When asked to evaluate his custom forage harvester, one dairy producer recently replied, “I ran him off the job.”

But most dairymen who filled out the Hay & Forage Grower custom harvesting survey were in much better spirits. In fact, if this survey is an accurate indication, dairy producers are well-satisfied with the performance of their custom forage harvesters.

Higher milk receipts are one big reason. Well over half of the respondents attributed recent milk production increases to feed quality gains or other factors directly related to custom harvesting.

The survey was sent via e-mail to dairy subscribers who have provided their e-mail addresses. Those who hire custom operators to harvest forage crops were asked to evaluate the operators' performance.

First, the 81 respondents who hire custom operators were asked to rate those operators' work on a 1 to 10 (worst-to-best) scale. Ratings by these dairymen ranged all the way from the bottom to the top. The average score: just under 8.

Next, they were asked to score their harvesters in several performance areas, including dependability, communication, feed quality, skill of employees and reliability of equipment. Again, the average score for all parameters was about 8.

When asked about the quality of their feed since they quit doing their own forage harvesting, 51% said it stayed the same, 41% said it improved and only 8% said it declined. For 58% of them, per-cow feed costs stayed about the same when they switched to custom harvesting. Feed costs increased for 14% and dropped for 18%.

Just over 58% reported milk production gains directly attributable to custom harvesting.

These producers hire custom operators to perform a wide variety of jobs. Baling hay is the most prevalent, hired by 62% of survey respondents. Next in popularity is chopping corn silage (58%), followed by mowing (42%), raking (39%), chopping hay silage (33%), silage bagging (28%), and filling bunker silos (20%).

Surprisingly, written agreements aren't very popular among these dairymen and their harvesters. Only 20% use custom forage harvesting contracts. When asked why not, several dairymen said they hire long-time neighbors whom they trust, so contracts aren't needed.

“We know each other and trust that we will hold up our ends of the bargain,” wrote one dairyman.

“A handshake is still good enough in South Dakota,” wrote another.

For most of them, hired harvesting is still quite new. A majority (52%) have had forages custom harvested for four years or less, and only 25% have been doing it that way 10 or more years.