Dale Lowery's custom harvesting business cuts, rakes and bales hay on 15,000 acres about seven times a year for 25-30 customers. He figures he has to cover about 500 acres a day to stay on schedule. His biggest nightmare?
“Everybody wanting to cut on the same day,” says Lowery, of Kerman, CA.
His solution is one that many harvesters are continuing to invest in: plenty of high-tech, high-priced machinery.
“We have enough equipment to make growers happy, because we need to treat each grower individually — as if his hay is the only hay we do,” he says.
Lowery's business is in the midst of large dairies — harvesting from south of Lemoore and Hanford to north of Merced. He eats, breathes but rarely sleeps during central California's forage harvesting season, from late March through November.
The custom harvester employs more than 60 people each season to run 12 swathers, 15 rakes, six big square balers, nine small balers and three roadsiders. Seven service trucks are equipped with welders and parts to keep the equipment running. That's after time and money are spent the previous winter on equipment overhauls.
Every third year, Lowery's Hay Service turns back two-year-old swathers to lease new ones. This year Lowery also bought six big balers and five tractors.
“We have a lot of hay to do,” he comments. He's also battling high fuel and increased labor costs, knowing he can't do much to raise his fees.
“The farmers out here haven't been having a good time lately,” Lowery says.
Yet this 40-year custom harvesting veteran continues to work toward satisfying his customers' needs even though it largely depends on the weather. And although he can prepare for it, he can't control it.
Neither can Ty Nunes.
“My biggest challenge is Mother Nature,” admits Nunes, of Tulare, CA. His father, Alden, started their custom harvesting business in 1956; Nunes has been a part of it for the past 20-plus years.
“Most challenges can be overcome,” Nunes says. “But there is nothing we can do about the weather except have enough equipment and a schedule that meets farmers' needs — and sometimes we can't meet that.”
Not only does Nunes provide enough equipment, he investigates whether to add new machinery that will cut down his field time. This year he and his nearby competitors added Circle C Super Conditioner rolls to their windrowers.
“It's new technology that crushes the stems so they dry as fast as leaves. Hay that was taking five to seven days to put up is now taking only three or four,” Nunes says. “Dad's just shaking his head over it.
“It provides a better product, creates less bleaching and mangers are cleaner because the stem was crushed and more digestible,” he adds. “Adding the conditioner rolls not only benefited us, it also benefits farmers and dairymen.”
Lowery agrees with Nunes' strategy. His New Holland big balers with chopper blades are popular with local dairymen. The chopped hay is easier to mix into rations.
The latest and greatest equipment not only may save time during inclement weather, it's also a selling point in persuading a grower to contract with a harvester.
But Darrell Showalter, Broadway, VA, hopes that just adding a second self-propelled forage harvester will keep his 20-25 clients happy.
“Being timely is my biggest challenge,” points out Showalter, who harvests 3,000 acres each of corn and hay silage in an area that, for the past few years, has suffered from drought.
The drought made adding the second chopper this year a necessity. “It botched the corn planting in the area into a real short window and that put harvesting into a short window,” Showalter says. He used to have two months to chop all his clients' silage; now he has five weeks.
He's also putting another windrower into his equipment lineup, hoping to speed mowing.
Timeliness is Tom Braun's major concern, too. This Reedsville, WI, operator feels he's had a successful season if he can make it through the first cutting and stay on schedule.
“Even when the weather cooperates, the first crop matures pretty much at the same time,” Braun says. “So putting everybody's hay up at top quality is a challenge. When the weather doesn't cooperate, it's next to impossible.”
Braun and his partner, Steve O'Leary, own Hamp Haven Farms, a diversified operation. The two men farm about 6,500 acres of their own land and own, with a third partner, Paul Braun, a 750-cow dairy.
Braun and company are custom harvesting about 6,000 acres of hay and 3,000 of corn silage these days. They just added a 30' Krone windrower to speed cutting as well as other equipment. Braun has been in custom farming for 32 years, 25 of which have been in forage harvesting.
“I like to say we were custom when custom wasn't cool. The bankers, the university people — many thought all farmers ought to have full lines of equipment. Now they've come full circle and think people can't afford the time or cost to own all the equipment.”