In addition to the property features discussed in my last article, there are three more categories to evaluate before you decide to lease or buy pastureland. It is crucial that your landowner or realtor give you a complete tour of the land, or give you permission to look around yourself.
Take into account any man-made infrastructure on the land. Are there gravel roads or paths that will allow easy access to all parts of the property, with a pickup truck or four-wheeler? Will a truck and trailer or semi be able to maneuver efficiently?
A basic corral or handling facility is necessary to work animals and load them into trailers at sale time. If there isn’t a purpose-built corral on the property, don’t worry. Small herds can be processed through an existing barn, or a simple pen can be constructed out of steel tube panels for a few hundred dollars. An alley and basic headgate can be economically added after selling your first crop of lambs, calves or meat. If you plan to stay on the property for a long time, consider a custom-designed corral system from a company like Powder River or Priefert Ranch Equipment. Options are available for every budget and herd size.
Find out from your landowner or realtor if any utility companies have easements on the property. Are there any hunters or other leasees who will be using the land? You will need to take these other users into account when planning fencelines, gate locations and rotation schedules.
Finally, crouch down and take a close look at the forage and soil. I put this category last on the list because through careful holistic management, substandard pasture can explode with productivity. As long as there is enough acceptable-quality grass to begin grazing, look first at the above characteristics of a potential lease.
Make sure to look at the forage and soil on at least five different sites of the property. Take note of the grass, legume and forb species present in the forage stand. Each species has different nutritional value to livestock and varying grazing tolerance. Some, such as tall fescue, contain toxins that must be controlled through management. If you aren’t well-versed in plant identification, your county extension office can help. Most offices can provide you with a pocket guide. There are countless resources online and at a local library as well.
You can also measure the amount of available forage if you are touring the property during the growing season. This will help you estimate the current and potential stocking capacity. (On Pasture will cover how to estimate available forage in the near future.)
Take a look at the soil conditions. What types of soil are present on different sections of the farm? Will the soil support the building of new ponds? Push back the growing forage and look at the base of the plants. Is there a layer of dead plant litter beneath the forage? You can build a litter bank, and therefore your soil, through proper grazing. However, starting out with a litter bank is an added advantage. Litter disintegrates into the organic matter fraction of soil. It supports microbial life, holds water, and fertilizes forage. Use a shovel to dig about a foot into the soil. Is there an abundance of earthworms and insect life? Are root systems of forage plants large and well-developed? How deep is the topsoil?
You can learn more about the potential of the soil on the property from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS Web Soil Survey provides online soil data for nearly every area of the nation. You can also enlist a local NRCS agent for guidance in evaluating the soil on a potential property. A soil test is also a great way to get to know your pasture better. (Here are a couple On Pasture articles that might help make soil testing easier: Take the Drudgery Out of Soil Testing, and Smooshing Soil Like An Expert.)
In my opinion, the best kind of property is one that was once grazed or hayed, but not in the last five or more years. This means that the life cycles of most pathogens and worms have been broken. Brush will be minimal and there is usually a water source. Some fertility from manure will remain, and a solid stand of forage with a litter bank is established. Old fencelines will be relatively clear, sometimes with salvageable fence.
If you’re serious about the property after your tour, it’s time to put your observations and test results to use. The following article will discuss the final step before signing papers: planning your grazing operation with a feasibility analysis.