Thoughts on Lease Cropping vs Grazing Your Own Stock

There is something wrong with me that leasing and renting properties never seems to work out.  Even when there is a contract with goals and procedures laid out life, weather, resources change and stuff just doesn’t happen as plan.  But, by and large, my disappointments seem rooted in being too accommodating.  Or maybe it’s a lack of communication though for sure i don’t hold back giving my opinions and expectations – to a fault, i’m afraid.  Nevertheless, things never turn out quite the way i want.

Currently, i’ve leased 120 acres for organic farming for 4 years.  My goals are to eliminate or drastically reduce endophyte infected toxic fescue and build organic matter through the use of cover crops.  I knew going in that my renter has no intention of ever letting cattle graze the cover crops, so i can’t be unhappy about that, yet, the more i see happening and the more i read, it is clear that my soil is lacking due to the removal of animal impact.

Our contract was spelled out and ends after next year’s crop (it was a 4 year deal).  I had hoped that it would be successful and that then we could move forward with working another piece and removing more fescue, but it doesn’t work.

Here are some bullet points i have:

  1. animal impact is essential to making cover crop and soil improvements financially viable as well as building organic matter and tilth.
  2. in a lease situation, the owner doesn’t have the power to make certain that soil is covered.  This past year, the soil did not have anything in it from November until June (except volunteer ragweed growing in the spring) and now that it’s been worked and readied for more soybeans, it still lays open to the sun, wind, and rain with prevented planting.   Cover crops simply don’t get planted even though that was the written goal.
  3. I knew going in that i was incurring some opportunity costs by leasing vs grazing my own cattle on the property.  I weighed that against the possibility of getting better control of the toxic fescue and giving my friend an opportunity to expand his organic cropping endeavor.  Bottom line, from a purely income/expense perspective, I make more money with grazing vs leasing the property for row cropping.
  4. Lessees do not care for your property as you would.  Trees and brush are growing rapidly in fence rows and untilled portions of the land.  I still do the labor of keeping them under control and since the crop is organic, i must follow the rules of how to manage.  In other words, i can’t chemically treat the plants or stumps if they are within 20 feet of the crop – So they grow and grow.  It will be 7 years from the time i cut brush and treated and the time i regain control of my property.  A lot gets big and away.  More work at the end of the organic regime.
  5. This experiment was worth the pain since i now know that it simply is not the way i would ever do this project again.  I’m especially glad I went with the organic approach despite the stumbling blocks since a conventional farmer would have slathered the soil with toxic chemicals year after year and farmed fence row to fence row and through the waterways.  My friend is careful to leave ample grass strips in waterways and leaves 20 foot buffer from the fences (organic rules).  At the same time this leaves at least 20 acres that is not be utilized for any purpose since he won’t allow grazing at any time.
  6. The weather immediately turned into drought mode for these 3 years and I’m having to downsize my cow herd drastically to accommodate since my acres for grazing is reduced.  Incredibly, this has turned to be a blessing since i’ve culled deeply (after this fall, it will have been about 40%!), no cow gets a second chance and i’ve sold a lot of older cows that i would typically try to ‘get one more calf out of.’  This year’s calf crop is the best I’ve ever had.  Now if only market prices weren’t in the tank.
  7. If i had my own farming equipment and the desire to run it, i think there is opportunity to improve the soil, increase tilth and organic matter, create better wildlife habitat, create another employment opportunity, and increase profit with combined cropping/grazing especially if a value added food crop market is developed.  We actually do have all the equipment, but not the time or energy to develop the plan, work the plan, and market.  The equipment mostly sits in the barn and serves as depreciating assets against income.
  8. At the end of the day,  we do the best we can and then we die.  The hope is to leave a legacy of some sort – be it a physical asset, money, or wisdom.  A friend recently sold his rather large farm he had promoted, taught, enjoyed, and improved with holistic, organic practices for all his life yet it sold to conventional farmers who are likely to plough it all under and row crop until it is degraded. That is sad, but life goes on.

At the end of the day, I’m looking forward to bringing the 120 acres back under my management even though i will only graze it once i get it seeded back down.  With managed grazing and some brush/tree removal, the pasture will be back hopefully making money for me soon.

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You can see the worked field which has now been bare soil since harvest of soybeans last November.  That means 10 months and counting of open, unprotected soil.  

Managing Stock and Pasture

With an exciting title like that, one can hardly wait to read what’s within!  HA!

Nevertheless, managing our resources (in my case it’s primarily land and cattle) is a must and, yes, even biblically (Genesis 2:15) mandated, to not only preserve unadulterated landscape (not to be confused with managing by removing human and wildlife impact or just letting nature take its course – ‘mother nature’ is not wise), but also we can use intense management to restore and improve ravaged soils and water.  There is a cost, time, and planning involved – and, to most, that is just not exciting.  It’s more fun to blame someone else for whatever climate change, global warming, environmental downfall you believe in on someone else and, those in power play on emotion to create ways to transfer wealth out of yours and mine pocket and put it in theirs.  But the fact is that each of us can make incremental changes in our own lawns, houses, driving habits, purchasing choices which will make us feel better and it will, rather that cost us, put money in our own pockets.

We have waste on our farm and farming practices, to be sure, just as any company or household has – oftentimes there is a cost to manage the waste, so it’s more profitable to waste.  No harm in that – usually.   For example, after having my timber and draws profitably logged which also improved the land, air, water, wildlife, soil, the resulting branches and small logs are more effectively burned where they lay vs  chipping or chopping for firewood.  It is a huge cost to do either of latter.  However, before burning, i’ll allow them to rot down, putting nutrients and carbon back on the soil and provide some shelter for wildlife before i burn the piles.  So not a total waste.

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Here I’m installing a single strand poly braid electric fence with step in posts to keep the cows on the tall (older forage) grasses to the right.  I did this because the south half of this paddock was grazed Jun 23-25.  Although there is little regrowth even after 45 days (we are still dry despite the green forage), it will be more tasty to the cows and they will grub it down to the soil thereby setting it back for regrowth and allowing the drought to get a deeper grip.  Bare soil and short roots make for a disaster.  Soil erosion, high soil temperatures, slow regrowth, microbes, essential to soil health, will start dying off.
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Photo showing the shorter regrowth up front, the poly braid, and the taller, older forage in the background. The taller forage has not been grazed since last December and, though we are short on moisture, the rains have been much more timely than the past two years, so there is a nice variety of forages available and many of them have already gone to seed – adding to the reserve or seed bank in the soil for the future.
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Variety in the sward and decent ground cover for my worn out soil.  It has taken years to build a better pasture and this is actually some of the best.  It is located near the ditch so it has the topsoil from the ground above it plus more moisture.  However, even the worst soil is starting to support a thicker stand.  I’ll get a photo – i’m very excited about the improvement at long last!
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Not much regrowth despite being rested for 45 days.  Thankfully, through managed grazing, i can let this rest at least another 45 days.  You can see my boot in this photo – estimated height of sward is 6-8 inches.
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Perfect time to allow a long rest to allow this birdsfoot trefoil to go to seed!