Archbold Agroecology: The research program at Buck Island Ranch

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Betsey Boughton, Keith Brinsko (Agroecology Research Assistant) and Avarna Jain (Research Intern) sample plants in a grassland experiment at Buck Island Ranch. Photo by Dustin Angell

Buck Island Ranch, operated by Archbold Biological Station, is a full-scale cow-calf operation with approximately 3,000 cows on 10,500 acres. The Ranch is home to more than 700 plants and vertebrate animals, of which six are federally threatened or endangered. When Archbold started leasing the ranch from the MacArthur Foundation in 1988, the vision was to operate the ranch as a full-scale cattle operation to serve as a real-world laboratory for agroecology research. The research focuses on wetlands and water management, understanding how grazing and fire affect wetlands and grasslands, and more recently, understanding the ranchland carbon cycle.  In addition to Archbold’s research program, they also coordinate the research activities of many visiting researchers and graduate students who conduct their own studies at Buck Island Ranch. A major multi-investigator initiative in which Archbold is deeply involved is the new US Department of Agriculture Long-term Agro-ecosystem Research Network or LTAR where the Ranch, partnered with the University of Florida Range Cattle Research and Education Center, is one of 18 sites nationwide selected to form a science network for cross-site experiments and interdisciplinary research. The goal of the LTAR network is to understand how we can sustain food production while decreasing environmental impacts.

According to Dr. Betsey Boughton, 2018 Florida Cattleman’s Association Researcher of the Year, “A significant part of the research program at Buck Island Ranch is focused on wetlands. This is not only because they are so critically important for plants and wildlife on ranches, but also because wetlands have the potential to act as a filter for both water and nutrients, cleansing water before it leaves the ranch and heads downstream to Lake Okeechobee and beyond.”

Because there are more than 600 isolated wetlands covering approximately 15% of the land at Buck Island Ranch, one of the ranch’s key research goals is to understand how management practices affect biodiversity in these wetlands and their ability to retain nutrients.

As a natural extension of working in wetlands, the program has also been involved in water management and monitoring projects that are a win-win for agriculture and conservation. For eight years, researchers have been working on monitoring water on ranches as part of the Northern Everglades-Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) offered by the South Florida Water Management District. Ranchers are paid for water management that is above and beyond normal ranch water management—either water retention or nutrient removal.  These programs, along with other efforts by state and federal agencies, are expected to mitigate problems of water quality and quantity to downstream ecosystems like Lake Okeechobee.

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Betsey Boughton samples soil from one of over 600 wetlands on Buck Island Ranch. Photo by Dustin Angell

“We have also been working with collaborators to better understand the carbon cycle on ranchland,” continues Boughton, “This is important because there is a push for the industry to reduce carbon emissions to be more sustainable.”  The carbon cycle on Florida ranches is complex because of the various sources of greenhouse gases (cattle, fire, fertilizer, wetlands, etc.) and sinks of greenhouse gases (plants grown in wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands and in soil). The work has shown that grazed pastures are a net sink for carbon dioxide, meaning they absorb more through photosynthesis than they release through respiration. Of special interest is work on methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times the strength of carbon dioxide. Research has shown that wetlands and wet soils are a major natural source of methane, while cattle were responsible for only 19-30% of the annual methane emissions.  In another study, scientists compared the carbon budgets of grazed and ungrazed pastures and showed that grazed pastures were a greater carbon sink, even after accounting for methane produced by cattle.  As there is increased scrutiny regarding greenhouse gases, data such as these are important.

On Buck Island Ranch and other ranches, researchers and ranchers have waded many miles through vibrant grasslands and wetlands that support a diversity of plants, insects, and birds.  This diversity tells us about the natural value of ranchlands and the importance of ranchlands to conservation.  An important role that Archbold plays is sharing the knowledge generated at Buck Island Ranch with the public and policy makers to ensure that everyone understands the enormous value of Florida ranchland, including food production, biodiversity, water conservation, and carbon cycling.

Written by Dr. Betsey Boughton

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Betsey Boughton and Nick DeLucia (University of Illinois PhD Student) measure methane from wetlands with a large chamber with sensors inside. Photo by Raoul Boughton

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