Custom silage bagger Kevin James runs one of his three baggers himself. The other two are operated by permanent employees.

“We employ the guys who run our baggers all year round so we don't lose them,” says James, of Greenleaf Bagging, Garden City, KS. “Once our season hits, we're so busy that we don't want to be training anybody.”

James expects to bag more than 200,000 tons of silage in 2004, just his fourth year in business. He has learned that skilled operators are key components in a successful custom bagging business.

The person on the bagger is more important than the one in the chopper, agrees Ed Karl, field service representative for Ag-Bag.

“The feed is pretty much in his hands when it starts going into the bagger,” Karl points out. “And if he overpacks a bag, or it's not packed tight enough, you can lose thousands of dollars worth of crop and get an unhappy client.”

A skilled operator can cut maintenance costs and downtime, too, says Karl.

“An experienced person will know what to look for if there's a problem with the machine,” he says. “Being able to check things over between truckloads, performing maintenance and making sure everything's greased properly makes a wonderful difference.”

Karl says he can train a conscientious employee to do a credible bagging job in a few days. But it takes much longer for the worker to gain experience in a wide variety of crops and conditions.

An experienced operator has a “feel for the machine,” he says. The worker knows when to adjust the pressure so the forage flows smoothly into the bag, filling it to capacity without overfilling.

That means adjusting the pressure as needed, and with hay-crop silage, speeding up or slowing down the filling rate for optimal efficiency.

“There's a happy medium where the machine will take it in beautifully,” says Karl.

A bagger operator often needs to slow down when haylage is coarse chopped, especially if it's getting a little dry, James adds. In that situation, fast filling can lead to excessive lumpiness. It doesn't always cause silage quality problems, but clients like smooth bags.

“Sometimes you need to slow down, even though you want to go, go, go because you're in a hurry,” he says. ”But if that feed gets a little long or a little dry, it can lump up.”

Along with his chopper operators, James' baggers are responsible for ensuring that crops are harvested at correct moisture levels. They're expected to let the chopper operator know if moisture is moving out of the desired range.

“We sometimes have a Koster tester nearby for testing the moisture, especially when the client gives us a narrow range of moisture,” he says. “But a good, experienced operator can judge the moisture by how wet the rotor is or how the feed comes in.”

His baggers also are responsible for securing good locations for the bags: flat, hard-pack surfaces away from water. And for training clients to check bags for holes, rodent damage, etc., after they're filled.