Members of the Seminole Tribe – the first Floridians – are embracing their state’s agriculture as part of a product and marketing strategy to further expand a successful cattle operation, ranked as one of the nation’s largest.
The Seminoles recently invited a select group of cattle industry experts and journalists to the Brighton Seminole Reservation, where the Tribe maintains the largest portion of its cattle herd across a vast 36,000-acre reservation. The group of nearly two dozen industry leaders enjoyed a series of presentations on the Tribe’s cattle operation and Seminole Pride™ Beef, a brand developed to showcase the quality of the Tribe’s 100 percent Florida-bred cattle.
The Tribe also used the opportunity to lay out its recent business expansion into Noble® juices, OWV™ spring water, Intermezzo™ wine, fresh fruit and seafood. Product samples were given out to underscore the reality of the Tribe’s extensive business diversification program, led by the Board of Directors of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.
But the major focus of the day was on the Seminole Pride™ Beef business. The Seminoles run the nation’s fifth-largest cow-calf operation with nearly 14,000 Brangus cattle, based on rankings from the National Cattlemen’s Association.
According to Alex Johns, the natural resources director for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc., and the current treasurer of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the ancestors of the Seminoles were involved with cattle as early as the year 1521. Spanish explorers brought the first cattle to Florida and the herds were broken up and lost when the British attacked Spanish settlements; Seminoles caught many of the roaming cows and bulls, which helped early Seminole communities flourish.
A series of Seminole wars decimated the Tribe and its cattle, beginning in the 1830s and lasting nearly 50 years. Many Seminoles fled deep into the Everglades to avoid capture and relocation to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma following passage of the U.S. Indian Removal Act. Seminoles who kept their cattle herds were easier to find and capture since they travelled across the state with them so as not to overgraze; hundreds were forced from Florida as part of the “Trail of Tears.”
During the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, a herd of 700 cattle was shipped from the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona to the newly-established Brighton Seminole Reservation, northwest of Lake Okeechobee. Although only a few hundred of the cattle survived the trek across the southern tier of states, those that did were the start of a herd that has grown and improved over time.
About 5,000 head are in herds owned and managed by 67 individual tribal members and their families, who participate in a co-op program. The balance of the herd is managed by the Tribe on behalf of its 4,000 members. Of the 67 individual tribal members who raise cattle, 55 percent are women, in keeping with the Tribe’s matrilineal, clan-based culture.
Until recently, the full focus of Seminole Tribe cattle operations has been birthing calves and raising them to an age of 10 months, when they have been shipped to western feedlots for growth over another eight to 12 months, before eventually being harvested and marketed.
The focus has expanded in the last few years to include a branded beef production program under the name “Seminole Pride™,” recently embraced as the first “Fresh from Florida” beef program. The Seminole tribe of Florida, Inc., and the Florida Department of Agriculture worked together to establish program criteria. The “Fresh from Florida” logo is now placed on all branded Seminole Pride™ beef.
Only cattle born and raised in Florida, fed Florida corn and harvested in the state can be certified “Fresh from Florida,” a set of criteria that is more difficult to meet than might be initially imagined. Only one harvester operates in Florida, and corn production is limited to acreage along the northern Florida border, where a few peanut farmers have begun to rotate corn into their production cycles.
Seminole Pride™ Beef has developed a following among Florida food purveyors and chefs, who are serving it in more than a 100 of the state’s restaurants, including several high-end restaurants, which use USDA Prime and USDA Choice-rated Seminole Pride™ Angus Beef for steaks, ribs, and roasts.
“The biggest problem we have is feeding capacity,” says Alex Johns. “We need more feeding capacity and local corn produced in Florida.”
Beef from about 100 head of cattle per week is moving through the supply chain under a contract with Cheney Brothers, a major Florida food distributor based in Riviera Beach. Demand is so strong that the Seminoles have formed an alliance with other Florida beef producers who measure up to strict standards of quality and meet specific production quantity levels.
All Seminole Tribe cattle are electronically tracked from birth as part of an innovative high-tech microchip program called Electronic Identification Tagging, which stores each calf’s weight, health, diet, and medical history on a quarter-sized computer chip attached to a calf’s left ear. It provides 100 percent traceability for Seminole cattle from “farm to fork.”
Technology is also important to the Seminole Tribe’s calf-breeding program, which uses Brangus genetics to drive continual improvements in calf quality. Brangus is a cross between the Brahman cattle, which are heat tolerant, and the Angus, which have superior carcass quality.
The Seminoles are also spreading their cattle interests to neighboring Georgia, where they have recently acquired Salacoa Valley Farms of Fairmount, Ga., northwest of Atlanta. Salacoa is noted for its top-quality registered pure bred Brangus cows and bulls, which are expected to be incorporated into the Seminoles’
“I think we’re growing at the right time,” says Johns. “We’re in full expansion mode at Salacoa.”