Custom operators are those who perform specified field operations, such as harvesting, planting, tilling, manure handling and more. Hiring a custom harvester can reduce the equipment needs, labor, and time pressures that often prevent even the most organized farmers from bringing in the crops during their optimal harvest window. If you’re trying to decide whether a custom harvester might be right for your farm, exploring the pros and cons may assist in your decision.

“Manure handling, weed spraying, fertilizer spreading, drain tile installation and harvesting are the main tasks farmers usually hire out, but there are also some farmers who hire tillage, planting, and other tasks,” Bill Verbeten, Cornell Cooperative Extension Specialist for the North West New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team, said.

Scott Magnan, of Scott Magnan’s Custom Service, based in St. Albans, Vermont, provides manure spreading, corn planting, round baling, mowing and bunk packing services. Magnan works in conjunction with Woodchuck Custom Harvesting, which provides the chopping and merging equipment. They primarily work within a 40-mile radius. Keeping things local saves them and their customers by eliminating the cost and headache of transporting equipment long distances. It also helps to form ongoing relationships with the farmers who hire them.

Sometimes after a long day, you need to jump out and smell the roses or in this case take a picture next to some wildflowers. Photo taken in Swanton, Vermont.

“Custom harvesters are used for a wide range of reasons dependent on the farm management system,” Magnan said. “Custom harvesting can eliminate the need for additional labor, equipment and repair on the farm. Partnering up with other custom operators provides customers a package that would be difficult for all but the largest farms to acquire.”

Equipment concerns

“Custom harvesters often have the newest, better maintained equipment and can get the job done pretty quickly compared to folks with smaller equipment,” Verbeten said.

Harvesting equipment, such as balers and harvest forages, rakes, inverters and mower-conditioners, come in many models and designs, each with their own maintenance needs and initial pricetag. Moreover, each comes with a trade-off between efficiency of harvest and forage loss. They need to be kept in optimal condition, require parts and labor for repairs, and take experience and skill to operate correctly.

The University of Wisconsin Extension makes available an online selection of resources, including those on harvesting equipment maintenance, prevention of forage loss, and guidelines for hiring a custom harvester (http://fyi.uwex.edu/forage/h-s/).

“Machinery Design and Adjustments for Minimized Field Losses,” by Dr. Ron Schuler UW Extension Ag Engineer (Emeritus), advises that:

“Lack of proper machine maintenance and adjustment causes the biggest difference in forage harvest losses from farm to farm. A good operator who maintains losses at a minimum must be familiar with proper maintenance and adjustments to match crop conditions. Some of these harvesting machines have many adjustments that influence the magnitude of the field losses.”

“Without proper personnel and equipment, yields and crop quality can suffer, greatly effecting the farmer’s bottom line,” Magnan said. “Some of our equipment will be difficult for smaller farmers to own. Our slower times are dedicated to preventive maintenance or repairs, and to networking to come up with the next most efficient plan.”

John Deere 4995 sitting, after finishing up for the day in Fairfax. The hay will dry some before the folks at Woodchuck Custom Harvesting merge and chop the feed.

Custom harvesters tend to keep abreast of the latest technological advances. Yield mapping, inoculant application and other advances that farmers themselves might not have the equipment or knowledge to utilize are often a part of the specialized services that custom operators can provide.

“We have used GPS technology the last three seasons and are working towards becoming a leader in that endeavor,” Magnan said. They also utilize manure injectors and no-till planters as a part of the University of Vermont Extension effort to promote conservation practices.

Labor and time

Having the harvesting contracted out to a custom operator allows a farmer time and energy to manage the rest of the day-to-day operations. Finding and hiring temporary workers for a short period of harvesting isn’t always feasible. Farmers need to balance the actual monetary costs involved with doing the work themselves, versus hiring out the job to a custom harvester, with its impact on daily farm operations, and the resulting quality of the forage that they can bring in with their available time, equipment and labor.

Concerns with custom harvest scheduling can be a common complaint, particularly when the weather or other unanticipated factors interrupts an agreed-upon harvesting window. But farmers who don’t hire custom harvesters are often behind in their harvesting schedules, too, as other farm duties keep them away from the fields.

Employee Logan Kane and his son Conner round baling in St. Albans, Vermont.

