Enjoy premiums from deer and gamebirds alongside crops
Hunting offers a retreat to nature for many people who do not have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors like many agricultural producers. It also creates a financial opportunity for producers because hunters are willing to pay a premium to take home trophy animals and lifelong memories.
In the fall, for example, hunters flock to the central Plains for upland gamebird hunts and the chance to bag their limit of ring-necked pheasants. Some farmers in the area allow hunters onto their property for pheasant hunts in exchange for a yearly due paid via a hunting club.
That’s how Oak Tree Farm near Clark, S.D., got its start in the hunting world several decades ago.
To help wildlife thrive, portions of crops such as corn are left in fields.
“We leave a lot of standing crop during the winter for the pheasants and also CRP food plots,” explains Michael Makens, family partner in Oak Tree Farm and its hunting venture, Oak Tree Lodge. “It is a balance of donating a little bit of crop to God’s creation rather than throwing it in the bin.” The Oak Tree operation has grown into a luxury resort for corporate hunting retreats and avid sportsmen. It’s also a row-crop farm of 8,000 acres.
Home Business Grows. The hosted hunts started out small with a farm home renovation for house guests, Makens says. Now, two separate housing facilities host 34 guests at a time with catered meals, open bars and guided hunts.
A preserve permit through the state wildlife department allows birds to be hunted at Oak Tree Lodge beginning with the early season through the end of the regular fall season. It also allows pheasants to be hunted during a special spring season with a higher bag limit.
There are stipulations for operating the hunting facility, though. Before hunting even starts, regulations dictate rooster pheasants have to be released onto the 2,000-acre preserve area ahead of the season, Makens says. The remainder of the property is hunted during the regular fall hunting season, so normal hunting regulations apply.
Whitetail Add Value. In addition to pheasant and waterfowl hunts, the operation offers whitetail deer packages—an option with the potential for greatest adoption among crop producers because deer are abundant across the country and are popular with hunters.
For the Ortiz Ranch of Laredo, Texas, deer hunts have kept the operation profitable during periods of extreme drought.
Just a few years ago, severe weather forced management to reduce the cowherd by as much as 40% for a total of 600 commercial cows.
Frank Matthews is manager of the 45,000-acre ranch and, as a wildlife biologist, oversees the wildlife program for the operation.
“They definitely complement each other,” Matthews says of the cattle-grazing and deer-hunting businesses. “Cattle obviously prefer grass, and deer don’t really eat much grass.”
Properly managed grazing promotes growth of forbs, an important part of a deer’s diet. The complementary grazing has helped boost deer populations and the quality of bucks on the property, where several hundred deer are taken annually.
Approximately 15,000 acres of land bordering the city of Laredo has been reserved primarily for family members to hunt.
“The family only shoots two or three bucks per year. We need 60 to 70 deer to come off these family pastures every year,” Matthews says.
When Matthews came back to the ranch in 2007, he started a hunting package program with guided hunts. Packages begin at $3,000. Costs rise for larger antler sizes, and trophy buck pricing is based on the Boone and Crockett Club gross score.
The remaining acreage on the Ortiz Ranch is available for hunting through private leases.
Lease Considerations. Although in most cases hunting packages are most profitable for producers, leasing property also is an option. One company, Base Camp Leasing, connects agricultural landowners with hunters via its website.
The company retains 25% of lease money in exchange for facilitating the contract, handling finances and contributing a $3 million liability insurance policy, explains Steve Meng, president and founder. Lease rates can be higher than $30 per acre in trophy whitetail deer regions such as the Corn Belt running from Missouri to Ohio. In areas such as western Kansas, where more acres are needed to support wildlife, the rate can drop to $5 per acre. Base Camp Leasing has 1,900 lease properties available in 22 states.
“Currently, we’re 92% leased, and as we’re adding new properties, they just don’t last long,” Meng says.
Hunters lease more than 420,000 acres annually, according to the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau. It’s no wonder hunting can pay for producers who invest.
By The Numbers
Wildlife sports are an important financial driver for the general economy as well as for farmers who find a niche with them.
$90 B spent on licenses, leases, gear and more needed for wildlife sports
282 M days Americans spend hunting each year
1.5 M people hunt pheasant each year
38% of U.S. residents participate in wildlife-related recreation