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Cattle project preserving herd's history

The state hopes more than 60 Florida Cracker cattle that make their home on 180 acres of the Withlacoochee State Forest will sustain the breed.

By RICHARD RAEKE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
A Florida Cracker calf waits with part of the herd for worming in a holding pen in the Withlacoochee State Forest.

The black bulls seem to come from deeper in the woods, Darrell Griffey said.

They're more likely to test your composure with a few quick steps and a flick of the horns. Run from their bluff and, with horns down, they will chase after you -- just like the Spanish toros from which they descend.

The Florida Cracker cattle don't have the roly-poly demeanor of a milk cow sidling up to the feed trough.

"They're more ... active," Griffey added with a sly grin. Once released from the corral, they wander back into the woods, grazing between the pine trees.

The Florida Division of Forestry keeps a herd of 60 Florida Cracker cows, along with a few breeding bulls, in the Withlacoochee State Forest south of Citrus. The division has set aside 180 acres in Hernando, Sumter and Pasco counties for the Florida Cracker herd, part of the state's effort to preserve the history and bloodline of the breed.

On Thursday, with calving season nearly done, Griffey, who along with other workers from the Division of Forestry would usually be operating heavy machinery, drew the choice duty of the day. They corralled the animals, wormed them, then separated the breeding cows to be taken from Sumter County to another pasture in Hernando County for breeding.

Until 1950, when the state Legislature enacted a fencing law, Florida Crackers would roam throughout the state, including Citrus.

"I still hear stories of them out in the woods, not too far from (Citrus County)," said Tim Olson, a professor of animal breeding at the University of Florida. But he has some doubts that they are pure Florida Cracker.

With little meddling from humans, Florida Crackers survived in the scrub for nearly 400 years, running wild through the pines and living on palmettos and oak seedlings. Unlike their corn-fed cousins, they are the product of natural selection, not selective breeding.

In the New World, the Cracker cattle thrived and built the foundation of the Florida cattle industry. In recent decades, they have been nearly driven out of existence by crossbreeding and the demand for big beef cattle. Stephen Monroe of the Florida Cracker Cattle Breeders Association estimates there are 600 left.

"It is a living, breathing touchable, tangible link to our history," Monroe said of the breed. "This isn't some artifact in a stagnant, cold, mildewed museum exhibit."

This summer, the Division of Forestry plans to open a Florida Cracker cattle demonstration center in Ridge Manor to educate more Floridians about the breed.

"The amazing thing about Florida Crackers is that they are so closely associated with the history of the state," said Don Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a North Carolina group whose goal is preserving historic breeds and their genetic diversity. It lists the Florida breed's population as critical.

The Florida Cracker breed, also known simply as scrub cattle or in Alabama as the Pineywood, is the smaller cousin of the Texas longhorn. Both breeds are criollos, descendants of cattle brought to the Americas by the Spaniards.

In 1521, Ponce de Leon brought Andalusian cattle to Florida on his second expedition. He was killed by Caloosa Indians, but the cattle reportedly went into the wilds, according to the Division of Forestry.

Don Diego Maldonado brought more Spanish cattle to Pensacola Bay to supply Hernando De Soto's expedition. But Maldonado never made contact with De Soto and the cattle were reportedly abandoned in the woods as well. Pedro Menendez De Aviles began shipping cattle from Spain in 1565 to supply the new outpost of St. Augustine.

Those that didn't adapt to the parasites, the heat and the scrub diet died. The strong developed resistance to parasites, a high reproductive rate, heat tolerance and a hard hoof to prevent foot rot from the damp soil. And they grew so quickly that the calves equaled or in some cases, were larger than their mothers by weening, Bixby said.

In the late 1880s, ranchers began crossbreeding the Florida Cracker with English breeds such as Herefords and Black Angus. But in the 1930s, a cross with Zebu Brahmans proved the perfect match.

It produced "a magic animal," Monroe said. "It was perfectly adapted for the conditions."

The Brahman brought vigor and size to the wiry but hardy Cracker stock. It also began the steady dilution of the bloodline, Monroe said.

The Florida Cracker was neither a pure beef cattle or a milk producer but a generalist, and therein lies its demise, Bixby said. "Their only job was to live and breed."

By the 1970s, their numbers were "a straight line down," Olson said. But the descendants of cattleman James Durrance kept the bloodline pure and in 1975 donated five heifers and a bull to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. From those animals, the state built a herd. Other herds were established in Paynes Prairie and Lake Kissimmee.

To prevent inbreeding, the state would mix up the bulls, but in 1990, Olson began taking blood samples from the state's Cracker herd and discovered some had been polluted by a Hereford bull along the way. For the past 13 years, he has helped select the cattle with non-Cracker traits to be culled.

"I'm not sure we eliminated all the descendants (of the Hereford), but we're pretty close," Olson said.

Olson, who keeps a small herd at home, finds them tamer than other breeds.

Griffey has his favorites, too. Old No. 91, speckled red and white, has given birth to "good friendly calves." She doesn't have much life left in her, though.

"These cattle have been on the earth a long time," Griffey said. "A lot of people forgot about them. Most people never knew about them."

If the Florida Cracker breed dies off, nearly 400 years of natural selection would be lost. "It would be absolutely tragic to lose that history and lose those genetics," Bixby said.

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