearce added that having cattle graze the land helps the wildlife flourish, such as roseate spoonbills; blue herons, and white pelicans.

“Where we have cattle, you see wildlife; you see the wading birds – you know, all the things that this Wetlands Reserve Easement was positioned and designed for. We’re also seeing the benefits of the Everglades Snail Kite, an endangered species that’s thriving here.

Close-up of snailkite bird in south central Florida

“It’s because of NRCS’ contributions that snail kites (raptor birds) are being brought back from being endangered,” said Pearce. “We counted 54 nests this year, with over 150 eggs! Nesting season is typically May through July; yet, last year there were nests visible in August, which is not the norm.”

He estimates that eight to ten percent of the Everglades Snail Kite population in Florida is on their leased land. The birds have identifying bands on their legs, and surveys document where they were last seen. according to Pearce.

Two baby snail kite birds in a nest.

To help generate income on the land, which is 100 percent encumbered in the NRCS WRE easement, the family operation offers recreational activities such as duck hunting and other waterfowl sports, youth mentoring, firearm safety, and wildlife camping for women groups.

“This is our third year of active waterfowl hunting. The bird hunting doesn’t bother the cows,” said Pearce. “Wherever we’ve had cattle, there’s been an abundance of soil.”

Pearce also planted millet and rice to attract waterfowl, improve wildlife habitat, and improve water recharge. As a result of these conservation efforts, he has seen an increase of various waterfowl and wading birds.

Some of the waterfowl activities they offer include the Wounded Warrior hunt. Youth can participate for free as part of a group. He estimates that about 20 percent of the participants on any given activity are youth. Approximately 30 people are taken out on a trailer for each group waterfowl hunting activity.

Three men stand under blue sky in a pasture field.
(From left) Matt Pearce, owner of Pearce Cattle Company, Scott Kuipers, NRCS Wetlands Reserve Program Planner, and Howard Harrison, NRCS District Conservationist, discuss the benefits of conservation practices to wildlife habitat and soil quality.

“It’s an educational process from the time they leave at pre-dawn until they return. We’ve got to be telling that story of just doing the right thing. We have the duck hunting operation, but it's not primary. We try to educate people on conservation. We educate people on the water and stormwater on land, how important it is to somebody in Miami for flood control, for flood protection for aquifer recharge, for wildlife habitat – all those things that they might not understand.

“So, we carry duck hunters out here and start to work cattle on the ranch, and then… they see the sun come up. They might see a deer come out; they might see some ducks and the wading birds. And then they see the cows and the baby calves, and then when they get back around the fire, they're like ‘wow, this IS a working cattle ranch, and we appreciate you letting us come out here!’ They experience not just the hunting opportunity but the wildlife. Because (usually) they're waking up to fight traffic every day,” said Pearce.

Other group activities conducted on the property include a Women’s Influencer Camp and a First-Time Hunters group.

“Women from all over the country come for the wildlife and outdoor experience. They learn to prepare the wildlife game, such as alligator, that has been harvested on the landscape, and they enjoy it and bond,” said Pearce.

“I love mentoring young people. In the duck hunting operation, when we invite the youth’s parents to come with them, we don't charge for the youth. We have a mentoring program and we put a guide and someone with a dog with the (kids) to mentor and coach them on conservation and land stewardship and then in sports.” Pearce is also interested in offering bird watching opportunities and educational tours for the public. 

Bird flies over grassy wetland, blue sky

“If I had to tell you one thing that made the hair on the back of my neck stand, it would be when we found the snail kites. We worked with the University of Florida’s research team (to tag and release them) and we worked with NRCS. When you put your hands on that first fledgling, you know and I have my daughter with me, I get choked up… because there's only 3,000 of those animals around,” said Pearce.

“When you get to care for them on the land, they thrive, and that's what this whole thing is about. That's what we do. We want to keep this land better than we found it,” said Pearce. “It's rewarding to come out here and see a panther; there are very few of those around. These activities prove that conservation and ranching is a winning combination for landowners and wildlife.”

When asked what advice he would give to a beginning farmer, Pearce said, “I would tell folks to look for mentors in the industry. The average farmer is 57 years old, so they're on the older end, and a lot of the farmers and ranchers don't have somebody to pass it on to. They don't want to just completely shut their doors and close shop.”

“You also need to lean on your government programs, like the conservation programs at NRCS. FSA (Farm Service Agency) also has a program for beginning new farmers... The bank wants to see years of tax returns and profitability. And a first-time farmer doesn't have that. They have zero, but that's what the FSA program is for, to help those beginning farmers get financial assistance.”

Wetland landscape in South Central Florida, blue skies, grass, water, small tree.

For more information on conservation programs in Florida visit: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/conservation-by-state/flo…

Technical Contacts: 
Matt Pearce, Owner, Pearce Cattle Company, (863) 634-3489,  
J. Scott Kuipers, NRCS Natural Resources Specialist, 863-623-3246 (office), 352-538-4379 (mobile),   
Travis Thompson, (863) 206-0762,   travis@allfla.orgscott.kuipers@usda.govpearcematt@me.com

Story By: 
Cynthia M. Portalatin, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist, (352) 338-9565 (office),  cynthia.portalatin@usda.gov

Photo credits:  (1) Hero image (top of page) provided by Matt Pearce; (2) Closeups of snail kites provided by Travis Thompson, AllFlorida.org; (3) Other photos by Cynthia Portalatin, NRCS 


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