Bigger cows can skew pasture rates

Today’s commercial cows are about 1,300 lb. on average, which is heavier than what’s used in rental rate calculators

When calculating pasture rates based on animal unit months, producers should consider that most cows are heavier than the 1,000 pounds used in AUM calculations.

Ted Nibourg, farm management specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said that today’s commercial cows are about 1,300 lb. on average and some are even larger. That must be taken into account when negotiating pasture rental rates.

In standard calculations, one animal unit refers to a 1,000 lb. cow, with or without a calf, with a 26 lb. daily requirement of dry matter forage. One AUM is equal to 780 lb. of dry matter forage based on a 30-day month.

As ranchers look ahead to grazing season, Nibourg advised against renting on a per acre basis, as opposed to AUM, particularly in the short term.

“My experience with renting pasture on an acre basis is that it lends itself to over-grazing,” he told those participating in an Alberta Agriculture webinar. A one-year agreement could encourage renters to over-graze pasture because they have no vested interest in its future. Severe over-grazing can stunt pasture growth for years.

If a per-acre rental is pursued, Nibourg said renters should ensure they have a good knowledge of the pasture’s carrying capacity, which can vary from year to year and also during the season depending on precipitation.

Rental rates for supervised pasture are generally about $5 to $9 more per month per cow than unsupervised grazing land and can be worth the money depending on conditions, he added.

“Supervised pasture in the past has really come onto its own, especially in those dry years when people are having to transport their cows quite a ways. It’s difficult to check those cows on a daily basis if you have to drive 300 miles or 200 miles so supervised pasture comes into play.”

Supervision includes checking the cows and the fences, moving salt and mineral, and calling a veterinarian if one is needed.

Pasturing bulls can be an issue because they can damage fences and also eat more than cows.

“In some cases the landowner will just kind of let them throw the bull in gratis but other times the landowner wants some compensation for the extra hassle that those bulls will cause,” Nibourg said.

Rental agreements are important and necessary, he added.

“What you discuss over a brew, sometimes memories fade … It’s best to get it in writing.”

A contract should include the agreed carrying capacity of the pasture as well as lease length, rental amount and the timing of payments. Parties should also itemize pasture maintenance expectations — usually done by the owner of the cows — such as who will fertilize if it is needed as well as who will look after weed and brush control.

Nibourg warned that fence maintenance can become an issue. Though fence may be fine at first, things can change over the season and typically the cow owner is responsible for checking and fixing fence.

“In all reality the landowner’s not going to have any control over the type of cattle that are going in there. It could be a bunch of rank yearlings and they’re testing the fence,” he said.

Similarly, if grass grows scarce cattle will start pushing the fence in search of better feed.

On the other hand, the landowner is typically responsible for fences in areas with plentiful bush and/or wildlife that can damage fence, which the tenant is not able to mitigate. However, it should be covered in an agreement to avoid problems.

An agreement should note who is responsible for major improvements, such as a dugout installation or more gates. That comes into play for longer-term leases.

Right of entry should be ad-dressed, said Nibourg. Some tenants do not like intrusion by the landowner, for example, while the landowner generally wants the right to check on the pasture.

Nibourg recommended that a “pull clause” be part of agreements. It indicates the conditions under which cattle will be removed, such as over-grazing, pasture damage or lack of forage. An item about who will be responsible for loss, disappearance or death of cattle is also advised.

It’s important to include a method of resolving disputes and the terms under which an agreement will be terminated, such as failure to pay lease fees.

At this time of year it is difficult to predict how much pasture will be needed or will be available. Though subsurface moisture is fairly good now, April precipitation will provide a better indication of spring conditions, Nibourg said.

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