Dick Buchy steers his pickup through the woods, fords a creek and pulls into a meadow of hybrid bermudagrass.

Stepping to the ground, he sweeps up a handful of the hay he cut two days earlier, and nods. “I'll be here first thing tomorrow and we'll bale it,” he promises client Dudley Taylor.

Buchy (pronounced “Beeky”), of Atkins, AR, has brought some unusual twists to the custom haying business. His menu of services ranges from seeding and fertilizing to mowing, raking, baling and putting the product in storage. He can even help customers decide what forages and varieties to plant.

Customers also rely on him to decide when a crop should be harvested for optimum balance between yield and quality. He pulls samples from about 10% of the bales on every job and sends them off for forage analysis.

Buchy's basis of compensation is another break from the norm in his area. His charges consist of a fee for his time plus the cost of materials and equipment used.

“Most custom harvesters charge on a per-bale or per-ton basis,” he explains. “That's fine and dandy, but if the customer doesn't have a high yield, you end up with a higher cost per bale or ton than what you're charging. So I got away from that rat race.”

Now he charges a flat hourly fee based on his labor and other costs.

“I'm charging for performance in the field, and my customers have readily accepted it,” he says.

He also reduced his customer base, now serving only about a half-dozen farms.

“In addition to being top-level producers, the owners are good businessmen who understand the value of time and materials,” he says. “They're willing to pay for a service that ensures them high-quality forage at a reasonable cost.”

Buchy recognized the opportunity for such an enterprise during the 1980s when traveling abroad for a pet-food manufacturer.

His work took him to New Zealand and the Netherlands, where he noted the popularity and success of custom hay services. He felt that the same model would be applicable at home.

He puts up rye, ryegrass, wheat and fescue baleage in spring, later making hay from fescue, bermuda-grass, alfalfa, johnsongrass and sorghum-sudan. For baleage, he cuts the crop well before it reaches boot stage.

“We put it up in 4 × 4 round bales weighing about 1,400 lbs,” he says. “We package these bales in a two-layer plastic wrap to preserve quality. This forage often runs 61-64% TDN, dry matter basis.”

Buchy maintains his emphasis on quality when making hay. “We cut johnsongrass and sorghum-sudan hybrids when the stalks are the size of your little finger or smaller, and there's still lots of leaf,” he explains. “This is before any shoots or heads have appeared.” At this stage, these hays generally run 60-61% TDN.

“Using a time and materials structure enables me to own and replace equipment without worrying about it,” Buchy says. The “material” aspect of his pricing includes a charge that covers replacement cost.

“With tractors at $72,000 or more, balers around $28,000 and rakes like I use at $15,000, you'd better plan how you're going to replace them out of what they earn,” says Buchy. “To me, that makes more sense than borrowing money every time you replace something.”

He makes 4,000-5,000 bales of hay and baleage annually, working primarily as a one-man operation. He hires temporary help, when necessary, mostly to operate tractors. But any customer who wants to pitch in and drive one of Buchy's tractors is welcome to do so as a way of reducing expenses. Buchy credits them for hours worked.

The time and materials formula works best for good forage producers. “The cost per bale is completely out of my hands,” Buchy says. “People who do a good job of fertilization, weed control and other aspects of production have higher yields. That's where we get the least cost per bale for a customer.

“Running over a field to get one bale per acre costs nearly as much as getting five bales per acre. If a person doesn't have good-yielding forage, I can't give him the service he needs at an affordable price.”

Buchy keeps a daily log of hours on the job, materials used, equipment hours, fuel consumed and other details. He also makes a daily record of work done, such as acres mowed or raked, or bales produced.

“I know my day-to-day costs on every job,” he says. “If a customer asks how the expense is running on his job, I can show him down to the dollar.

“If I were hiring somebody on a time and materials basis, that's how I would want it,” Buchy concludes. “I would want some assurance they were delivering the hours of work they reported. It's all a matter of trust, documentation and open communication. It has proved to be a very workable system for us.”