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Custom harvesting built on pillars of relationships and dedicated service

Martha Hoffman Kerestes for Progressive Forage Published on 14 July 2022

Conscientious service and strong relationships are the hallmark of HD Custom Forage Harvesting LLC.

Owners Dylan and Kate Dolch and Jess Hoyt are in their fifth year with the business partnership that serves farmers across the southwest quarter of Iowa.

Hoyt started custom harvesting about a decade ago, partnering with his family farm to buy a self-propelled forage harvester, with the goal of doing a little custom work in addition to the farm’s cattle feed needs, but it didn’t stay that way long.

“It just blew up,” Hoyt says.

First, he did work for a handful of neighbors, but they shared with their friends and things grew exponentially, leading to the partnership with the Dolchs.

“We’ve just been highly blessed, that’s all there is,” Hoyt shares. “We’ve had lots of things fall into our hands that we weren’t looking for and expecting.”

The business provides full-time seasonal work for Hoyt and Dylan Dolch and up to eight other crew members who operate equipment in the field and take care of everything else that keeps the harvesting operation moving.

Maintenance on equipment is very important

Moving quickly from customer to customer is important, but Hoyt isn’t willing to work so fast that it’s only sustainable for a few weeks instead of the several-month stretches required to harvest each crop throughout the season.

Finding skilled operators to run equipment, especially those willing to work the long hours in peak seasons, is an ongoing challenge.

“Probably labor is one of the biggest issues, same as everywhere,” Hoyt says. “We run pretty late-model equipment in nice shape, and it’s just hard to find someone to sit in the seat a lot of times.”

This year’s primary crew includes Nikalas Bruner, Tegan Hoyt, Jeff Christiansen, Darin Holste, Corey Shadden, Clyde Hoyt, Vince Dolch and Clark Dolch.

Depending on the crop, distance and other factors, the harvesting crew ranges from four to seven or eight people helping at a time.

This is the first year for a direct-cut head used when crop moistures are low enough, something Hoyt appreciates for speeding up operations and reducing labor needs. The crew does drive-over and bunker silage piles as well as bagging.

The harvesting season starts in mid-May with rye and triticale, followed by alfalfa and other hay crops. July and part of August are usually a lull to catch up on equipment maintenance and personal life before corn silage and earlage harvest begins. Especially in the fall, they run two choppers simultaneously.

Equipment ready to go

To help justify the fleet of 350-horsepower tractors that make it easier to pull silage carts in tough wet conditions if necessary, HD offers custom anhydrous ammonia applications to farmers. Since applications happen after harvest in the fall and before planting in the spring, it lengthens the season a little and gives work for the big tractors to do outside of the forage harvest windows. December through February are generally off seasons for family time and deeper equipment maintenance.

The business currently provides full-service forage harvesting services. In the past, customers would provide a tractor or two to pull the silage carts, but some smaller farmers didn’t have the equipment for that – and even if they did, there were often delays and challenges getting things set up to run. It keeps things simple to have all the equipment ready as they move from farm to farm, and farmers appreciate that they don’t even have to be on the farm the day of harvest.

While judicious equipment maintenance is standard practice, Hoyt likes the additional peace of mind of keeping a fleet with duplicate equipment for the occasional breakdown that can’t be fixed promptly.

“We don’t feel comfortable taking work on without having the ability to cover it,” he says.

This has come in handy several times. Once a gearbox on a head broke, and they were up and running in a few hours after swapping heads. A few years ago, an engine went out in a chopper toward the end of corn silage harvest. With just the other chopper to finish the harvest, it took about an extra week, but everything was still taken care of in a timely way.

The fleet a little bigger the strictly necessary has paid off

Especially with recent supply chain issues making parts availability particularly limited, keeping the fleet a little bigger than strictly necessary has paid off.

Good relationships with equipment dealers are another part of Hoyt’s philosophy, and he appreciates how they help out in a pinch by bringing a piece of machinery for HD to use if there’s a breakdown HD can’t replace. Dealers like Vanko Machinery, Silverstreak Ag Services and Kevin Meyerhofer Bagging are trusted sources for choppers, forage carts and baggers.

Getting advice from financial and equipment advisers has been another key part of the business’s success.

These days, HD has more people interested in having forage harvested than Hoyt and Dolch are comfortable committing to. It’s hard to turn people away, especially in drought feed shortages when farmers are wanting to harvest a corn field intended for grain as silage instead, but it’s impossible to do everything.

“It’s a juggling act – we need to have big enough, reliable enough equipment to get to all our people, but we can’t take on so many people that we can’t get to them in a reasonably efficient manner,”
Hoyt says.

He credits the business’s high customer retention and continued new interest to the satisfaction that most farmers have in the work the business does.

“I think a lot of that just goes back to our reputation with our customers and our customers’ word of mouth,” Hoyt says.

HD isn’t the cheapest operation in the area, but the philosophy is to do excellent work in a timely manner with well-maintained equipment, and customers seem to value that.

While there’s room for growth, the plan is to keep steady at the current state, since Dolch is doing more of his own farm work on the side and both owners have young families. Still, they’re always looking for ways to maximize efficiency at the scale they’re at, especially since it can mean more time with family.

Balancing both personal lives and the intense work schedules required during some parts of the year is a challenge.

On one end of the spectrum, he’s watched people work long hours to provide for their families without taking time to build and retain relationships. While Hoyt thinks a work ethic is an important part of success, he’s seen how it can be dangerous taken too far.

“I think work ethic at the core is sometimes what costs us the very things we’re working for,” he says.

For Hoyt, success is both a good business income alongside thriving relationships and time spent with family. end mark

PHOTOS: While judicious equipment maintenance is standard practice, Hoyt likes the additional peace of mind of keeping a fleet with duplicate equipment for the occasional breakdown that can’t be fixed promptly. Photos by Jess Hoyt.

Martha Hoffman Kerestes is a freelance writer based in Illinois.