What Is a Property's Potential?
In the past five years, I have been working with more and more people who are new to agriculture. Without exception, one of the most common and far-reaching misunderstandings among new producers is realizing what their land resource can realistically provide. Forage or fruits - it doesn't matter. You must match your land with its potential if you want to break even or make money.
As a real world illustration, I was recently working with a producer who had purchased cattle. However, she did not know how much forage her property was capable of producing. She had experience with working cattle, but was not aware how much forage cattle consume (26 lbs of dry matter per cow/day for a 1,000 lb cow). With her limited budget, she purchased 20 head of cattle for a 43-acre tract of land with adequate water. She was convinced that she would not need to fertilize since she had plenty of land for them to graze. After a forage analysis, we determined that she only had enough forage to feed 13 cows for about eight months; not 20 cows for the full year as she had planned. This would leave her with a forage deficit (needing to feed) of approximately 55 round bales (1,000 lbs/bale) of hay. We discussed the effects of leaving 20 head of cattle on her place for a year and the amount of damage they would do to her forage base. The great purchase price for the cows was not so good after we pointed out she would need to spend $3,500 in fertilizer, a little over $2,200 in hay and reduce the cow herd.
Unfortunately, we run into this scenario every week. Most people purchase a property with a conceptual idea of what they want the soil to yield - not what it will yield. When you look at property to purchase, consider what enterprise (forage, fruits, etc.) the soil is best suited to produce. A recommended tool is the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Web Soil Survey. This website provides a starting point for determining what the land resource can provide. This should not be taken as an absolute. The soil survey references a "normal" year. I have never seen a "normal" year yet.
While the soil survey is a good place to start to determine potential yields, it does not tell you the fertility of the soil. Ask if you can take a soil sample on the property you are interested in purchasing. A little money and time spent on soil sampling may save you a significant amount of money in the end. I have known people who used the Web Soil Survey without also taking a soil sample before purchasing a property. What they did not know was the previous owners had not been fertilizing. Imagine their surprise when the soil test showed they needed to spend $80 per acre to meet their modest yield goal. In my book, pre-purchase soil sampling is necessary.
Knowing as much as possible about the land before you purchase it can prevent you from making serious mistakes before you even get started.