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Managing the harvest with a custom operator

Lynn Jaynes Published on 30 May 2014
green chopping silage

Misconceptions about the custom harvesting industry
According to a 2013 Custom Harvesters Analysis & Management Program survey, custom harvesters have been in business for an average of 37.6 years.

I think you’ll agree that’s a significant investment in skill development. It certainly isn’t chump change.

Yet when I asked Rana Zeller of Zeller Harvesting Company in Herington, Kansas, what their biggest headache during harvest was, she said, “Many times it’s difficult when there is a nutritionist who only looks at the numbers they understand, who tells us when to chop.

And we have chopped quality feed for a long time – it’s difficult when neither the farmer or nutritionist listen [to us] and we end up putting up wet or dry feed ... it would be helpful if they would at least consider our thoughts instead of just looking at numbers.”

But that isn’t her only challenge. Zeller also says a common misconception is that “our employees are just leftovers.” Zeller counters, “It is of the utmost importance we have safe and well-qualified employees.”

Harry Wallace of Byers Custom Harvesting in Roseville, Illinois, says one of the misconceptions of the custom harvester industry is a perception that custom harvesters aren’t trained, and he says that just isn’t true.

In fact, Wallace suggests that the first thing a producer should ask of his custom harvester is whether or not he belongs to a professional organization and what that organization provides in the way of education and guidelines.

Wallace and Zeller both belong to the U.S. Custom Harvesters professional organization. As members, they are provided ongoing education regarding safety, business professionalism, legal and liability issues, new methods and current processing trends.

Richie Rainville, Woodchuck Custom Harvesting in Highgate, Vermont, says, “One of the biggest misconceptions for me would be that custom harvesters don’t care or know about feed quality, or that we are only concerned with pushing through the job to get to the next.

Any smart harvester will understand that feed quality gives your customer a better chance at being profitable and therefore able to pay quicker. My motto is: What is best for the customer is best for me.” In other words, they’re professionals.

Taking responsibility
As a professional, Wallace is approaching 30,000 loads of silage after eight years in the business. He backs up his experience and chopping skills by handing a Penn State shaker box to the customer and challenging them to check the kernel processing in the field.

Wallace adds, “I’m the professional. All I need to do is look in the mirror and I can tell what’s going on in the wagon. But I want them doing the measuring and being happy.”

Wallace claims most custom harvesters are up to speed with the new requirements in kernel processing and will change out the kernel processing equipment before it wears out – unlike many farmers, who often run processors until they’re tired of unplugging them, which is way past the point where they do a good job.

Wallace says, “When I’m on a chopper, I don’t even listen to the radio. I am so busy with all my senses at work. If something’s too hot, I smell it. If the knives are dull, I hear ’em. You’re a total participant as a chopper operator. ”

When should you use a custom operator?
There are several economic and personal reasons to consider when determining if custom operators make sense for your operation – when milk production (dairy) suffers, when the labor force is engaged in fieldwork, when crops are planted late or harvested late due to labor demands elsewhere, when your machinery line isn’t large enough to get the crop harvested in a timely fashion, when you have aging machinery and can’t justify the cost of replacement, when you’d rather work with the livestock or have an off-farm job, or when you want more family time.

But there are downsides, as well. Timeliness may be an issue; your custom harvester will likely have other clients that are in just as big a hurry as you are.

Hiring custom operators also involves a higher cash outlay. To help you calculate the costs of your decision, Iowa State University has an Excel sheet set up to help you analyze ownership of a combine compared to custom harvesting.
Selecting a custom operator

Good news travels fast, and so does the reputation of a custom harvester. Talking to other producers in your area will steer you toward quality custom operators, and a reputable operator should be willing to provide a list of references.

Call the references. Questions to ask the provided references might include:

  • How many seasons have you used the custom operator and were you generally satisfied with the service?

  • Did they have a printed price sheet and contract ready to use?

  • Were they able to provide copies of insurance coverage?

  • Were their services delivered timely (barring adverse weather)?

  • How did they deal with breakdowns, absent crew members, weather delays?

  • Was the equipment capacity and was it in good working condition?

  • Were different payment plans offered?

  • Did the operator listen to any concerns you brought to his/her attention? Were problems addressed to your satisfaction?

  • Can the operator provide crop yields per acre? Load counts from each field?

What the custom operator needs from you
In a word: communication. Provide accurate information on field conditions, weather forecasts, crop maturity and moisture reports. And if conditions change, be sure and let them know.

Rainville says, “It’s very important to call a week or so before your feed is ready to let your harvester know you’re ready and schedule a date. After scheduling, remember things happen that can slow down or speed up a harvest, so it helps if everyone is flexible.”

Before the job begins, make sure the custom operator has an understanding of your expectations on length of chop, driving excessively on wet fields, kernel processor settings and bunker packing.

When the day of operation begins, there shouldn’t be any surprises for either the producer or the custom operator. In addition, you’ll need to provide field maps with acreages listed, forms to track yield, loads or any other data you require and credit and personal references (don’t be offended; it’s a two-way street, and he has a right to know whether he can expect prompt payment).

There are other things you can do to facilitate the arrangement. Don’t tack on extra acres at the last minute. If you add acres to your operation after your initial meeting, don’t assume a custom operator can automatically handle the extra acreage “while he’s there.” Keep your fields free of debris – barbed wire, small rock piles, old machinery, fence posts and tires.

You may know where these hazards lay, but your custom operator doesn’t.

Use a contract
Many custom operators will ask you to sign a contract. In all cases, it is advisable to prepare a written contract. It’s important to realize this is their business.

With a contract, they can schedule operations, make sure they have enough labor force, plan equipment needs and arrange financing. A contract will protect both your interests.

If you have questions about a contract, have an attorney review it before signing. It doesn’t need to be elaborate but should clarify that the operator is an independent contractor and not an employee or partner, set the payment rate and timing, and acres.

Setting the rate
Should you use the custom operator with the cheapest rates? Rates are loosely based on an area average. Several universities compile custom rates data (for one example) and a quick Internet search should bring up similar data for your area.

Darrick Plummer, a custom harvester with Phenix Farms, Inc. in Geneva, Indiana, says, “At first, we priced according to where we needed to be to obtain a job.

We’ve been able to raise our prices in the last few years because of our reputation with quality of work and because of increased operating costs.”

Wallace says, “When a custom harvester comes in and offers to cut your silage for half, you need to think about where he’s cutting those costs. Is it in insurance fees?

Custom harvesters all buy the same diesel fuel, the same knives, so if somebody comes in to do it at half-price, you need to know where they’re cutting their expenses.”

You work with several professionals on your operation – agronomists, lab technicians, extension staff, seed and fertilizer reps, and a host of others.

While you reserve the right to make final decisions, you still rely on the highly developed skills of these professionals. One of those professionals you should be able to rely on is your custom harvester, who has a finely tuned skill within a very specific area of expertise. At the end of the day, you’re on the same team.  FG

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.