For dairy farmers who grow their own seed, the process of harvesting the hay and tillage can be daunting.
In today’s economy, where diesel fuel prices continue to pinch corners left and right, alternative methods to traditional farming are becoming more abundant. One such method is using custom crop operators.
Smaller farms often do not have the means to purchase and maintain the expensive tractors and other equipment necessary to harvest large hay fields. Instead, they choose to outsource and hire custom crop operators, who are able to come in and clean up fields in a fraction of the time it would take a farmer using traditional methods.
‘‘We just could not get everything done in a timely matter otherwise, so using the operators helps us get finished with what we need to do,’’ said Bill Nickerson, a farmer with barns in both Sherman and Clymer. Nickerson maintains roughly 425 cows at one farm and 350 at the other, respectively.
He, along with other local farmers, has turned to using these methods to get the job done, and has seen positive results for his cattle.
‘‘We get much better feed quality, so in a sense we’re really paying for the services,’’ he explained. ‘‘We’ll use all the feed on our own cows. What we do is hire the laborers to do the work, then we’ll pay them when they’re finished.’’
Nickerson said the method has disadvantages, but the positives outweigh any problems.
‘‘When you hire other people, you have to remember they’re working with other people as well, so they’ll tend to push you to get things done,’’ he said with a laugh. ‘‘But then again, that can be a good thing.’’
While some farmers have only recently looked to custom crop operators as a method of saving time and money, others have been using the method for many years. Marty Peterson, a dairy farmer from Frewsburg, has been using custom crop operators for the past 12 years, and has always been satisfied with the results.
‘‘When the first custom operating system came into a country, it was at a point (for my farm) where we could buy more machines or use this method, so we chose to try them first,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘It worked out very well for us, and we’ve been doing it this way ever since. I couldn’t possibly hire the amount or type of labor that comes with every piece of equipment.’’
He explained the farm has around 115 milking cows, and is considered a smaller farm by industry standards. One aspect of the operators he likes most, Peterson said, is the benefit of using larger machines he could never afford to purchase on his own.
‘‘I’ve worked on dairy farms my whole life — back when I was a kid and first got married, we’d spend three weeks doing our first cutting, and now we spend two days,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘There’s both time savings and cost savings involved with the custom crop operators, and really it’s just a different avenue of doing things.’’
In terms of saving money because of diesel fuel costs, Peterson said he was uncertain whether the method was highly effective. However, he said he was for sure cost effective in terms of the feed quality produced by the expensive machines.
‘‘It’s a lot more uniform feed for the cows — before they would have to adjust themselves to what they were eating, but now it’s pretty much the same stuff year-round,’’ he said. ‘‘In my opinion, fuel costs are a minor part of the whole deal. It’s more in the overall machinery costs and ability to get it done at a rapid rate.’’
Locally, there are a number of people in the industry working as custom crop operators. Ed Pearsons has been working as an operator for the past few years, and partners with a couple different toolsheds, in both Clymer as well as Kennedy.
‘‘For us, there has been a significant increase in the number of farms we work on in the past year,’’ Pearsons explained, adding the increase could also be credited to the change his company recently made in operations.
‘‘The cost of machinery is so expensive, this is a good alternative for smaller farms,’’ he continued. ‘‘Also, just the amount of labor required — harvesting these larger fields requires so much less labor when using the larger machines.’’
Pearsons does business with a few different farms in the area, and the labor he and his team perform varies for each place. Some farms the operators are responsible for planting corn while others they harvest the grains. He works with mainly smaller farms, from about 100 to 200 cows apiece.
He feels the greatest attribute of the custom crop operators is their ability to adapt swiftly to new technologies.
‘‘One thing we can do that a normal dairy farm cannot is we can adapt to changing technology a lot faster,’’ Pearsons said. ‘‘That’s where we’re gaining a lot. We are also a good option in terms of expenses — an individual farm can’t recover from expenses as fast as we can, because we’re so spread out.’’
Likewise, operator Brad Griffith, who has been in the business for about six years, says farmers using the operators can have financial advantages over farms who do not.
‘‘By using the custom crop operators, the smaller farms don’t have to pay a lot of money — they don’t have the large overhead costs,’’ Griffith said. ‘‘Using the larger machines can produce better feed value. For a smaller farm, it would take them about four hours to clean up the field. For me, it will only take one hour — it takes less time and we’re more consistent.’’
Griffith works together with other farmers from the area. One man is responsible for cutting down the fields, then Griffith and his team will come in and clear away the hay, or in this instance, grass.
He has been working in the farming business since graduating from school, and now six years later Griffith has a total of 12 separate accounts. This year alone he has started work with two new accounts, and continues to see a growth in the number of farms using custom crop operators.
He originally started working with his father, who owns a John Deere dealer. The machine he uses today costs about $300,000, something a small-time farmer would likely never be able to invest in.
‘‘Farmers will watch every penny, and as the expenses continue to increase, the farming industry will be careful how they’re spending money,’’ Griffith said.