This week I received an unexpected email asking if I’d be interested in “grazing herbivores, pasturing chickens, and/or growing vegetables” on a long unused 85 acre property in the next town over. This land is about a 6 mile drive from home, 15 minutes away. We aren’t planning on doing market gardening any time soon, so the vegetables were out right away. Chickens are a tough business simply because they are so easy — anyone with a few acres can raise chickens. Thus there are lots of people selling pastured chickens below costs, many of them hobbyists and other folks who are doing it more for fun than for income. Besides the tough economics of chickens, there is the predator problem. Controlling predators is hard enough on our own farm, but raising chickens on a remote farm seems disastrous.
Grazing cattle on the land could be a possibility. They don’t need as much supervision as smaller livestock and I could use my homemade automatic fence opener to give them daily pasture rotations. Adding additional remote acreage seemed challenging, but we didn’t want to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Especially if the land were to be offered at low cost it seemed like something that should be thoroughly investigated.
After learning more about the property, we found that it only has about half the land in open fields. The rest is wooded and extremely steep. A well managed pasture can support more cattle, but a good starting point for overgrown fields is probably 2.5 to 3 acres per cow. To stock the property at that density we’d need to spend about $35,000 on a herd of young cows or older heifers at today’s prices. Fencing, water pumps, and other infrastructure costs would add about $4,000 if we did all the labor ourselves. Water seems to be a problem, so a well might also be necessary.
It was immediately obvious that we couldn’t afford to buy enough cattle to stock the land, so the next consideration was custom grazing. Custom grazing is where a farmer with lots of cattle (or often a non-farmer investor with lots of money) parcels out livestock to multiple smaller farms. Each of the smaller farms gets paid a daily stipend for raising the cattle and then ships the calves back to the owner each year. The other version of custom grazing is more dairy-centric, where overstocked dairy farms send out youngstock and dry cows for grazing. This has been a popular topic in books, magazines, and meetings as a great opportunity for cash-strapped people to start a farming enterprise.
After walking (actually snowshoeing) the property in question, we determined that we would have a hard time making a go there. The fields are on a plateau with steep escarpments on the sides. The property is landlocked by neighbors on three sides and has a deep wooded ravine on the other. With the terrain and lack of road frontage, access would be difficult, maybe impossible except by a circuitous hike during muddy weather. The pastures probably need a pond or a well if one isn’t present. The land was plowed and then left wild ten or fifteen years ago, so most of the “open” land is covered in dense woody brush about six feet high with a few paths cut by hunters. Lots of brush hogging would be required just to prepare fencelines.
The clincher came later when we heard from one of the custom grazing operations that they require a minimum of 150 open acres. That would mean we’d need to combine our home farm and the new one to meet the acreage requirements and we’d have to truck cattle back and forth between the two places. Further, we found that the winter payments for hay feeding didn’t quite cover the cost of hay, so all winter we’d be losing money. Putting all that together, we knew we had to walk away from the deal. Even if the landlords were willing to offer the land lease for free, we’d still be operating at a loss and we’d spend a lot of time doing it.
What’s the point of all this babbling? Maybe just to note that while it is true that farming is something you do from the heart, you’ve got to keep a sharp pencil to understand if you can afford it. If a few conditions were different, this deal could have been favorable. It is obvious to us that we need to increase the scale of our farm in order tomake a living from it, but if we get bigger without getting better, we’re just going to hurt ourselves.