“Chris, what are some characteristics you should be aware of when looking for land?” I’ve gotten this question many times over the past month. Today I’d like to take the time to address that question.
Many people out there have the ideal farm/ranch in their head. This is great, I have the same thing! However, the land you find, whether to lease or buy, will probably not look like this unless you are somehow related to Bill Gates or recently hit the Powerball Jackpot! But if you are smart and willing to compromise, you can find some land that works for you.
This question is a loaded one. Land characteristics I might look for here in Colorado are not the exact same as if I were looking for land in North Carolina. However, there are some near universal traits that I think are necessary. So, what should you look for?
- Water access
- This is #1 if you are considering running livestock on the land. A creek, stream or river is best. Ponds are next best and some sort of water source from a well or domestic water supply brings up the rear. Make sure the water source is available during the time of year you plan on grazing. If you talk to neighbors and hear any “maybe” or “some years it runs” plan on finding an additional water source. Consider the costs of implementing a water system very carefully before committing to anything.
- What does the soil look like? Take a shovel and dig some up when you go to look at the land. Greg Judy taught me this and I think he is 100% correct. You need to look at the soil to see what you are starting with. If the soil is black, crumbly and has chunks the size of cottage cheese, you found yourself one heck of a place! If the soil is poor, be sure to point that out (nicely) to the land owner and negotiate a lower lease rate if you can. Outside competition from other farmers/ranchers might not allow you to negotiate.
- What is the current fencing on the land? Is there any fence? If there is limited or no fence, you could work something out with the land owner. For example, you agree to fence the property in exchange for using the land for 1,2 or 4 seasons. At the end of the lease, you still retain ownership of all fencing. This means you would have to take it down, if the landowner no longer wants to lease to you. There are countless options for this, I just gave you one. Be prepared to invest some money in fencing regardless of how the property is fenced, unless of course the fence is in good shape. I don’t recommend anything other than electrified high tensile wire for permanent fencing and polywire/electric twine for temporary fencing.
- How close is the leased land to you? How close is it to other land that might be available for lease? You need to strongly consider your “commute” and if your business can expand the land base it’s operating on in the future.
- Available Forage
- What types of forages are present on the land? Look for different plants, the more diversity the better. Just realize that livestock will not eat absolutely everything and some plants could be “poisonous.” The severity of the poison is highly variable, don’t freak out about this. Even if you can’t name each plant in the pasture, count how many different species there are. It would pay off to do a little preparation about the grass/forbs/legumes that grow in your area before you go look at any land. A “field guide” for forages would be a great place to start, check Amazon or your local extension office.
- Personality of the Landowner
- This one only pertains to you if you are leasing land. The personality of the land owner can tell you a lot. How does he/she shake your hand? Are they excited about you leasing their property or annoyed? Ask them how the land has been used in the past. Tell them about your management style and the fact that it builds soil and fertility. I’ve gotten really excited and told a land owner about all this stuff and then finally about moving cattle everyday. He was excited up until that point. Then he said “well that’s just stupid!” I ended the conversation at that point. I’m going to cut to the chase. Don’t do business with someone who you don’t trust or your gut gives you a bad feeling about them. You can educate the land owner about what you are doing and show him your improvements but it’s not your job to convince him/her that what you are doing is valid.
Well there you have it. These are things I would look for and consider before buying or leasing any piece of land, anywhere in the world. There may be some things you need to add to the list, but this will get you started on the correct path. What are some things you think others should look for that I forgot to mention?