What a landowner looks for in a lessee

What A Landowner Looks For in A Lessee

Helpful article in the April 2019 Issue (4) of Progressive Cattleman.

Online article.

 

What a landowner looks for in a lessee

Jenny Pluhar for Progressive Cattleman Published on 25 March 2019
Frank Price (left) and Grant Teplicek

“Is this Jenny?”

“Yes. …”

“This is John Q. Public. I heard you have a ranch available for lease, and I run some cattle. …”

That opening line pretty much guaranteed I was not going to consider that offer to lease. Most likely John Q. had a job in town. He may have been the pharmacist, owned the hardware store or been a schoolteacher. But in my neck of the woods (Texas), “running cattle” is the ultimate sexy, cool, cowboy thing to do.

The mere fact so many think it is easy offends me. That fellow on the other end of the phone hoping to lease from me needs to be managing a complex ecosystem and ensuring sustainability into the future. He is running a business where profitability is closely linked to stewardship of the land. He is not just “running cattle.”

This was not my first rodeo. I have changed lessees for these owners twice before over 24 years. We tend to choose carefully and hope to have long-term relationships. I have been threatened: “I will pay more than John Doe; aren’t you supposed to make the most money possible for the owners?” “You’ll never find someone to go along with all your stipulations.” “If I lease your place, I will decide how to operate it.” “Give me the owner’s number; I will tell him I will pay more.”

Nope, yep and nope. By all means, call the owner. He will hang up on you, guaranteed. My goal was to find the right lessee, someone who wanted to manage that complex ecosystem, strive for sustainability, make a profit. The happy ending is: Although I received the above-mentioned phone call probably a hundred times, I had four outstanding candidates to lease the ranch, and another four queued up if the first four opted out.

Serious about stewardship

What to look for in a lessee? How to find the guy or gal who can manage a complex ecosystem and steward the rangeland resource while still making a profitable living for their family? Face it, if we don’t take profitability into account, the goal of stewardship becomes just another buzzword.

Of the calls I received, only one was actually a credible possibility – and only because I had lost touch with the young man. I knew and respected him but was out-of-date on his progression in the ranching industry. The viable candidates were people I contacted, folks I knew from field days, ranch tours, word-of-mouth. I knew them to be serious about stewardship, profitable, eager to learn and progressive-type operators. I had observed them in action, often at Texas Grazing Land Coalition activities, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers School for Successful Cattlemen, local workshops.

My initial concern was that none of them would want to consider this property. It is remote and, frankly, was beat up – continuously grazed, overstocked, infrastructure needing attention, definitely a ranch in rehab. Lucky for me, I had four respectable land stewards who were interested.

After a bad experience with past lessees, the owners and I were determined to make a good selection. We were in no hurry, which was key to a successful process.

I spent a day on the ranch with each potential lessee. We climbed on the side-by-side and attempted to see as much as possible. Thirty-thousand acres is a lot of ground to cover, but I wanted them to see the good, the bad and the ugly. And I wanted to gauge their goals. The owners and I have some specific goals, focusing primarily on improving rangeland conditions.

It is a mighty challenge, and I needed to know if the candidates were up to the task and aware of the degradation of the resources. Those hours on the ATV allowed me to quickly assess their mettle. Did they know the plants? Did they know how much water a cow-calf pair or a stocker needed daily? Were they savvy on stocking rates, animal unit equivalents, grazable acres and harvest efficiency?

Then I turned the tables. I asked to see country each candidate leased – in my book, that’s the “résumé” of a rancher. What does the place you operate look like? So I spent a corresponding day with each of them, riding around, looking closely at how they conducted business.

Following the days on the ranch, I asked each to tell me what they saw. I developed a few questions. What did they see as the shortcomings of the ranch? And how would they overcome those obstacles? What about the advantages? How would we collaborate, communicate? How would they handle the necessary labor?

Why would we care about the labor? The ranch is remote. School is nearly a 50-mile bus ride away with the potential for the ability to transfer to the school district only 20 miles away. Sadly, substance abuse is a real problem among ranch cowboys in the Texas Panhandle. This location is not for everybody. Leasing this ranch and putting someone out there with a young family or a fast crowd of friends is not going to get the job done. “Cowboys” who have limited skill sets and want to drive around or spend aimless time horseback are a dime a dozen. We recognize the need for the labor to be able to manage the resource, not just cake the cattle in the winter and ride a horse all summer.

