Custom harvester works closely with dairies, growers
Tim Tuttle's first custom work was bagging 2,500 tons of haylage in 1987. More than two decades later, he's harvesting 140,000-150,000 tons of feed per year. But he's known by the dairymen he serves as more than the “harvest guy.”
“We work to become partners with our dairymen and farmers,” says Tuttle, of Double T Feed near Fillmore, UT. “The average size dairy is probably 1,500 head in our area, and that's a fulltime job. So we have farmers who grow the crops, dairymen who feed it and we harvest.”
In reality, Tuttle and his production crews do much more. At first, to keep his custom harvest workers employed year-round, Tuttle offered to have them clean out the corrals of his dairy customers — at no charge. Last year, his employees hauled 130,000 tons of manure that was composted and turned into fertilizer.
Each dairy provides the land the manure is composted on and the use of a loader, but Tuttle's people do the rest. In summer, some dry manure is spread on fields, but 90% is composted. Operators haul, from dairy to dairy, a machine that turns windrows of manure every 10-15 days for a total of eight to 10 times. Two-thirds of the compost, shrunk to half its original weight, is sold and spread for an average of $18/ton, often on farms that grow for the dairies.
Loyd Johnston, general manager at Double T Feed, says the remaining 15,000-20,000 tons are sold to landscapers and nurseries. “That's where we make the margin on our composting. For farmers we try to keep it as low as we can,” says Johnston.
As part of Tuttle's custom business, he arranges meetings between growers and dairymen. “We try not to be a broker,” Johnston says. “We get the dairyman and the farmer together and talking, so the farmer's planting what the dairy wants and the dairy knows what to expect.”
Some growers are contracted to grow crops for Double T, which then harvests and sells the crops to dairies. “But we by far prefer it the other way, where we just go in and do the custom harvesting,” Johnston says.
“We typically sell it to the dairy for the same price we bought it from the farmer, because it's in support of that partnership,” he adds. “We just want to harvest; that's where we add value and remain profitable.”
Tuttle also works to be his dairy customers' silage consultant. “In everything you do, you want to develop a relationship, so we use Chr. Hansen inoculants. And with them comes Dr. Keith Bolsen, at no cost.”
Bolsen is a former Kansas State University silage expert now consulting for the inoculant company. “We have him come out in the spring and talk with our farmers and dairymen, to discuss what we all need to be doing to do a better job.”
Tuttle gives each dairy a three-ring binder of research information, articles and new scientific data pertinent to its operation. “If they have any questions on the work that we're doing, they open that up. Sometimes when I go to dairies, they'll grab the book and say, ‘I want to make sure you're doing the new stuff, Tim.’ ”
In 2007, Tuttle's production crews chopped 33,000 wet tons of alfalfa, 24,000 tons of small grains and 84,000 tons of corn at about 130 farms spread over a 200-mile radius. Most feed is bagged on or near the fields where it's grown and is delivered to dairies as needed. The Tuttle crew keeps track of how much and where the feed is stored and checks and maintains bags once a month.
“We have an estimated amount in our bags, so our dairymen pay us for that so we can get our farmers paid. But we reconcile at the end of the bag or job,” Tuttle says.
“The dairyman doesn't need to worry about the silage. We're the silage people. We're responsible. At any point in time, if the dairy gets a bad load of feed, he makes a phone call and says, ‘Tim, I got a load that doesn't work for me. Get it out of here and get something that works.’ ”
Tuttle encourages dairymen and farmers to use silage-specific hybrids, which he says produce high-quality feed.
“You look at what the silage-specific breeders are trying to do vs. the grain corn guys, and they're at opposite ends of the spectrum,” he says. “With silage-specific they're trying to develop a soft endosperm in the grain, and trying to get rid of the lignin and cellulose in the plant. It helps us do a better job and we're not the guy the nutritionist is blaming because we didn't get the kernels processed.”
Silage hybrids take less horsepower and fuel to harvest, he adds.
When all the feed is harvested, Tuttle has volatile fatty acids (VFA) profiles taken to show what kind of fermentation was achieved.
“This is a great tool. When a dairyman loses production, who's the first guy he calls? His nutritionist. The nutritionist has a great alibi; it's always the silage guy. If you have a VFA profile, you take it to your dairyman and say, ‘I did my job.’”
Managing Vs. Being Managed
Harvester builds his own business system
The best thing about custom harvesting is working with growers and dairymen, says Tim Tuttle. But as his operation grew, he spent more time in the office than in the field.
So he built himself a business infrastructure.
“I found an accountant to take care of the financial side,” he reports. “I have a controller. I found me a general manager. One of my operations managers has been with me since high school, so he's grown up in the business. I found another, a retired Air Force colonel, who understands policies, procedures, protocol and making schedules.
“So I'm able to be involved with my dairymen and farmers. I'm able to do the things I enjoy,” Tuttle adds.
Last year, he and his managers oversaw the harvesting of alfalfa haylage, small-grain silage and corn silage from about 130 farms to feed at least seven large dairy herds. The business includes custom harvesting and contracting with growers for feed, plus it composts dairy manure and sells it as fertilizer.
“We handle the same product five times,” says Tuttle. It's chopped, put in bags and hauled to dairies. Then it's picked up as manure to compost and later spread on fields to fertilize crops, many of which are grown for the dairies the manure comes from.
That means coordination, but Tuttle has the staff to do it. He's the president and sales and marketing head of Double T Feed. His controller supervises three accounting/payroll people. Loyd Johnston is Double T's general manager, overseeing two operations managers — one in charge of production and delivery, the other in charge of service and maintenance.
“It picks up during harvest season, but we have a base of 20-23 employees,” says Johnston. “We handle a lot, but we try to handle it as efficiently as we can. The only money you make in agriculture is a direct function of how efficient you are.”
To keep custom work on schedule, rigid practices are followed. After a contract is agreed upon, specifying what's expected of the dairy, grower and harvester, a production order is made. It identifies job details, provides scheduling information and allows for feedback.
“We visit the fields long before we chop them, and then again the day before to make sure we won't have problems,” says Johnston. “We built the infrastructure with trucks and equipment to where, if a piece of equipment has a problem, that's not a showstopper. It hurts our efficiency, but we're still able to get the work done.”
Several scheduling boards are used to keep track of the various jobs, allowing managers to plan their resources and let employees know what they'll do each week. The mapping capabilities of www.Google.com provide operators and drivers with detailed maps of each farm.
During harvest, a job report identifies where the crop will be stored and its weight.
“We put a process in place where we can manage the business — not have the business manage us,” Tuttle says.
— Fae Holin