It's a new twist to the old-fashioned threshing bee. Jack Herricks and his neighbors join forces, both labor- and equipment-wise, for hay and silage harvesting, planting and even, at times, for hauling manure.
Herricks and Dennis Mlsna, both of Cashton, WI, plus Randy and Tim Brueggen, Norwalk, regularly pool their labor and resources. They're saving time and money while improving feed quality.
"We all needed a lot more machine power than what any of us had as far as getting our corn silage harvested," remembers Herricks.
"When we did it by ourselves it was very difficult to get a consistent-quality feed supply because the harvesting took so long," he adds. "It is a short window of high-demand time for labor, and by helping each other out, we have filled that need."
Working together seems to, well, work. Herricks and the Brueggens have been helping each other for more than 15 years; Mlsna has traded labor and equipment with the other two for several years, too.
"We're all hands-on management people, we all enjoy harvesting and we're good at it. The way we used to do it, it would take five or six people from each farming operation to make silage harvesting work. Now we can take one or two people from each farm and have a big enough crew to make it go," says Herricks.
But all three operations are different sizes. Herricks has 420 cows and 700 acres, the Brueggens and their mom, Betty, milk 250 cows and grow 480 acres of mostly alfalfa and corn. Mlsna milks about 500 cows and has around 1,000 acres - half corn, half alfalfa. All three operations have employees to manage their dairies while the bosses plant or harvest.
Because they don't all come with the same equipment or require the same amount of time, Herricks, the Brueggens and Mlsna keep tabs on themselves using the honor system.
"We all keep track of our hours and what equipment we bring to the table when we work for each other," Herricks says. "We have a pre-agreed-upon rate for everything and just turn our hours in to each other. If there is a difference, we pay each other when the harvest is done. That way everybody feels they're treated fairly."
They base their costs on the local rental market, generally totaling $50/hour for a driver with a truck or tractor and wagon.
It helps that the dairymen have grown up in the same area, farm somewhat the same and, most importantly, trust and respect each other.
"We're all fairly aggressive managers and we all have strong work ethics. We're willing to put in the hours to get the job done," Herricks says.
Randy Brueggen may have gotten his work ethic from Herricks; he was one of Herricks' hired hands at age 15.
"My dad passed away when I was 14 so I took over working our farm and learned a lot from Jack," says Brueggen. "I look up to him; that's one of the reasons we probably get along so well."
Herricks and Mlsna, meanwhile, have shared labor and equipment for years on and off. They even owned a planter together for five or six years. Herricks sold out his interest in the planter when he went to 20"-row corn.
The past two years the four men diversified by working for a custom harvester. This year, however, Herricks and the Brueggens have formed their own haylage harvesting joint venture. They bought a chopper, mower-conditioner, rake, two trucks and a rear-unload wagon together.
Their plan: to gain even better control over their harvesting schedule. They'll do custom work for local growers to help pay for the machines. The Brueggens and Herricks also pooled their seed corn order this year, to get a larger volume discount.
Labor, equipment and money savings aren't the only benefits to farming together.
"It gets to be a fun time," says Herricks. "If we have a chance, after the day is over, we have a sandwich or a pop together and just relive the day and tell a few jokes. We probably put in 15-16 hours, are all tired and worn out. Yet it's pretty easy to spend a half hour to an hour afterward, just to visit a bit and unwind."
"It is fun," agrees Brueggen. "You're not always in the same routine day after day by yourself. You're out communicating with people and bringing back ideas from other places."
Herricks' advice for any grower considering farming with others: "Leave the 'I' out and become part of the 'we.' Go into it with the idea that you're going to have to look for what's going to work best for all concerned, not just what will work for yourself."