As he surveyed the ag industry around him last year, Brit Rageth knew he’d need to custom harvest to supplement the income from his Nebraska farm.
Rageth, then 19, couldn’t afford a combine to harvest wheat, and farmers in the area baled their own hay. But, as he noticed those bales sprawled across his corner of the Nebraska panhandle, he realized how he could squeeze into the industry: as a hay stacker.
He’d first used a stacker as an eighth-grader on his family farm, and knew he could work alone and still cover enough ground to make money. Rageth figured he’d find a broad customer base of farmers who didn’t want to spend the time – or money – stacking their own bales.
So he bought a used Stinger 6500 hay stacker, rounded up clients, and, in his first year, stacked about 40,000 bales of various sizes. So much hay is produced around him, finding custom work was relatively easy, he says.
“If you run it hard, you can move a lot of hay quickly,” says Rageth, who farms about 1,500 acres of corn, wheat and milo outside of Big Springs. “(Farmers) think it’s a lot more convenient to have someone come in and knock the deal out in three hours.”
Thus is the life of a custom harvester, but it is not always a story of easy success.
For John Martin, who cuts, rakes and bales hay near Strathmore in California’s Central Valley, it’s getting harder to find custom harvesting work. Martin has watched producers around him replace hayfields with more profitable nut trees. He has lost a few custom-harvesting customers, and is harvesting about 200 acres fewer this year compared with his usual 900.
Martin is not in dire straights; he also manages a dairy and has a few other custom harvesting leads to pursue. But he cautions those who are considering custom harvest work to proceed with care. Make sure there are enough acres to be profitable, he says, and that producers can pay their bills.
“Some dairymen are in financial crisis, and you’re out there doing the hay, and you’re not getting paid,” Martin says. “It’s scary. I would take it very cautiously.”
Custom harvesters, however, still make up a good share of equipment manufacturers’ clientele. At Sunny “D” Manufacturing in Klamath Falls, OR, the biggest percentage of orders for bale squeezes comes from custom loaders, says general manager Bill Hewes.
The company builds about 18 units a year, with most going to loaders in Western states.
The typical loader owns a truck and a hay squeeze, Hewes says. “All he does is load and unload (the hay). He can do a fair amount of hay.”
That would be a fair description of what Rageth does with his stacker. He works about a 150-mile radius from his farm and hasn’t had problems finding jobs.
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Rageth can stack up to 70 round bales or about 110 3 x 4’ square bales an hour. Jobs range from 300 bales to 27,000 bales, so they may take him a few hours or a few weeks to complete.
Although he works his own farm, he has the flexibility to schedule custom jobs whenever producers need him. Being new to the business, Rageth doesn’t turn down any jobs and works as hard as he can to fit them all in.
“In the summer and fall, when I’m not harvesting my own fields, that hay stacker is running every day,” he says. “There are times when I’m swarmed with stacking. Basically, what I’ve done is run as hard as I can run; some times I’ve had to go and go and just take a little nap in the hay stacker and keep going.”
Even with a packed plate, Rageth sees room for expansion. More investors are buying farms in his region, a development that should be a boon for him, he notes.
“They don’t have the time or resources to send someone in. It’s easier to have a custom stacker.”
Rageth hopes to expand to 50,000-60,000 bales this year, still working alone. He plans to increase advertising, adding radio spots to the word-of-mouth and Facebook approaches he has been using, and possibly expand his boundaries to find potential clients. He has thought about hiring help to scour his work radius for hayfields that could mean clients.
And, if needed, he wouldn’t rule out buying another machine, although he’d like to get along without if he can.
“If we ever have to cross that bridge, it will be good,” Rageth says. “Because I’ll know business is booming.”
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