George Ebert's baler lineup is unusual. This St. George, KS, custom harvester owns three types of machines to produce small square, large square and large round bales for a variety of custom harvesting clients and hay buyers.
Ebert has a 150-cow beef herd, raising 800 acres of his own alfalfa, plus 2,000 acres of grass hay. He and his part-time crew of family members, university students and neighbors spend nearly a fourth of their time custom harvesting for regular customers each year.
They also work with growers who call last minute and say, “Hey, George, can you finish up this 80-acre field for me?” Those clients fall behind in their work, or have baled what they need for their operations and want Ebert to finish the fields.
“I say, all right, let's put it up and get it tested. They might keep it and feed it or they might have me sell it,” says Ebert, who harvests on a share basis as much as he can to save several thousand dollars a year in liability insurance costs.
“My local insurance agent says that, by having my major portion be farming for myself and putting it up on shares, he can keep my liability rates down. That's because farmers don't operate far from home and travel fewer miles than custom cutters.”
Ebert estimates that 10% of what he harvests each year — 30,000 bales — is in small squares. “The small squares are for low-volume buyers like the zoos or exotic animal or horse people,” he says. “I have one customer who raises exotic pigs; she wants some really good-quality alfalfa in small square bales, light enough that she can handle.”
He owns two small square balers; one with durable wire for heavy straw bales, the other with twine to accommodate customers who want to open bales up easily.
About 60% of what Ebert harvests goes into 3 × 3 × 8' large squares, much of it alfalfa for dairy producers and for nearby Kansas State University. “I sent most of my good-quality alfalfa to Pennsylvania this winter,” he says. Ebert produces between 7,000 and 8,000 large squares of alfalfa to good-quality grass hay, which are easy to store inside and ship whenever Ebert gets an order.
Yet another 30% of the bales he produces — the lower-quality hay — goes into 7,000 large round bales. Those are harvested for or sold to cow-calf producers. Or they're baled as mulch for landscapers or contractors with the state highway department.
This grower/custom harvester offers several reasons for keeping three types of balers.
“The main reason that I do it is for cash flow,” says Ebert. “If I was just doing my own operation, I wouldn't even mess with little bales; they're so labor-intensive and time-consuming. But I've got horse customers who have been with me for 20-30 years. I feel obligated to take care of them because they helped me get started. So I go bale for them, hand them the bill and the next week I've got a paycheck.
“The upkeep is a definite challenge,” Ebert admits. Having four machines, however, offers flexibility: “One baler can be in a field 10 miles away while another baler can be elsewhere. It would be nice if we were in an irrigated area where we had enough acreage in one central place. But where I live, large fields and operations just don't exist.”
Having enough storage — and getting hay in it before rain falls — is a constant battle. Ebert opts for several small barns rather than a larger shed so he can store his mix of bales in an organized manner.
Yet the different demands for different-size bales are seasonal, which helps Ebert decide which bales to store where. “Right now (early April), there's a big push for mulch for seeding lawns and highways. You just learn through experience how to store bales so you can get to them when a customer wants them delivered.”
Having to constantly be in and out of his sheds, to load one size bale vs. the other, is also a plus for Ebert. “With large bales, you've really got to pay attention to the moisture content because of spontaneous combustion. Because I have different kinds of bales piled up, I keep a closer eye on the sheds.”
A management method Ebert uses that's unusual for his area is round baling high-moisture crop and wrapping it in plastic.
“That's how I get so much done. When everybody else is sitting there waiting for the weather to straighten out, I either finish a field up or open one up. I run the balage through my cow herd because it doesn't work very well to sell it,” Ebert points out. There are few dairymen in his area to market the balage to, and the high moisture makes it hard to justify the shipping costs, he adds.