Becoming a Preferred Tenant for Grazing Rented Farms


With the increasing cost of land in Ontario, cow-calf and backgrounding producers will increasingly be competing for rental land to access grazing. OMAFRA has factsheets in development to enable a discussion on the value of grazing livestock for rural landowners and to help beef farmers try to make leases that work for long-term investments such as pasture. This article features highlights and excerpts of one document-in-process to help beef producers become the 'tenants of choice' of non-farming landowners.

Land Use Challenges in Ontario

Ontario has experienced widespread conversion of forages to grain and oilseed production. The total area of Canadian crop and pasture land used for the production of soybeans, wheat and corn increased from 28% in 1976 to 57% in 2011, resulting in a rapidly shrinking area of land for forage production as in Figure 1. At the same time farmland rental is widespread and growing. Only 60% of Ontario's farmland is owned by farmers and 40% is owned by non-users and rental costs have risen by up to 50% in recent years. Beef farmers know all too well what these statistics mean in practice; that they get beat out in the competition for land to be grazed, especially in year-to-year leasing situations as these lands are lost from forages to cash crops.

Forages and grazed cattle produce agricultural and environmental benefits valuable to landowners, such as improved soil health. However, these benefits require longer timelines than year-to-year decision making allows and are more difficult to implement on rented lands, as beef farmers well know. Non-farming landowners can benefit from beef grazing tenants by sustainable management of their land and this is a case which needs to be made to these landlords.

Bar graph showing percent of land used for production of pasture, hay, wheat, corn and other crops. Years are listed along bottom axis from 1976 on left to 2011 on right. Percentages from 0% to 100% are listed on the left axis.

Figure 1. Changing Canadian agricultural land use: demonstrating a long-term increase in land area for grain and oilseed production and decreasing area for pasture, hay, and other forages. Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Agriculture.

Forages and Grazed Livestock Create Agroecological Benefits

The ecology of farmed systems is called agroecology. Declining forage production in favour of continuous grain and oilseed production (three or fewer crops in rotation) exposes farmland to degradation, such as organic matter loss, soil erosion and nutrient runoff; an agroecological challenge. These challenges threaten Ontario's future agricultural productivity and soil health has recently become a major focus for Ontario. Of interest to the grazer and his landlord is that many land management challenges caused by continuous cash cropping can be addressed by re-integrating livestock and forages onto the same land base.

Forage-based livestock production improves soil quality by creating cyclical nutrient flows, nitrogen fixation by legume forages and year-long soil cover that reduces erosion. A rainfall simulator as shown in Figure 2 demonstrates the physical value of permanent vegetation as offered by forages compared to other cropping systems. As a bonus, these improvements in land quality can improve the agroecological performance of the system, reducing dependence on fertilizers and herbicides, which may be of interest to some land owners as well.

Photo showing a table with 5 soil types in small boxes at the top with 5 bottles at the base of each soil type. Various amounts of soil are shown in the runoff in each bottle.

Figure 2: This rainfall simulator shows how soil management decisions affect water infiltration (vials in the background), overland runoff (vials in the foreground), and resulting soil erosion.

Differing treatments as featured, from left to right:

  1. Conventionally-tilled field in a corn-soybean rotation: negligible infiltration, and a great deal of soil erosion and runoff associated with phosphorus loss.
  2. Perennial forages: very high infiltration, and no runoff or erosion.
  3. Field with 30% residue cover: increased infiltration and less runoff.
  4. Conventionally-tilled field: clearly showing runoff and soil erosion.
  5. Long-term no-till field: high level of infiltration which greatly reduces runoff and soil erosion.

Support Cultural Heritage and Biodiversity

Integrated forage and livestock production can help maintain characteristics of rural Ontario and a region's 'cultural heritage' or identity. Grazing cattle are an attractive and significant feature in the countryside and can support regional and property values for recreational and tourism purposes. No tourist or visitor travels Ontario's beautiful county roads just to get from point A to B!

Producing forages and grazed livestock increases local biodiversity by providing habitat for small mammals, grassland birds, pollinators and several species-at-risk. Well-maintained pastures and associated shelterbelts can provide wildlife with areas for nests, shelter and migration stops. Pastures are also important nectar sources for pollinators, another area of concern in Ontario. These attributes offer value in terms of hunting, fishing and other recreational use which the beef sector has featured in print, but now it is time to adopt them into the business case for land rental.

Herd of black beef cows on pasture under trees.

Figure 3. Beautiful scenes of pastures and grazing cattle in the rural landscape or 'cultural heritage' need to factored into the grazing and forage use as in the beef sector.

Good Leases

Collaboration between farmers and landowners can help ensure successful, long-term rental that encourage the production of forages and grazed livestock. Leases could stipulate that renting farmers will use specific practices (e.g., OMAFRA's BMPs) or host landowners for an annual on-farm meeting to demonstrate improvements to farmland, infrastructure, ecological health and the value of the property.

While many of the benefits of forages and grazed livestock are difficult to quantify, innovative long-term leases can set rental rates that consider improvements to the long-term agroecology, productivity, beauty, and capital value of rented farmland.

Parting Thoughts on Being a Preferred Tenant

Landowners can benefit from ensuring livestock are grazed on rented farmland. Beef producers need to adopt expressions like 'agroecology', 'habitat', 'soil health' and 'cultural heritage' into their vocabulary to express to potential landlords the value that the grazing of beef cattle brings to rural Ontario. Especially so if they are looking for preferred terms! Unfortunately, none of these attributes are typically measured in land rental payments, but the beauty of rural Ontario is largely the reason people return to the country and purchase farmland. Beef producers can do, and express, their part in keeping Ontario beautiful!

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