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0309 PD: 5 tips for working with your custom forage operator

Chris Hallada Published on 06 February 2009

Top-quality, consistent forage is a substantial investment that affects the bottom line. Missing quality parameters can have a devastating effect on milk production and profitability.

High-capacity, technical equipment and physical inputs certainly contribute to successful harvest on many farms. However, it is the relationships and the commitment to those relationships, which define successful custom harvester/producer arrangements year after year.

Hiring a custom operator reduces capital investment, requires less hiring of seasonal labor, leaves more time to focus on managing cows and in many cases improves forage quality. In successful relationships, the custom harvester can fill storage structures quicker, with more consistent moisture and quality at the proper stage of maturity. A successful custom harvester comes to the farm armed with a well-trained labor force focused solely on getting forage up in a timely manner.

So what makes some of these arrangements work and others fail? Why do some result in finger-pointing and disappointment, while others sing praises of successful outcomes?

Solid custom harvesting working relationships are built on the same characteristics any other good relationship is built on and include communication, teamwork, respect, trust, commitment and well-established goals.

Communication is the glue that binds the entire process together. Forage harvest is a time-sensitive, highly stressful job that involves a huge investment in money and time from both parties. All parties are working toward a common goal – making high-quality forage to ultimately contribute positively to the bottom line. Follow these five steps to success.

First, answer the following questions about this year’s anticipated forage harvest and custom harvest agreement.

Are our forage expectations realistic, and are they realistic in all situations? What happens if some unexpected development makes attainment of our forage quality and quantity goals difficult?

Are the expectations realistic given the line of equipment that will be used, the expected timeline of harvest and the rest of the custom harvester’s schedule? If certain parameters are not met, does it compromise the dairy’s ability to make a profit or even survive? Who is responsible for monitoring these parameters during harvest and making sure these agreed-upon parameters and goals are met?

What contingency plan is in place if weather does not cooperate? Are there alternate storage plans if the forage does not meet our requirements (and there will be years or crops that will not meet those requirements)? Can we stagger hybrid maturity either on the farm or between customers to help the custom harvester get his job done?

Next, meet with others on the dairy’s team, perhaps the lender, nutritionist or the veterinarian, at least yearly, to help answer these questions, shed light on previously missed opportunities and foster teamwork. Be sure to discuss what constitutes “quality” forage. Get the nutritionist’s input on what the herd requirements are in respect to forage moisture, maturity, particle size, kernel processing and consistency. Different herds and different rations have different requirements.

Then, successful producers and custom operations sit down at least once a year to agree on common objectives and goals. This is the time to bring up your team’s comments and to discuss everything from acres to be planted, hybrids, moisture and quality goals, field locations, changes to the operations, pricing, new equipment, personnel and services available. This is also the time to discuss any harvesting concerns or disagreements that occurred during the prior year. Good communicators don’t let issues simmer. Developing plans to deal with situations that happened or may occur is critical. Harvest time is busy and stressful, and having an agreed-upon plan developed for less-than-ideal situations can avert potentially explosive situations.

There is one guarantee: Weather or equipment breakdowns will alter schedules. It is much easier to agree on acceptable compromises sitting across the table in the off season than when tempers are short in the heat of forage harvest.

Consider who is responsible for proper shaping, packing and covering of the pile. Does everyone involved understand the importance of their job to the final product, or for that matter, some of the science involved? To do the best job possible, an understanding of why is important. Too often people are told how to do the job without a clear understanding of why it is critical to do it in a specific way.

Is there a need for more space to reduce bottlenecks during harvest? Does the storage pad or bunker need to be larger to accommodate more storage or to make smaller piles that are safer? Are inventories matching up with projected needs? Are opportunities to minimize shrink being missed?

Mutual respect on both sides is important to success. Dairymen tend to be an independent lot, and giving up control of a critical portion of their operation is difficult. Yet high-quality, consistent forage is the cornerstone for next year’s successful rations. Likewise, the custom harvester has a substantial investment in high-tech, expensive equipment. Both parties are managing capital, equipment and people that require many hats to be worn and astute business sense.

While it takes time and communication to develop the respect and trust a successful relationship requires, asking for references and initial meetings to “size” each other up will help frame the decision to work with a particular custom harvester or dairy producer. Not all personalities work well together. Equipment breakdowns and unpredictable weather will throw the best planned scheduling off. There is little wonder why people can get tense and a bit grouchy at times. Flexibility and a good sense of humor can be a plus when things seem a bit out of control.

Finally, once the decision has been made to enter into an agreement, and every year thereafter, the off season is the best time to discuss what is included, not included, services provided, rates, when payment is due, early payment discounts, late-payment penalties and interest rates, liability and insurance coverage.

While there are successful relationships built around a handshake, a written contract is recommended. People remember things differently, and getting the terms in writing helps head off potential disputes. A custom harvester that harvests that important crop efficiently, safely and at a reasonable cost contributes significantly toward the bottom line and is a valued team member. Discussing payment terms up front and sticking to the agreement will go a long way to maintaining trust and respect and keep your harvester in business.

Don’t forget to celebrate the successes. Not every season will go as planned. At the end of the day if everyone has given their best on all sides and worked hard at the key aspects of the relationship and operation, it goes a long way. Harvesting forages will create the opportunity to improve communication and teamwork. The best relationships grow stronger having worked through those challenges. Hope you have a successful and profitable 2009 harvest season!  PD

Chris Hallada
Forage Technical Service Manager for Vita Plus

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