Should You Hire a Custom Operator or Do It Yourself?

By Everett D. Thomas

For many years I prepared our income tax returns, but as they grew more complex, what with my wife and I both having our own businesses, I often wound up making some small mistake that resulted in our receiving one of those friendly letters from the IRS. I eventually concluded that (at least when it came to tax preparation) I had reached what Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull termed my "level of incompetence" in their classic 1969 book, "The Peter Principle." We then began to have our tax returns - corporate, federal and state - prepared by a CPA. What a relief! What we pay for the preparation of these returns is small compared to the savings in time as well as peace of mind in knowing that they're done correctly ... and no more letters from the IRS.

Speaking of doing it yourself versus hiring someone else to do the job: As farms have grown larger, and often more specialized, farmers are increasingly turning to custom operators for some crop operations. This is much more common in some other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where many large (500-plus cows) dairies have virtually all their crop harvest done by custom operators. In Australia, there are companies that coordinate harvest operations so the custom harvest operator knows what farm to go to first, as well as the harvest details and each party's responsibilities.

Spray or pay?

Of all the custom operations, custom herbicide application is the most common on U.S. dairy farms, and for good reason. New herbicides and herbicide combinations are labeled every year, and in many cases the new products are clearly superior to the older ones. Unless farmers take the time to familiarize themselves with the new products as they're registered, they may be better off having the job done by a custom applicator, especially if there's a knowledgeable one available. There's an important distinction between someone who simply applies herbicides and a custom applicator who's up-to-date on the latest herbicides and application technology.

When I was the agronomist at Miner Institute, we held certified pesticide applicator training sessions for farmers needing to earn credits to retain their applicator licenses. We invited three custom applicators to participate in the meeting, asking each one to discuss "what's hot and what's not" in herbicides for field and forage crops. It soon became obvious to me that these fellows were so well-informed on the latest products, including how they were performing in the region, that we stopped doing our own herbicide applications at Miner Institute and hired one of the custom applicators to do the job. We never regretted it, because the custom applicator we hired not only does the herbicide application, but can also develop a weed control strategy for each field because he knows the types of weed problems on the farm.

Photo by dave gostisha/

There's another advantage to hiring a custom pesticide applicator: The farmer no longer has to order, stock and store pesticides. Some pesticides can be stored under freezing conditions, while others must be kept from freezing to retain their effectiveness. Allowing a 2.5-gallon container of herbicide to freeze can be costly enough to have paid for quite a few acres of custom herbicide application. There's also the health hazard of the container freezing and bursting, requiring a messy and potentially dangerous cleanup. Seldom is a supply of a particular pesticide completely used up during a crop year. If the same pesticide is used every year this isn't a problem, but what to do with that gallon or so of leftover "Product X" when "Product Y" becomes labeled for use and is clearly superior?

Custom harvest

On dairy farms it's more common for corn to be custom-harvested than it is for hay crops. It's a matter of timing. Seldom are all the hay crops on a farm ready to be harvested at the same time, often not even in the same week, while corn hybrid maturity and planting dates can be organized so that most or all of the crop is ready at about the same time. When hiring for a custom harvest, especially for corn silage, it's important to decide what operations the custom operator will perform versus what the farmer will provide. Will the custom operator chop the corn into the farmer's trucks or forage boxes, or will the operator provide them? Almost all custom operators have large, self-propelled forage harvesters, and harvest rates of well over 100 tons of chopped corn per hour are common. If the forage will be ensiled in bunker or stack silos, does the farmer have the right number and size of tractors and the available labor to pack continuously while the custom operator is working?

By now almost all custom operators have harvesters that are equipped with silage processors. In hiring a custom harvest operator for corn chopped for silage, it's important that the farmer monitor processing effectiveness. There shouldn't be more than one unbroken kernel in a 1-quart container of chopped corn silage, and all cobs should be broken into kibble-sized pieces. Silage processor units use a lot of horsepower, and occasionally, in an effort to speed up harvest, the custom operator will open up the processor roll clearance to 5 or 6 millimeters instead of the recommended 1 to 3 millimeters.

Timeliness is critical

One advantage of do-it-yourself operations is that the farmer is (or should be) in control of when the herbicide is applied, or when the corn is harvested for silage. Weather or equipment breakdowns can cause delays, but at least both the equipment and the labor (often the farmer) are on-site. In making the decision to hire a custom operator, it's important to choose one who will be there when you need them. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many acres that can be chopped or sprayed during that day. During a wet spell, the rain falls on most of the custom applicator's clients' fields, and when this occurs the farmer needs to be understanding. The better custom operators use high-capacity sprayers with wide booms that can cover a lot of land in a short time, and when applications are significantly delayed, they have the knowledge and ability to switch from preemergence to postemergence herbicides. However, timeliness is something to be discussed before hiring a custom operator. Also, ask for references and follow them up: Are other farmers pleased with the relationship and the results?

Ev Thomas has worked as an agronomist in New York for 45 years, first with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, then with the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y., including managing its 680-acre crop operation. He continues to work part-time for Miner Institute and is now an agronomist at Oak Point Agronomics. He has written our Forages column for 15 years and has been an expert contributor on a number of other topics.