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Good business skills critical in custom bale-wrapping

Alisa Anderson Raty Published on 05 November 2013
Briggs Farm in Addison, VT

Custom bale-wrapping is a growing business in the Midwest and Eastern U.S., where wetter weather makes it difficult to put up dry hay.

Nathan Schulze went into business with two of his cousins in Sidney, Ohio, where they wrap hay mainly for small dairies.

“I’d say it’s growing. It’s definitely growing, and we can tell that in our business numbers too,” Schulze says.

Although the market is growing, good business practices are the only way to go if you want to get anywhere. Jon Lohstroh learned that the hard way. He bought a wrapper when he was 18 and did custom work to pay for it.

Marketing your business
“The first three years were absolutely rough, and nobody knew what I did, and I didn’t really make the payments,” Lohstroh says.

While wrapping is more common in areas with lots of small dairies, Lohstroh had to make a niche in Madison County, Ohio, where he runs the only custom bale-wrapping business.

“There’s basically large dairies, and you’ve got the hobby cow-calf type deal. There are other places that have a lot of small dairies that would be better, but I’m just not in those areas,” Lohstroh says.

Lohstroh started talking to neighbors he knew who had cattle.

“I was trying to convince people that they wanted to spend the extra money in plastic and labor to put up wet hay. Once you get people started on it, it’s not too bad,” he says.

Lohstroh shows people baleage that he wrapped on his parents’ farm, as well as data from hay samples to convince them that baleage is a good way to preserve hay quality despite poor weather.

“You can’t sell anything without showing them data. Show them data. That’s what they want,” he says.

But word of mouth, Lohstroh says, is the best way to market yourself.

Rodney Walter owns a custom wrapping business in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which he has been running since 1989. Walter also feels that word of mouth is his best marketing tool.

Although he does have his business advertised on the Internet, he has only had one customer who found him that way.

“We try to hang some flyers in the local elevators or feed stores or dealerships. We also send a mailer out to the dairy guys in the area.

But above all, I really think the best marketing is word of mouth. If someone has a good experience, he’s going to pass it on to the next guy.

Or if he’s talking to someone who’s looking for a different way to put up hay, he’s going to pass on the word. That goes hand-in-hand with doing a good job and having a good reputation,” Schulze says.

Working with people and time
Schulze, Walter and Lohstroh all gave the same reply when asked what the most challenging part of their business was – scheduling.

Wet hay has to be wrapped within 24 hours of baling, since waiting to wrap it causes loss of quality. When everyone is cutting their hay at the same time, trying to meet everyone’s demands can be difficult.

“You’ve just got to be flexible. You’ve got to plan ahead. And definitely time management skills are critical,” Schulze says.

Schulze and his two cousins all work to fill the schedule and meet the demands of the producers they work with. They have even experimented with hiring help.

“It’s hard to make everybody happy and get there when they need it. A lot of guys are pretty comfortable with it and can work with you.

But it does get hectic. It’ll be 5 o’clock, and it’ll be good for making hay, and they’ll want it wrapped that night,” Schulze says. This may mean working into the night and the wee hours of the morning.

Schulze admits that he’s only been wrapping hay for three years and that he still has much to learn about hay making. “Respect the farmer” is how he sums it up.

“You’ve got to be open to different minds and be willing to work with them. There are guys that I’ve had in the past, and maybe they’ve switched different ways about it.

You’ve got to really listen and learn. You’ve got to pay attention to farmers’ concerns. Some of them have been at it for a long time, and they know what they’re looking for,” Schulze says.

Have a back-up plan
One piece of advice that Lohstroh had for other custom bale-wrapping businesses was to have a back-up plan.

“The one thing I’d want to make sure of is that you have a back-up plan if something goes wrong with the bale wrapper.

I got on a job last year, and I had 450 bales sitting there waiting on me. That’s a lot of money’s worth of hay. If something goes wrong with your bale wrapper, and something major breaks, you’re in a load of trouble,” he says.

Walter used to have two wrappers so that if anything went wrong, he could always switch wrappers. Now he relies on local mechanics to fix any problems.

Determining what to charge
When determining what to charge, all aspects need to be taken into consideration: cost of plastic and other expenses, your time and the market in your area. Walter says he checks publications for current custom rates as well as comparing notes with others who do custom bale-wrapping. The cost of plastic, though, is the biggest factor.

“The cost of plastic has increased an awful lot. When I first started, I think I was charging ... for the actual cost of wrapping the bale, I was charging $2 a bale. Now I’m at $5 a bale,” Walter says.

Take opportunities
Lohstroh says that his success has come because he has been willing to be flexible and has taken opportunities when they have come his way.

“Bale-wrapping is basically opportunistic-type stuff,” he says.

Taking opportunities and good business practices will help anyone who wants to do custom work.  FG

Alisa Anderson Raty is a freelance writer based in Rexburg, Idaho.

Briggs Farm in Addison, VT experiments with different bale-wrapping techniques to reduce hay loss in a wet climate. Photo by Mike Dixon.

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