“There are a number of farmers who do a lot of custom harvesting and field work as a core of their business, and many who do one or two things for their neighbors,” Verbeten said. “A farmer will often have to wait on the custom harvester’s schedule, so sometimes when the field operation occurs, it is either earlier or later than the farmer would like.”

Many farmers enjoy harvesting activities. Some farmers have difficulty relinquishing control over the harvest. In either of these situations, doing the harvesting yourself, and finding help with other farm demands, may be a better option than hiring a custom harvester. Other farmers find that eliminating the pressure of harvesting the field crops allows them to focus on their livestock.

Some New York dairies often hire custom operators for all of their field work, Verbeten said. Doing so allows them to focus their labor on their cows. Contracting out field operations to a third party, and paying that custom operation to produce quality forages from start to finish might sound risky to those who like to be more hands-on, but it also lets each farm operator do what they do best.

“Feed quality and the farm’s economic health are almost always the two factors effecting a farm’s decision to hire or fire a custom operator,” Magnan said. “The affordability part of the question comes down to the farmer’s management plan, and scale of operations. Without a doubt we keep some farms in business, who would not otherwise have the means to put up the forage necessary to have a profitable operation.”

Relationships

Like any contract, putting things in writing is always prudent when working with a custom harvester. Find a harvester who understands your goals. Take time to make them aware of any field issues or other possible impediments or conditions that might affect their equipment or the harvesting operation. Ask for references and have references of your own to give to the custom operator. The lines of communication need to be opened both ways. Assess your comfort level with the operator, as well as their responsiveness to your concerns.

Injecting manure in Georgia, Vermont this spring.

“There are sometimes disagreements concerning machinery operation, especially at corn silage harvest. This can be overcome with improved communication on the expectations of the farmer prior to harvest, and some feedback when the first few loads of silage come into the bunker,” Verbeten said.

Some additional advice from the University of Wisconsin Extension, “Working Successfully With A Custom Operator” (http://www.uwex.edu/ces/forage/wfc/CUSTOP11.html):

“When disputes arise, try to keep in mind that the custom operator’s goal is a satisfied customer. Make complaints known directly to your custom operator, not to neighbors or other custom operators (remember that most custom operators in your area know each other). By making your concerns known in a calm but firm manner, the custom operator may be able to rectify the situation to your satisfaction.”

Do-it-yourself or hire custom?

Consider your operating costs. How much are you currently spending on equipment, repairs, labor and time? How is your feed quality? Does it suffer due to lack of the best equipment, or from not having skilled operators bringing in the harvest? How are the other farm duties affected at harvest time?

“Even if they are operating on a large scale, they need to consider the additional management responsibilities that comes with the equipment and labor needed to get the job done,” Magnan said. “Farms are on a budgeted income, so it is often far too expensive to carry a full line of equipment and to find or afford labor to run it.”

Use the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistic Services yearly “Machinery Custom Rates” survey data for your area. Familiarize yourself with the custom services available, and with how they are priced, as well as with the average cost. This information should help you calculate whether custom harvesting is affordable for your farm.

Once you’ve decided to hire a custom operator, keeping it local can not only save you from non-harvest related costs of travel, it can also connect you with the larger agricultural community right outside your doorstep. Developing an ongoing relationship is probably the best way for both farmer and custom operator to ensure that the work is completed in a mutually-satisfactory manner.

“We continuously educate ourselves and look for innovative ways to increase production, improve soil health and feed quality, and improve yield. This is our livelihood, and we take our jobs seriously,” Magnan said. “It is my hope that such skills can be passed onto future generations, and be seen as a valuable tool in helping the Vermont farmer remain sustainable.”

Hiring custom operators can be cost-effective, and may be a necessity for some farmers. Custom operators have the equipment and skill to get the job done right. Because it is the manner in which they make their living, they have the time and labor required to dedicate to the task at hand. For farmers who have much more to do than harvest their forages, and who may not have enough hands available during the harvest periods, outsourcing to a custom harvester can make sense.

References

Bill Verbeten, (M.S., CCA), Regional Extension Agronomist, NWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team, Cornell Cooperative Extension, (585)313-4457 cell, http://www.nwnyteam.org/; http://billsforagefiles.blogspot.com;
Twitter: Bill Verbeten @BillVerbeten
Scott Magnan’s Custom Services, 374 S Main St, Saint Albans, Vermont, (802) 363-7707 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scott-Magnans-Custom-Service/202124613157296

Photos courtesy of Scott Magnan’s Custom Service.