As California dairy producers sell their land by the square inch and move to less-crowded areas, custom forage harvesters are watching. Some will decide to relocate, too. Others, already in the areas of relocation, are making use of golden opportunities.

That's what it looks like to Phil Wright, a hay and forage product specialist with New Holland.

“We're seeing custom harvesters going to Indiana because there are some fairly good-sized dairies coming in from California,” says Wright. “Dairies are also moving into New Mexico, Texas and Michigan.”

Darrell King, High Plains regional sales manager for Claas of America, also sees a shifting of dairies and, consequently, custom harvesters.

“We're seeing big growth in West Texas and northeastern New Mexico,” King reports. “People are moving out of East Texas — south of Dallas and Fort Worth.” Dairies in the Stephenville, TX, area are finding they aren't up to EPA standards and have been ordered to revamp or relocate. Many are choosing the latter, King says.

“As the dairies migrate to areas like the West Texas panhandle, the farmers there are just tickled to death,” King adds. “That's a big fat cattle feeding area. As dairies move in, they tend to pay more for their feed than what a feed yard does. As they're doing this, here come the forage harvesters. It's another opportunity for the contract harvester.”

King and Wright travel the U.S. for their respective companies, showing custom harvesters and their clients the differences between their equipment and that of their competitors. They've seen dramatic shifts in chopper sales the last several years.

In King's High Plains territory, which includes Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, 140 new dairy permits have been applied for. But dairy associations in the areas are predicting 50-60 new dairy start-ups of 1,500-2,000 cows over the next three to five years, King says.

“And all these start-ups have plans to double and triple the size of their operations,” he adds.

That's leading to a big increase in forage production in the High Plains, and good growth potential for custom forage harvesters.

“If we look at a typical 1,500-head dairy, it will consume between 20,000 and 25,000 tons of corn silage every year,” King says. “We're going to see an explosion of forage products across the region.”

The region already has a good supply of custom forage harvesters. But King has had inquiries from West Coast harvesters investigating whether to migrate east.

The biggest area of custom harvesting growth, if one considers the sale of self-propelled choppers a guide, is Wisconsin, says Wright.

New Holland, Claas of America and John Deere sold nearly 500 in the U.S. last year, compared to 300 sold 10 years earlier. In 2001, more were sold in Wisconsin than in any other state — 62. California came in second, at 60, and New York took third, at 48.

What that shows is a shift from pull-type machines to self-propelled, Wright says.

“Dairy nutritionists are driving the whole thing because they want better and better quality of product to get as much out of the cattle as they can,” he adds. “Dairies are getting bigger, so the pull-type is going away. They need bigger choppers so they can get done in a more timely manner, get a better crop and better feed value.”

King sees that change, too.

“We're seeing the typical Wisconsin family dairy, from 75 to 200 cows, phasing out,” he says. “Two, three or four dairymen are coming together and forming a co-op to build a large dairy. But as the large dairies come in, they can no longer adequately put up feed with their small equipment. So that opens up the market for the custom forage harvester.”

King has also seen some movement of Wisconsin dairies to Arizona over the last few years, but says that has slowed.

“Arizona is full now; it can produce very little more feed. We're seeing people from Chandler and Mesa, which had been a strong dairy area, relocating farther south.”

North America, King adds, is following the trend set in Europe.

“The dairyman in Europe is a dairyman. He does not farm; he does not harvest. But the large dairyman may have 100-150 cows. A contractor may have 100-plus clients and own six, eight or 10 harvesters and go around the community and put all the crop up, then come back in spring and plant. We're seeing a little of that unfolding in North America.”