In the dairy regions of the Midwest and Northeast, where 15-20 years ago little or no forage was custom harvested, now nearly 40% is cut and handled on contract. In the West as well, significantly more contract harvesting is being done.

As custom operators continue to reach out to producers for new business, here are six arguments why more farmers should turn their harvesting chores over to professionals

• Harvesting machinery has rapidly risen in cost and must be operated across many acres to justify its value. Older equipment that breaks down is costly in terms of lost forage quality and resulting animal performance.

• With the use of high-capacity equipment, a farm’s entire forage acreage can be harvested in a short time and at a consistent quality. Grass and alfalfa lose about four points of relative forage quality (RFQ) every day harvest is delayed. If handled in one to two days, the more-uniform-quality forage can be integrated into a ration for maximum animal performance. Longer harvest periods and greater changes in forage quality lead to waiting on forage sample results and ration balancing for what was fed the previous week rather than what is currently being fed.

• Contract harvesters for the most part own top-notch equipment, which means forage is usually harvested with the latest and best technology. For example, choppers are equipped with inoculant applicators and crop processors, and balers provide cutters and moisture sensors to help determine when to apply preservative to wet hay.

• Bigger harvesting equipment generally causes less wheel-traffic damage to forage stands, translating to greater yields from the next cuttings. A farmer with a 12’ mower and a tractor with 20” tires, and a rake to match, drives over 60-70% of a field by the time he’s done baling or chopping. A custom operator with a 30’ mower and the same tires drives over only half as much of the field per harvest.

• Contract harvesting reduces a farm’s labor requirements, which is especially important when hired labor is hard to find. That also takes away the burden of training employees for a whole different type of work situation.

• Since fewer days are spent harvesting, farmers can concentrate on other work. Often, milk production suffers during harvest, cattle don’t get bred, crops may not be planted on time or pastures are not managed for optimum growth and animal utilization. Contracting out the harvesting can also allow farmers more family time.

Many farmers are concerned about getting lower-quality forage because contract operators may not be at their farms at the right time. I would suggest that any farmer who spends more than a week harvesting forage currently is not getting all forage harvested at the right time. As we (Extension) have monitored farms where operators contracted for harvesting, we have seen generally high-quality forage and, most importantly, a consistent quality of forage.

But contract harvesters must clarify what labor and equipment will be provided, whether corn silage will be chopped with a processor and whether inoculant will be applied to silage or preservative to hay, if necessary. If making silage, we strongly suggest that contract operators be the ones to pack it. Many farmers cannot pack silage well at the higher harvest capacity of larger equipment.

Contract businesses should give their rates, whether they’re by hour or by acre, and how charges are determined. Rates may be more than a farmer would think, because contract operators must consider travel and operator time, depreciation on machinery and fuel, insurance and other costs.

We strongly recommend written contracts to ensure that important topics are covered. The contract should specify the names of the parties, services to be provided, how charges are to be determined and payment methods with due date.