MANATEE - Ask a Manatee County cattle rancher about the good prices they are getting for beef, and they will likely respond that it's all about supply and demand.
That's globally, not just in Bradenton or Florida.
Cully Rowell, whose great-grandfather and grandfather raised cattle near Linger Lodge in the days before barbed wire fences went up, quotes beef prices from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange without hesitating.
Cattle futures climbed to a record in December in anticipation of falling beef production in 2014.
"The demand has been so high for the past two or three years that the national cattle herd is down now. But now we're building back up. You can see a lot of pastures with a lot of heifers people are keeping," said Rowell, director and past president of the Manatee County Cattlemen's Association.
Manatee County has herds totaling about 40,000 with an annual market value estimated at $21 million -- the ninth largest for beef production among Florida counties. Some say the higher prices for beef has pushed that value to more than $30 million.
With the good prices holding steady for several years, Manatee County ranchers are trying to increase their herd size, and many are trying to lease more land for pasture. It's not unusual to see cattle grazing near Bradenton neighborhoods, and in areas that will probably be developed into new suburbs in the near future, such
as right outside the gates of Central Park in Lakewood Ranch. They're even found on Snead Island.
Rancher Jim Parks raises cattle on his property in Myakka City and on leased land in Palmetto. He recently added a new land lease in Duette.
"Leased property is a precious commodity in Manatee County. It's hard to find good leases, There is just so much land and there is a supply and demand for it, too," Parks said. "I had a lease at one time on property on State Road 70 and Lockwood Ridge Road. Now there are homes there, and a closed-up Winn Dixie and a new Publix."
Another factor in the declining population of cattle herds in the U.S. was the historic drought in the West, the worst since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
Jim Strickland, past president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, attributes the growing demand for beef to an improving economy, where families can again treat themselves to a steak dinner, and to a world market hungry for American beef.
China is opening up, and there is a growing demand in Japan and South Korea for American beef, Strickland said.
"Everyone wants American beef. It's the beef to get and to eat," Strickland said.
That's a welcome change from recent years of struggle, when ranchers were rocked back on their boot heels during the Great Recession, as beef became one of the things families cut out of the budgets.
"We barely paid our bills for many years," Strickland said. "We have only been making money a couple of years.
"It's just like having a rug shop, and you sold off your supply at whatever price you could get," he added. "Then all of the sudden the market turns around and you only have two rugs left."
Most ranches in Manatee County are cow-calf operations, with the young cows being sold after being weaned, and raised to slaughter size elsewhere, typically in Kansas, Oklahoma or Iowa.
Many Manatee ranchers sell their cattle at auction in Arcadia. Rowell received $1.90 to $2.60 a pound for cattle he sold in Arcadia in December, roughly consistent with the $1.75 to $2.70 a pound for cattle sold last January.
Strickland hazards a guess that there may be a trend to raising cattle to slaughter in northern Florida, rather than shipping them exclusively to feedlots in the West or Midwest.
That would be possible because of the falling price of corn, and new varieties of corn than can be grown in Florida.
"You may well see a grocery store or white linen restaurant offering steaks produced in Florida," Strickland said. "We are not going to outdo Iowa -- they are the corn guys of the world."
But that could help reduce the carbon footprint of shipping 800,000 head of Florida cattle to other states, and then having many of them shipped back to Florida as cuts of beef.
Manatee ranchers are guardedly optimistic about the future.
"The grass still has a little green in it, which means we'll need to put out less hay this winter," Rowell noted.
But the price of molasses, the price of fuel, and the price of getting the product to market are factors beyond the control of ranchers.
"I remember one year, we had a freeze a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and had to feed our cattle with hay up until spring. That gets into your pocket book when you have to do that," Rowell said.
When accounting for inflation and for what the dollar can buy today, ranchers say, cattle prices still aren't what they should be.
"Cattle prices are the best they have ever been for gross dollars, but for your return on investment, it could be better," Parks said.
"Prices still aren't where they need to be. Consumers don't want to hear that, but they don't want to hear about $3.50 gallon gas, either."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1