Tag Archives: tilth

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.  (it’s now October 2019 and covered with weeds again). 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.

IMG-6088
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.

Tweaking the Plan

Since the first of the year, i’ve headed to the local YMCA just 10 minutes drive away and working out (walking at least 10,000 steps according to Fitbit and lifting weights) for 2 to 2 1/2 hours each morning.  Our YMCA opens a bit before 5am, so this is a perfect time for me to go.  I’m usually awake anyway and it’s far too cold outside to do anything, plus it’s dark.

Anyway, like the others who come in early to workout, i plug into my phone and listen to something.  I really enjoy listening to audio books through our local library‘s subscription to Hoopla.  Granted, i suspect there is not as many books on offer as a paid subscription like Audiobooks, but Hoopla is included in our library membership.  But, i mix up the books with Youtube of grazing and cattle management experts.  This has included Jim Gerrish, Jaime Elizondo Braum, Johann Zietsman, Doug Peterson, Greg Judy, David Pratt, Allen Williams.

Continuing education is necessary in any endeavour and as margins tighten and disappear in cattle production it becomes critical to discover little ways to squeeze a bit of income out of our chosen career despite outside pressures OR to discover that you must forge a totally different path if this one simply can no longer be financially sustained.

Regardless of one’s age, evaluation of your chosen work needs doing regularly, but having just turned 56, it may be time consider winding down and looking at retirement.  Nevertheless, the older we get, we must discover if what we are doing is the most effective use of our time and energy (which physically wanes).  If the activity is marginally profitable, then what can be done to make it more profitable without increasing labor (labor and feed are huge costs in raising livestock).  Or are we better purposed to volunteer, counsel, or help our children more.

  1. Last year, i used a lot of iron (tractors, rotavator, plough disk, no-till drill) to establish, first, 18 acres of annuals, and second, establish a permanent ley on 50 acres.  The first experiment resulted in quality grazing, but not more grazing as measured in cow days per acre, than my poor quality forage already growing.  So, i don’t plan to incur that cost again, though my soil may have experienced some improvement.  The second experiment was severely hampered by the lack of rain for the seeds to grow.  However, it may have been a blessing, 1) a better kill of the toxic endophyte fescue due to dry and hot weather, and 2) the seeds hopefully did not germ and will come up this spring.  Time will tell on that here in about 3 months.  However, this project was extremely expensive at $175/acre.
  2. Last year, i also had lime spread on the 160 at the rate of 2 tons per acre for a cost of $66/acre.  The addition of lime typically doesn’t show any production increase for a couple years.
  3. Bale feeding was used quite a lot on various parts of my paddocks.  This may very well be the fastest way to build soil health, but it’s expensive (like all inputs) and time consuming to place the bales.
  4. Last year, I also synchronised my cows with hormones and AI’d a good portion of them.  The reason was because i was going to shorten my breeding season once again to 45 days vs 65 days.  This is expensive, but it does seem to help.  However, due to ragweed allergies, i am simply unable to remove the bulls from the pasture on 1 September, so i will change my plan and leave the bulls in for 60 days and simply sell those that do not calve within the 45 day window.  This does not, however, address the fact that i don’t want to calve for 60 days.  Nothing to be done for that.  Allergies rule my schedule in this regard.

So, tweaking my plan for this year will be to:

  1. no mechanical disturbance or seed inputs (including broadcast)
  2. no liming or other fertiliser input purchases (save up to $100/acre)
  3. Utilize bale grazing extensively to increase soil health (microbial activity) and organic matter (improve tilth) (the only down side here is the time spent to set the bales in the paddocks in proper manner in preparation for winter grazing)
  4. eliminate the synchronising and AI costs.  This eliminates the time spent in mustering and sorting the cows 3 times, shots and CIDRS, semen costs, and AI technician expense.  All these costs add up to about $80 per cow.
  5. purchase hay early for possible reduced cost per bale (purchasing in winter tends to drive up cost due to increased demand)  (delivered hay costs from 4 cents to 15 cents per pound depending on quality and demand)
  6. Manage my time to allow ultra high stock density grazing (UHDG) at least part of the year to increase forage diversity, water infiltration, and soil health.  (time is a problem here because of my farm being a 35 minute drive from my home, it is counter productive if this increases labor that would be expensed to cows)

OR:

  1. let go, rent out the land, and sell my cows – no work.  the drawbacks are having to quibble with renters on their lack of care and watching your land erode, grow up in brush, and/or wash away.  Repair and clean up can be costly at the end of the renting period.

So, should i continue ranching – and realistically, i plan to – giving it up unless necessary is not really a consideration, although it should be,  then i need to decide whether to reduce the number of cows to what my pastures can sustain during the non growing season (winter  – about 5 months and summer heat – about 1 month), OR increase cow numbers to manage the growing season flush and buy in enough hay to feed them during the winter.  Hay purchase and feeding will also improve the soil, so there is added value to that.

No one else can make this decision, although there are a lot of suggestions and i really appreciate all the expert and seasoned ranchers sharing their experiences – these have guided me .

Just Breathe,

tauna