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Forage producer panel shares tips for success

Forage producer Published on 14 August 2013

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from a producer panel sponsored by AGCO/Hesston earlier this year at World Ag Expo.

Larry McIntyre and his son run a custom harvesting and forage production operation near Caldwell, Idaho.

They harvest about 3,000 alfalfa acres, generally cutting four to five times per year. Average yield is 8 tons per acre.

Even though it can be stressful at times, Larry considers himself very lucky to be in the farming business. But he knows he’s only as good as what he harvests. He states, “I have to be there and do a good job or someone else will.”

Frank Fernandes is a third-generation dairyman and farmer from Tulare, California. The middle brother of a five-brother, farm-management team, Frank oversees every aspect of producing the forages and other feedstuffs required to feed the 7,000 cows across the operation’s dairies.

He is growing on approximately 3,500 acres – about 2,000 of which is hay averaging 13-14 tons per acre per year in seven to nine cuttings. Everything they grow is to help fill their own needs.

Danny Faria is from Tipton, California and is also part of a family operation. He supervises the production of alfalfa across nearly 2,000 acres, plus harvesting oats and wheat for additional forage to supply approximately 6,500 milking cows, 7,000 heifers and the operation’s dry stock. Producing a high-quality hay is his passion.

Q. What are some of the things you do to get the highest quality product out of your hay ground?

McIntyre: To optimize the production of high-quality hay from my customers’ fields, time is tight. Raking and baling is sometimes done in the cloak of cool darkness starting at 4:00 a.m. before the rising sun and temperatures can stop work at around 9:30 am.

We also equip every baler to apply hay preservative – an insurance policy to help keep harvest on schedule and optimize quality when hay moisture content is a little high. We are paid by the ton or by the bale, so we try to find a good balance between quality and quantity.

Fernandes: The term “quality” is somewhat objective, as so much is dependent on the season, the weather or other environmental factors. I try to run like a commercial operation, however, and am paid by the acre. We do constant testing and look at the results to help us make the best decisions.

Ultimately our goal is to put up the best quality possible, so we’re not really concerned about tonnage, but I do look at the stress of the plant. If I have to cut on a 25-day schedule, I will. If I have to put a cutting into a bag to preserve quality, I will.

Faria: My family is much more concerned about tonnage per acre and focuses less on quality. We have a lot of cows to feed for the number of acres we have available to grow crops. I will sometimes push to cut on a 29- to 31-day schedule.

Even growing 30 tons/acre wheat and 20 tons/acre corn along with the hay, sometimes we still have to purchase some of the feed, so we just try to grow as much as we can.

Q. How many employees do you have? Is it becoming a problem to keep good labor?

McIntyre: We hire 8 to 10 employees so we’re not too overworked. But because we’re seasonal, it can be hard to find good help. We try to pay above what others do, but since we don’t work in the fields for three months of the year, it can be a real challenge.

Fernandes: Labor is one of my biggest challenges. We have a total of 10 employees, three of those being seasonal. As far as competitive wages, we try to be above the local scale and be creative with benefits such as a 401(k) plan and insurance.

If people are willing to do maintenance, we like to keep them employed year-round, as we don’t like to be training new people every year.

GPS technology has also broadened our labor pool. I can find an unskilled laborer, often someone younger that is computer savvy or just willing to learn, and as long as they pay attention, the technology allows them to focus on the other important things as they are running the equipment.

Faria: We try to encourage our employees to stay year-round. There are 17 on the farming side of our operation and when they are not cutting, raking, baling or hauling hay, they are working in the shop, planting, running loaders, cleaning corrals or other jobs that need to be done.

I like to train everyone to operate all the pieces of equipment, in case someone is sick or not available to work. That way someone is available at all times when we need them.

Q. Talk about your water situation and availability. How do you try to stretch your water supplies as far as you can?

McIntyre: We lift water 425 feet out of the nearby Snake River. Our soil is volcanic ash and somewhat resistant to water, so we have to put it on slow. There is no sub-moisture, as it’s a hard pan underneath, so it’s critical to keep water on the fields as much as we can.

We work within a nine-day window from the time a center pivot is turned off until the last bale is removed from the field and the water is turned back on.

Fernandes: Water is the lifeblood of any farming operation and is always a challenge. In our area, we use mostly flood irrigation. A lot of non-agricultural people get the wrong perception when they see the water on the field, but we try to incorporate practices to minimize water loss and maximize usage. We do a lot of land leveling and use ponds for recycling.

We don’t lose as much as people think to evaporation. We would also like to try to bring in drip tape irrigation technology, if it can be proven and the longevity is there.

Faria: Without water, you are nothing. The situation is getting somewhat scary, and if we don’t have enough available, we really could be in a world of hurt.

Q. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the time you’ve spent in the business? What do you see happening in the future?

McIntyre: There have definitely been improvements in the quality and varieties available to plant, so today’s crops are somewhat different than they have been in the past.

I also appreciate the changes in equipment, including the reliability, comfort, quiet and ease of operation. That is important to us because as owner-operators, we are in the machines, doing the work. In the future, I see my grandson taking my place and me sitting by the seashore, but I think I have a few more good years left.

Fernandes: Reliable machines equipped with guidance technology enhance our ability to harvest. Fewer passes through the field offer a tremendous savings in fuel and time. Improved road speed also makes it easier to move equipment from field to field without have to trailer everything.

One of our biggest challenges is to plan for future generations that want to be involved with the farm. There are a lot of families to support, so we need to continue to have a plan and a business structure that makes sense.

We may need to have some with broader abilities, including supporting roles such as lawyers or accountants. We would like to pass the operation on to the next generation, but they have to have the same passion we do. If they don’t, they will inherit it and then just turn around and sell it.

Faria: I’ve cut hay from the time I was 7 or 8 years old. All I really had to do was hold onto the steering wheel. We didn’t have uniform windrows and had to rake and then flip the rows over because of the dew. Technology has improved so much over the years.

We can now make flat, perfect windrows, which makes it so much easier to bale. Equipment is much bigger and faster; we used to run six swathers to cover the same ground now we cover with only two.

I don’t know yet about the future. I just take it day-by-day and try to make things better.  FG

LEFT TO RIGHT: Larry McIntyre, Frank Fernandes and Danny Faria share their experiences during World Ag Expo. Photo by Dario Martinez.