It used to be that customers would call Jim Theiler when they wanted their hay harvested. Not anymore.

“I'm usually the one who calls them,” says Theiler, a 30-year custom-harvesting veteran. “I cut 6,000 acres of hay a month and have to keep on schedule. If one of my guys' fields isn't ready to cut, that throws my whole schedule off.”

So Theiler, of Oakdale, CA, is in constant touch with his customers. He checks to make sure irrigations are scheduled properly, that pesticide re-entry intervals won't be a problem, and that the hay is doing well.

It's all part of delivering quality hay.

“I think the biggest change I've seen in my 30 years is this constant search for higher-quality hay, and I have to be a big part of that,” he says. “Cutting and baling at the right time is critical to quality. I would say that's the single-greatest thing that keeps me in business — being as good a harvester as he is a grower.”

Over the years, Theiler has done such things as put Super Conditioners on his windrowers so hay will dry quicker, cut on a strict 28- to 30-day schedule and bale at 13-14% moisture. He also keeps an eye on the local market.

“I'm located in dairy country. I can tell people what the dairymen are looking for and what they're willing to pay for. A lot of my customers use me as their hay consultant.”

One of Theiler's biggest customers is Victoria Island Farms, a large asparagus grower that grows alfalfa as a secondary rotation crop.

That's not uncommon, says Theiler.

“I'd say the majority of my customers have another crop as their primary one. If alfalfa is a guy's primary crop, he usually has the equipment and the know-how to bale it himself.”

Some clients even have him make some of their management decisions.

“They'll have me come out and look at the fields,” he says. “I'll call them and tell them I think it should be cut such and such a date and they'll say to just go ahead and schedule it. I might go most of a season without even seeing some of my customers. I'll just talk to them on the phone and they'll trust me to get the hay harvested right.”

Other clients, though, want to be involved in every decision.

“I've noticed that the younger generation is really interested in managing its alfalfa,” says Theiler. “About 10 years ago, we didn't really have many young people coming into agriculture. Government was putting so many restrictions on farming and requiring so much paperwork that a lot of people chose something else.

“But now I see young people getting into farming. And they have a different mind-set. They accept the regulations and the paperwork, and they really do their homework. They look at which varieties test well and they'll pay a little more for the right variety. They prepare their fields right, and they plant early in the fall like they're supposed to.

“I like working with them because they're on the ball. They still let me recommend when to cut, but they might run out to the field, then call me back and say go ahead. That's a change from the way it used to be.”