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BC, Brighton ship thousands of calves

After being sorted into groups, calves wait in the shade of massive old live oak trees at the Big Cypress cow pens. (Beverly Bidney photo)

BIG CYPRESS — Despite a stubborn heat wave, the cow pens on the Brighton and Big Cypress reservations were busy from July 11-21 as thousands of calves were shipped out to feedlots around the country. The annual event is the culmination of the year cattle owners spent caring for calves.

It was a productive year for the 60 owners who shipped the calves. They will spend the next few months eating and when they reach about 1,350 pounds, they will be sent to market.

Cattlewoman Mary Jene Koenes is a third generation cattle owner. Her grandfather Albert Billie was one of the original Seminole cattle owners and her mother Mary Billie Waggerby also owned cattle. She has been in the tribe’s cattle program for 35 years.

Cowhand Randy Rueda, left, and Big Cypress Natural Resources cattle foreman Andre Jumper round up cows and calves from Cory Wilcox’s pasture into his pen for sorting. (Beverly Bidney photo)

“I was born into cattle ranching and have been around them all my life,” Koenes said. “I love being around cattle and enjoy the lifestyle of being a rancher.”

Her herd has about 170 head and she shipped 55 calves. This year, she lost six calves and cows during birthing and had to bottle feed a couple of calves. Predators are ever-present and she lost one to coyotes. For the last eight years, she’s had donkeys in the pastures which has helped deter most predators.

“We are a cow-calf operation,” Koenes said. “We are the start of everybody buying their meat at the grocery store. A lot of kids don’t even know where their meat comes from. I like teaching them. The Seminoles have always been around cattle, they picked up what was left by the Spaniards and have been raising them ever since.”

Natural Resources director Aaron Stam and Jessie Carter move a group of calves from one pen to another in Big Cypress. (Beverly BIdney photo)

The result of the year was better than Koenes thought it would be. The drought in the spring and winter was a long one, followed by too much rain. The rains brought the mosquitos, which caused the cows to walk around a lot, which led to weight loss.

“Overall, we did really well,” Koenes said. “I’m very thankful the Lord blessed us very well this year. I didn’t hear of any injuries with our cowboys and cow crew and I’m glad of that, too.”

Koenes is an ardent supporter of the Seminole 4-H program; she sponsored four and sold three calves to the ambitious youngsters. Her grandson, Koda Osceola, 8, raised and sold a hog last year and made enough money to purchase his own steer.

“That’s what we like to see,” said Seminole Indian 4-H coordinator Kimberly Clement. “It’s what 4-H is all about.”

Cattle owner Mary Jene Koenes looks at paperwork during the shipping. (Beverly Bidney photo)

Sunshine Frank shipped about 40 calves and two went to 4-H kids. She doesn’t spend too much time in the pastures, but enjoys being there when they are working the cattle.

“They looked really nice and healthy this year,” Frank said.

Wyatt Youngman, who earned a degree in citrus and horticulture from Florida Southern College in December 2021, has a small herd of 50 head near his home in Lake Placid and a larger one of 120 head in Big Cypress. He shipped 15 calves.

“Mine is a new herd and it’s off cycle,” Youngman said. “Over two years I’ve pieced together cattle from other herds.”

Youngman hoped to make a career in citrus, but the industry has taken a hit. He is considering selling his 458 acre grove and going into cattle instead.

“There is no market for citrus anymore,” Youngman said. “I’d rather be farming and ranching, but here I am ranching.”

Emma Urbina counts calves as they come off of an owners trailer and into the cow pens. The animals are counted again as they are loaded onto the large, multilevel cattle truck. (Beverly Bidney photo)

Preparing the calves for shipping is a team effort made by cattle owners and cowhands that starts at sunrise. Cows and calves are herded from the pastures into the owners’ pens, where the calves are separated from the cows. The recent heavy rain left may pastures with tall grasses that cowboys on horseback had to navigate to get the animals to the pens.

It was 94 degrees without a cloud in the sky in Big Cypress on July 19 as cattle foreman Andre Jumper and cowhand Randy Rueda went into the woods on Cory Wilcox’s pasture to retrieve the animals. Jumper brought his dogs to help round up the animals with great success.

Work in the cow pens is crowded, dirty and can be dangerous. The cowboys work in very close proximity to animals who weigh hundreds of pounds more than they do. It’s hot, but it is shaded to keep the cows from overheating. Work starts early in the day for the same reason, by afternoon it is too hot for shade to provide enough comfort.

Cattle from the Board pastures at St. Thomas near Brighton and Parker Island in Lake Placid were shipped from July 25 to Aug. 5.

Natural Resources director Aaron Stam, left, and Todd Johns coax calves into a holding pen before being loaded onto the cattle truck during calf shipping in Big Cypress on July 19, 2022. (Beverly BIdney photo)
Cattle owner Mary Jene Koenes smiles as her calves are weighed and sorted in the Big Cypress cow pen.(Beverly Bidney photo)
During a day of hard work, Naha Jumper, left, Emma Urbina, center, and Josh Jumper find time and energy to share a laugh in the cow pen. (Beverly Bidney photo)
After a morning of hard work, cowhands join the cattle owners in a generous cowboy lunch in a chickee behind the Big Cypress cow pens. Owners whose calves are being shipped that day provided the meal. (Beverly Bidney photo)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at