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Cultivate a grazing relationship

Meg Grzeskiewicz Published on 01 July 2013
Cattle by water

Leasing pasture is economically advantageous to almost every livestock producer. However, you need to create a strong connection with your potential landowner in order to secure a lease.

There are three phases to this working relationship which require you to step outside your usual duties as a grazing manager.

Phase one: The sales pitch
The first time you contact a landowner is your sales pitch: You are selling your grazing plans.

The landowner will decide immediately whether or not to further consider your offer. Therefore, it is imperative that you spark interest by showing what’s in it for him or her.

There is no script you can follow each time you approach a new landowner. Each person has a different level of familiarity with livestock production, and diverse reasons and plans for land ownership.

The key to a successful sales pitch is analyzing your audience and tailoring your approach to connect with them. The concept can sound intimidating, but it is as simple as listening and observing.

Start by explaining briefly who you are and that you are interested in leasing the land to sustainably raise livestock. If the person is a fellow farmer, this will be enough information for them to decide whether they are initially interested.

The farther removed they are from agriculture, the more time and effort you will need to invest in making sure they understand your proposal completely.

Some landowners may tell you right away that they aren’t interested. As long as they are willing to listen, however, take the opportunity to provide a complete overview. Discuss the basics of your grazing philosophy and lease proposition but do not overwhelm with details.

Providing pictures to the landowner of your type of grazing operation can make all the difference. I always offer to mail or drop off a brochure I created that explains my grazing method. The landowner can look at my pictures and consider my offer on his or her own time.

If you’re not inclined to making brochures, offer to email some pictures of a pasture and herd you already manage. Ask a friend with a similar grazing operation for pictures if you’re pursuing your first lease. Also consider having simple business cards designed at an office supply store.

They are inexpensive and make a professional impression on landowners, especially ones you’ve never met.

Depending on the background and personality of each owner, you will need to emphasize different points when explaining your plans and production methods.

For example, a fellow cattleman will be most receptive to hearing about how you will make his pastures more productive and increase stocking capacity. A suburban family of hunters will be most interested in bringing wildlife onto their land through forage and soil improvement.

Listen to the questions he or she asks; you will usually pick up a common thread running through them. One landowner I spoke to kept asking about the growth and income potential of a grazing operation on his property.

I realized that he sees his land as an investment from which he wants a return. I went home and made for him a simple profit spreadsheet for a beef enterprise on his 100 acres.

If you meet a landowner at his or her own house, pay attention to your surroundings. If there are fishing rods and game mounts, use the symbiosis of livestock and wildlife as your main selling point.

If there is a garden, take the opportunity to discuss local food production. Ask yourself, “What does this object or feature tell me about the landowner’s personality? How can I tie my grazing plans to this?”

Phase two: The job interview
Once your potential partner starts seriously considering your offer, the leasing process becomes more like a job interview. You are now trying to get the landowner to choose you for the job of managing his or her property.

If you already have an operational farm, invite the landowner to see your management in action. This will go a long way in getting him or her to trust you with the land, especially if they are not a farmer. If you don’t have your own animals yet, ask a friend who practices similar management if he or she would be willing to host you and your landowner for a visit.

Once the landowner understands your grazing philosophy, it’s time for you to tour the land in question. It’s a no-brainer that you should never sign a lease without seeing the entire property. (If an absentee landowner cannot personally give you a tour, insist on getting permission to look around yourself.)

While you are viewing the property, think about how you will set up fencing, water sources and grazing rotations. Explain your plans and rationale to the landowner. Visualizing the improvements you plan to bring will boost his or her enthusiasm.

While the landowner “interviews” you, you should do the same to him or her. Observe the kind of person they are and make sure their goals for the land align with yours. Are there parts of the property they want left alone?

Specific improvements they want to see happen under your management? A big fishing camp-out they host on the land every summer? Think seriously about how you match up as partners before you sign a lease.

Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks” if you have doubts about establishing a good relationship with the landowner. The progress of your grazing enterprise will be seriously hindered by spending years dealing with an uncooperative owner.

It is easy to get excited when landowner relations are going well and not thoroughly evaluate the land as a result. Make sure the property will be an advantageous place to plant your farm business.

After seeing the entire property, tell the landowner that you will accept or decline the lease offer within two weeks. This gives you time to continue shopping around if you need to while giving the landowner a reasonably quick answer.

Phase three: The re-election campaign
It’s easy to put your landowner on the back burner once you have a signed contract in hand. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting about him or her. You’ve gone from a salesperson to a job candidate, and now you’re a politician.

It’s never too early to start running for re-election – or in this case, lease renewal. Become friendly with your landowner and demonstrate the benefits to the land of “voting” for you. Contact him or her once a month with updates.

Absentee landowners will appreciate you being their “eyes and ears,” keeping watch over their property. When your operation is up and running, walk the farm with your landowner and explain how you’re building soil, forage and animal productivity.

Show that you have fulfilled all the claims you made during the lease negotiation process. Keep an open dialogue about what each of you wants to accomplish in the future.

The ability to market your expertise is imperative to securing land leases. Learn to read your potential landowner and tailor your proposal to his or her personality. Make the advantages of a grazing lease clear, then deliver them. You’ll gain a smooth working partnership and grass under your animals’ hooves.   FG

Grzeskiewicz is a freelance writer based in Colden, New York.

It’s easy to put your landowner on the back burner once you have a signed contract in hand. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting about him or her. Photo courtesy of Meg Grzeskiewicz