From a hilltop observation post, Dick Schader watches a dozen machines maneuver over a stretch of northern California's high desert, radioing questions and orders to his crew chiefs below.
Schader manages alfalfa harvest on Red Rock Ranch like a military operation: swiftly, precisely and with a firm belief in the power of mechanization.
“I assault the hay,” says Schader. “We push the whole ranch hard, wait till the hay is right, then bale it all.”
Formidable mechanized forces lead Schader's assault. He runs 10 swathers, seven rakes and 10 one-ton rectangular balers, which enables him to harvest his 5,000 acres of alfalfa in less than two weeks. His crew roster swells from his year-round staff of 12 hired hands to 22 harvest-time workers, all of whom are ready to roll as soon as the crop is at the 50%-bud stage.
Part of Schader's commitment to his big fleet is driven by his emphasis on high TDN. All three of his cuttings averaged 54 or higher last year (reported on a 90% dry-matter basis), pushing most of his 25,000-ton output into the super-premium grade.
But the ability to cover ground quickly also gives Schader a hedge against unpredictable weather conditions. At 4,300' above sea level, any bright summer day could end with a thunderstorm, and any night of the year could yield a hard frost.
The race begins in early June, when Schader unleashes his squadron of swathers for the first cutting. Each pulls a tank of desiccant Schader refers to as his “snake oil” — a blend of potassium carbonate, sodium carbonate and a few secret ingredients. Schader says his home-brewed desiccant reduces drying time by one to 1.5 days.
Speeding the curing process is vital to his schedule.
“You can't stop and wait another day for the crop to dry, because you have another 500 acres to go the next night,” he notes.
Maintaining speed can be tough on equipment and the people who operate it. Though he works his harvest at a sprinter's pace, Schader believes in taking care of foreman Guy Porterfield and the rest of his employees.
“A guy's no better than his crew,” he says. “You need bright people out there making the right decisions. I couldn't do it without these people.”
Creative scheduling helps keep employees fresh, even in the middle of harvest. Schader rotates people among different tasks to avoid burnout.
“We can schedule people so they're not working seven hours on a baler,” he says. “Maybe they're working three hours on a baler and then doing something else for a while.”
The plus side of concentrating harvest into two jam-packed weeks is that equipment and crews get a couple of weeks of downtime before the next rush. Schader's employees use the between-harvest breaks to catch up on sleep — and machinery maintenance.
Maintenance is critical in keeping tons of equipment in play. Schader invests for the long haul in new or well-maintained used swathers, balers and rakes, taking care to keep them properly tuned to handle hay gently.
“We buy good hay equipment and we really take care of it,” he says.
Though Schader is exacting about handling his hay with pristine equipment, he has a different philosophy about tractors. He pulls his towed equipment with an assortment of tractors that he's rescued from the clutches of death. Schader says it's a matter of keeping investment priorities straight.
“I only work them 150 hours a year,” he points out. “Why buy a new tractor if you're not going to use it?”
Schader says his column of equipment might seem like overkill, but he sees it as a sound investment.
“The more iron you have, the less you use it,” he points out. “The less you use it, the longer it will keep.”