Hiring custom operators lets farmers take advantage of the efficiency of large-scale equipment without the expense of owning and maintaining it.

That’s why many farmers are hiring custom operators to perform big chores such as forage harvesting, says Joe Stellato, a Shawano County, WI, extension agent. He says hiring custom operators also eliminates the need to hire seasonal workers and lets dairy producers spend more time managing their herds.

Stellato has some advice for dairymen thinking about hiring a custom operator for the first time:

Get references. Ask other farmers who hire the custom operator for referrals and check references offered by the harvester.

Get acquainted. Invite the prospective harvester to visit your farm. Show him feed storage facilities and field locations and provide an accurate field map. Ask about the type and age of his equipment, and whether you’ll need to supply additional labor. Ask how many acres he can harvest per hour. Will he be able to handle the workload on your farm?

Will the harvester ensure an accurate record of load counts off each field? If so, who will provide the forms needed to record the load counts?

Be prepared to answer questions from the custom operator, too.

Get it in writing. A written contract protects both the custom operator and the farmer and prevents either party from breaking the deal. Read the contract thoroughly and ask for clarification before you sign it. If you have concerns about the contract, have it reviewed by your attorney before signing.

Get a firm price. The custom harvester should provide you with a printed rate sheet, listing all services performed and the rates charged for each service. You might be asked to pay more if you have a large number of small or odd-shaped fields.

Finally, Stellato reminds farmers that good communication, mutual understanding, honesty and loyalty are keys to any successful business arrangement.

For more details about how to work with custom operators, go to the University of Wisconsin-Extension web site at http://www.uwex.edu/ces/forage/wfc/CUSTOP11.html and download "Working

Successfully With a Custom Operator."