Two Alberta custom choppers extend their harvest seasons by traveling hundreds of miles every year.
Ranchers in Montana's Yellowstone and Gallatin valleys now expect a summer visit from Canadian forage harvester Brent Large. He's been a regular since 1999.
Similarly, a few Manitoba growers hire Alberta's Dirk Kanis to chop their silage. He started working the Manitoba market in 1998. He's also worked one silage season in south-central Nebraska and plans to go back there in 2003.
“If you get enough work, it's worth it,” says Kanis, referring to the travel and paperwork connected with long-distance, cross-border custom chopping.
He lives near Innisfail, an Alberta city known for dairies and feedlots. It's a two-day, 850-mile trip for him and his crew to get into the east-central Manitoba production area. When he went to Nebraska in 2001, it was a three-day, 1,500-mile trip.
Kanis first ventured into Manitoba in September 1998. The Alberta harvest of alfalfa haylage and barley silage was finished, and the Manitoba corn silage harvest was ready to start. Now it's a routine visit.
“I aim for 1,500 acres of corn in Manitoba,” he says. “That seems to be the right amount I can take off without getting too late.”
His Nebraska work in 2001 came at the request of a Manitoba grower whose son had started farming near Kearney, NE.
Kanis justified the long trip by figuring he'd need to harvest 1,000 acres of corn silage at 25-30 tons an acre.
After crossing into irrigated Nebraska corn, however, he realized he needed to slow down his chopper.
“Here, I travel maybe 5-7 mph; down there, sometimes I was below 3 mph,” he says. “The stalks on that corn are almost like trees. They get big!”
Between Alberta, Manitoba and Nebraska that year, he put about 9,000 acres of silage through his two choppers.
For health reasons, Kanis didn't go back to Nebraska in 2002. Yet he plans to return there this year.
“With the equipment being so expensive, I have to make my season longer,” he says. “Here I can't get enough hours on my equipment to make it pay.”
Costs for things like fuel, food and lodging increase substantially for Kanis while working in the U.S. But the dollar exchange rate is favorable, and custom rates are somewhat higher.
“They pay more, but you need it,” he says.
Brent Large, of Czar, Alberta, started his Neutral View Harvesting business in 1998. Today he custom chops in that area and also travels twice a year to Montana. He harvests about 20,000 acres per season with a single self-propelled chopper.
His work starts in June and July in Montana, where he chops 4,000 acres of alfalfa and 5,000 of barley. At home in August, he does 8,000 acres of cereal crops. In September he returns to Montana to chop 3,000 acres of corn.
After his first Alberta chopping season ended, Large wanted more work for his chopper. He ended up traveling to Manitoba to help out another harvester whose chopper had broken down.
“I did corn there for about a week, then decided to find my own corn to do.”
Corn chopping opportunities in Manitoba and Alberta were limited, but he knew there was corn south of the border.
“I decided to just go for a drive,” he recalls. He ended up talking to Montana dealers along Interstate 94 from Billings to Glendive.
He learned that there were growers who needed what he had to offer — a high-capacity chopper and an experienced operator.
“It looked like a perfect place for me,” he says.
It took a few months to complete the paperwork so he could operate legally.
“I had to have a thousand acres of corn to break even or make it pay a little,” Large recalls. “Now that's not a problem. We have 3,000 acres of corn there and usually do it in about six weeks.”
That's the August harvest in the Yellowstone Valley, where he runs into corn as heavy as 42 tons/acre. His earlier harvest is focused on alfalfa in the Gallatin Valley. The full range of his silage work, in both countries, now includes alfalfa, barley, corn, millet and sorghum.
“We work 24 hours a day,” he points out. “When we start silaging, that machine usually runs around the clock every day until we're finished. We've done as many as 3,500 acres of irrigated barley in eight days.”
After four seasons of custom forage harvesting in Montana, Large says he's well-accepted.
“After I'm there a month, I kind of look like someone from Montana. I talk like one of them, and my attitudes are the same. I fit right in.”