Picking Mr. Right Choose a custom harvest operator for the long-term

June 15, 2008 07:00 PM

Think of it as one of those good news/bad news developments.

With more and more people setting up shop as custom harvest operators, dairy producers face a lot more choices than they did just a few years ago. That's obviously a good thing.

On the flipside, though, working with a larger pool of custom operators makes it imperative to refine the criteria you use for determining which operator will ultimately get your business. Consider the following key areas when selecting a custom harvest operator: 

• Basic business skills. Along with producing a price list for various services, custom operators should be able to provide a list of references, an insurance certificate or a letter from an insurance company detailing coverages for workman's comp (if required) and vehicles and a written contract.

In the contract, specify what each party will and will not do, address service cost rates and penalties,  provide for conflict resolution and list warranties. If you're concerned about being locked in by the details of the contract, get an attorney to review the document.

"The basic idea of having a contract is to remind everyone involved on what was originally agreed to,” says University of Wisconsin ag engineer Brian Holmes. "The more details you can cover in the contract, the better.”

• Employee management skills. When you sign on with a custom operator, you're not just entering into an agreement with one individual. You're also hiring everyone who works for him or her, notes Keith Bolsen, professor emeritus of forage preservation at Kansas State University. 

"If I'm a dairy producer, I want a custom operator with experienced, well-trained and dependable employees,” says Bolsen. "The last thing I want is a rookie learning how to operate a bagging machine, a packing tractor or chopper on my nickel.”

When checking references, ask for general impressions about the attitude, morale, and work habits of the custom operator's crew.

• Nutrition knowledge.  Custom harvester Tim Tuttle, owner of Double T Feed in Fillmore, Utah, says it may be time to rethink the term custom operator. "When most people talk about a custom operator, they're thinking of someone who comes in a few times a year, chops the crop and puts it in the silo,” says Tuttle.

"Then they pick up their check and head down the road. Today's dairy producers need more than that. They need to start thinking in terms of putting a silage consultant on their management team along with the nutritionist, the veterinarian, the accountant and the lender.”

Tuttle's definition of a silage consultant:  "It's someone the dairy producer can depend on to help make silage decisions from the time hybrids are selected all the way through feedout; someone who understands the science behind what they're doing out in the field and around the bunker or silage pile. Most importantly, they know how to use that understanding to help the dairy producers meet individual business goals.”

• Equipment savvy. Equipment lines (new vs. old, large vs. small) won't necessarily give you much insight into the overall ability of a custom operator to do a bang-up job. You need to know the custom operator has the kind of equipment it will take to handle your job and also is conscientious about keeping that equipment in good repair.

Along with asking references for their impressions about the custom operator's approach to maintenance, ask the custom operator about his backup plan for handling major breakdowns.

Do they have a backup chopper? Do they maintain their own parts inventory and/or a mobile repair shop? Do they have an agreement with an equipment dealer or a competitor to lease equipment in case of an emergency?

• Workload. A large customer list might signal the custom operator is good at what they do and their services are in demand. But working with too many customers can make it more difficult for a custom operator to meet scheduling obligations.

"You need to ask the custom operator what kind of assurances they can give you that your job will be a priority if they find themselves in a scheduling bind,” says Wisconsin's Brian Holmes.

Bonus content:

  • "Using a Custom Harvester: Factors To Consider”  and "Working Successfully With a Custom Operator” are available at the University of Wisconsin Team Forage website. www.uwex.edu/ces/crops/uwforage/storage.htm

  • You are reading an extended version of the story that appeared in the June/July issue of Dairy Today.
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