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Evaluating Potential Pastureland, Part I

By   /  June 3, 2013  /  Comments Off on Evaluating Potential Pastureland, Part I

If you’re thinking of leasing pasture or buying a farm, here are some important questions to answer to make sure you’ll be happy with the place you choose.

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Photo courtesy of NRCS photo gallery

Choosing the right piece of land on which to graze your livestock will save you lots of work, money and stress.  Before you take your first look at the forage or fence on a property, however, there are a number of less obvious considerations to address. Each aspect discussed in this article is equally as important to your success as the grazing characteristics of the land. They will help you determine how “fertile” your business environment will be on any given property.

Asking yourself the following questions should always be your first step, whether you’re buying a farm, leasing pasture, or entering a management relationship with another producer. It is the basis from which you will devise your operation plan.

Does the Location Work For Me?

How far is the property from your home and any farm(s) you already operate? Closer is always better, in case of emergency and for lower travel costs. Decide the maximum distance that you are willing to travel. Is there a sale barn nearby? An interstate or main route for easy animal transport? Will a semi or truck and trailer be able to fit easily down the roads to the farm? Is there a veterinary clinic nearby that treats your species?

Cow in front of houseWhat’s in the Surrounding Area that might affect me?

Take note of agricultural and development activity nearby. Will there be competition for your land from other livestock producers? Are there crop farmers or new housing developments nearby? Are there any hunters who hold seasonal leases on the land? Bring up the topic with your realtor or landowner. Remember that you have defenses against competition. Sign a long lease, and make sure your landowner understands the many benefits you can bring to the property through holistic management that other land uses cannot. Also explain that grazing livestock will not interfere with hunting, camping and other recreational activities.

If there are neighboring houses or farms nearby, ask about the current owner’s relations with them. Are there any neighbors who complain about noise or manure smell? Are there loose dogs that roam the area? Are there children who might need to be warned about electric fencing?

Cattle_branding_Grabill_1888What are the agricultural laws in the town, county and state where your potential pasture is located?

If the property is not zoned for agricultural use, the landowner may be able to apply for a zoning change. There are usually regulations in place for what constitutes a legal fence as well. If the existing fence is in working order but doesn’t meet the requirements, you may be liable for damage done by escaped livestock. You’ll need to spend money on an upgrade before you’re able to start grazing. If your potential pasture is near a state line, you’ll need to check into regulations for interstate animal transport. You may want to buy or sell animals in the neighboring state. Some states require brands or other specific forms of identification. Take this into account when evaluating handling facilities on the property or planning to install them. Compliance with all laws may be less time- and labor-intensive on one tract than on another, depending on location and property features.

farm1-300x193How do I set up insurance?

Another major matter to be discussed with your landowner (in a leasing or management situation) is farm liability insurance. He or she may already have a policy if they are renting land to another farmer, or farming themselves. The most inexpensive way to obtain coverage is to get added to the existing policy as a renter. Many agencies offer a “tenant/owner policy” for you if your landowner is not covered. You or your landowner should call the agent to clarify coverage details before you sign a lease. If you’re buying a farm, you will need to start your own policy. Ask a farming neighbor for the name of a good local agency, or search online. No business owner in any industry can afford to be without appropriate insurance. There are many affordable options available, so shop around before committing to any policy.

Do not confuse farm liability insurance with livestock insurance. A livestock policy only provides reimbursement for certain death losses. It will not protect you from animal-related liability. However, livestock insurance should also be considered for added financial security. Should you ever lose a large number of animals, the growth and profitability of your enterprise could be severely set back without an insurance payout.

Is the Landowner a good fit?

Handshake_(Workshop_Cologne_'06)It is hugely important to evaluate your landowner as well as your potential pasture. When you are focused on convincing him or her to give you a lease, it is easy to steamroll over anything they say and not listen closely. This is a serious mistake, because you will miss countless clues about how well you’ll work together.  Ask your landowner what his long-term goals are for his property. How long does he envision himself owning the land? What improvements would he like to see completed in the next few years? Are there areas he does not want exposed to livestock?

Explain to your landowner that the installation of ponds, corrals or other costly items may be necessary to build a profitable grazing operation. Describe how these projects will increase the value of the property and directly benefit him or her. Then make sure they are willing to contribute financially to these projects. Offer to provide the labor for these tasks if he or she will pay for them. After all, if and when your lease ends, your landowner will keep the ponds!

The ideal landowner is interested in what you have to say and excited about beginning a grazing operation on his or her property. They should respect your expertise and be willing to give you the reins when it comes to managing the land. You want to lease from someone with a positive, responsible attitude. Your landowner needs to be the kind of person you can see yourself becoming friends with. Nothing will create stress and hinder your progress more than conflicts with him or her. Remember that you’re going to be bound by this lease contract for five or more years.

Next Steps:

Once you have determined that your potential property comes with a positive business environment, it’s time to look at the actual features of the land. My next article will help you evaluate grazing potential and plan your livestock operation.

Here are links to all the articles in this series:

Building Your Farm Business on Leased Pasture

Selling and Signing:  Connecting with Landowners to Secure a Pasture Lease

Evaluating Potential Pastureland:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Farm Feasibility Analysis:  Part 1  and Part 2

Writing a Pasture Lease Contract

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About the author

I graduated from West Virginia University in 2012 with a degree in livestock management, and a minor in agribusiness. While at WVU, I won a statewide entrepreneurship competition with a patentable device I designed for video-assisted cattle artificial insemination. I then spent six months interning for grazing expert Greg Judy in Missouri. Now I run Rhinestone Cattle Consulting, helping new and experienced farmers build profitable mob grazing beef operations. I offer artificial insemination, electric fence building and graphic design services too. I'll travel anywhere in the 48 states for on-farm consulting and speaking at conferences.

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