Modern, high-capacity equipment takes much of the misery out of forage harvest. But it also takes a big investment.

Four Michigan dairy farms found a way to buy good equipment and keep costs down. They formed a limited liability company, Hastings Harvest Group (HHG), and own forage harvesting equipment together.

The four farms are within 15 miles of each other near Hastings. The families just finished their fifth year working together.

HHG owns two mowers and two rotary rakes, but its key tool is a Claas Jaguar 860 chopper. It harvests 1,500 acres of alfalfa four times before giving the crop a September vacation. The chopper spends September in cornfields, gobbling up 1,200 acres before returning for a late alfalfa harvest.

“We pooled our resources to afford bigger equipment — more modern, more reliable,” says Luke Haywood of Sand Creek Dairy.

The farms share some labor but have no employees dedicated to harvesting forages. The owners are dairy farmers who, from May to October, spend a few intense days each month making silage for their own herds. Harvest is scheduled so everyone has the machinery once a month.

When the chopper is at Luke and Larry Haywood's 600-cow Sand Creek Dairy, Luke runs it. At Dan and Kris Javor's 300-cow Burdock Hill Dairy, Kris is in the driver's seat. At Paul and Greg Endsley's 400-cow dairy, Greg chops. And at Kurt and Dena Chase's 200-cow Cresthill Dairy, Dena operates it.

All the farms feed similarly — total mixed rations of corn silage, haylage and supplements — and they all have bunker silos. Even with 1,500 acres to cover, the chopper, with capacity of 200 acres a day when things go well, works less than half time.

“First cutting is the most difficult to schedule, but after that everyone's crop is staged and we cut every four weeks,” Haywood says.

Each farm's initial equipment investment was prorated according to the expected usage. Maintenance expenses are handled similarly.

“Standard operating procedure is for everyone who uses equipment to service it out,” Haywood says. “In general, if you break it, you fix it. But there are exceptions. You keep track of hours and settle up at the end of the year. You pay accordingly.”

The farmers meet two or three times a year to “keep up communication and compare notes and ideas on equipment,” Haywood reports.

Dan Javor keeps the records. He explains the working arrangement.

“There are hubometers on the mowers and an hours meter on the chopper,” he says. “All repairs and maintenance costs are billed to each machine for that year. We take the total cost and divide it according to hours used. We also pro-rate depreciation based on use.”

“We each own our own trucks,” says Haywood. “We do trade some trucks and labor, and we can call on these resources if we need them.”

Javor adds: “When we share labor, we figure the size of trucks involved and pay 5¢ a cubic foot per hour. It works out pretty well.”

While sharing equipment can lead to problems of harvest timeliness, Javor says the capacity of the machines means all the harvest can be done in less than 10 days each month. That leaves slack time to compensate for bad weather or machine breakdown.

“If we each had our own equipment, it would all be smaller or older and we'd all be spending more time making forage.”

Sharing isn't always easy, of course, but these families make it work, in part because they like working together.

Three of the four farms are father-son partnerships, and the parents are all of similar age. Likewise, the younger partners and their wives, and Kurt and Dena Chase, are all about the same age. The younger couples' children are roughly the same age, too.

“Our families mesh well,” says Luke Haywood's wife, Renee.