Up for a challenge

By now you are thinking, “Man, she put these potential lessees through a bunch of hoops just to ‘run some cattle’.” It was exciting to find four candidates who found the opportunity to improve the conditions, something that excited and challenged them. They provided potential solutions to our challenges, grazing and monitoring plans, communication plans and really showed off their eagerness and enthusiasm. Anyone who says there are not young, enthusiastic ranchers wanting a chance to get started or expand in the business hasn’t looked around very hard.

Finally, the owners and I interviewed them together. That face-to-face meeting is important. It also allowed the potential lessees to gauge if they wanted to enter into a challenging ranch rehab and do business with the owners. These things go both ways. Our extensive process allowed for plenty of time for both sides to assess the situation and evaluate the potential.

The best advice for folks looking to lease land is really pretty simple. Think of it as a job interview. What do you bring to the table? How will you work with the landowner? Plan to forge a relationship, stewarding the land for the good of the owner and your own profitability. If you are just looking to “run some cattle,” put that phone down and go look for something else to do.

Ranching is the management of a complex ecosystem, grazing animals all with the goal of economic and environmental sustainability. It’s not rocket science. Literally. It’s way more complicated.  end mark

PHOTO: Frank Price (left) of Sterling City, Texas, explains the improving forage conditions on a lease property to Grant Teplicek of USDA-NRCS. Photo provided by Jenny Pluhar. 

Jenny Pluhar

Feeding Hay to Improve Your Land – Part 6

Feeding Hay to Improve Your Land – Part 6

By   /  April 1, 2019  /  1 Comment

    Print       Email

This is the last part in Jim’s series. If you missed any part, here are links to catch up: Part 1,Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.

Hay is more Carbon (C) by dry weight than anything else. When we feed hay we are also adding carbon to the soil in addition to the Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorous (P) discussed in the earlier posts in this series. Adding carbon increases the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil through increase in soil organic matter.

How much carbon do we add to the soil with hay feeding?

Let’s do the math.

Hay is typically between 40-50% Carbon depending on plant maturity at harvest time. Some of this C is in cells as soluble sugar or other easily digested materials. The bulk of the C is in plant fiber that varies in degree of digestibility.

What’s left behind after feeding is a combination of unconsumed plant material and dung and urine. Both are important contributors to soil health.

Unconsumed hay is intact plant material that helps provide the ‘armor’ on the soil. During the growing season we refer to litter cover on the soil surface. Hay residue provides the same benefits to the water cycle as plant litter.

The consumed part of hay that is not digested comes out as manure. We have already discussed the N & P values of manure and urine following hay feeding. Whereas we can add too much N or P to the soil through excessive hay feeding, it is almost impossible to add too much C.

The digestible part of the hay is utilized by ruminant livestock as their primary energy source. Maintenance quality cow hay may be as low as 50% digestibility while high quality ‘calf hay’ may be close to 70% digestible. The C from digested material is incorporated into body tissue or expelled as CO2.

It is the non-digested plant material that contributes to building soil organic matter through dung returned to the soil. Manure on the ground does not contribute a lot to ‘soil armor’, but it contributes to feeding soil life.

The rate of manure breakdown is largely driven by digestibility of the residual fiber. If rumen microbes could not quickly digest it, soil microbes aren’t much faster. Manure breaks down much more quickly in warm-wet environments compared to cold-dry environments.

Hay residue left on the ground will ultimately contribute to soil organic matter. Many people have the bad habit of wanting to burn residue piles in the Spring. Please, do not!

These piles become enriched soil organic matter sites and can be above average production areas for years to come. Burning piles sends most of the valuable C into the atmosphere.

While in the first year following feeding there may be some weeds grow up on these piles, most of those weeds are making a contribution to soil development or get grazed by the livestock during the growing season.

The bottom line is, each ton of hay fed will contribute about 400 to 600 lbs of C to the soil as either hay residue or manure.

That is a valuable addition to your land. Make the most of it!

 

This is the last part in Jim’s series. If you missed any part, here are links to catch up: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.

 

Support the Publication That Supports You!

If you find value in what we’re doing, if you’ve used what you read here to be more successful and profitable, then please send support during our Spring Fund Drive.

Sponsors Are Critical to On Pasture’s Health!

If you’re an organization that supports good grazing, you can sponsor On Pasture as well. Sponsors help make sure that great information is always available to help farmers and ranchers be the best they can be.