Seven years ago, dairy cows were a rarity in Indiana's Newton and Jasper counties. Today, dairies run by producers from California, Texas and the Netherlands dot northwestern Indiana's countryside. So do choppers, windrowers and trucks, busy harvesting feed for those cows.

For Gibson Family Farms, Morocco, the dairy invasion was a golden opportunity to build a custom forage harvesting business that prides itself in giving great service.

Larry, Matt, Vergie and Amy Gibson started with two windrowers in 2000. Today their machinery inventory includes eight choppers, three large square balers, seven windrowers and 25 semis. The family, with 50 employees, harvests 35,000 acres of hay and haylage and 16,000 acres of corn silage for 12 dairies, plus another 6,000 acres of straw.

“We started this business to maximize our equipment and justify more labor. And it was a chance for my wife and me to come back to what was, at the time, a small grain operation,” says Matt.

But for his dad, Larry, the expansion looked more like a way to accumulate debt.

“Matt's had to fight me all the way,” Larry admits. “We virtually started this business not knowing a whole lot. Once we got it up and got rolling, the expansion has been rapid.”

Larry and Vergie raised Matt and his sister, Natalie, now retail manager of a cheese plant at one of the dairies, on a corn and soybean farm that also produced dry hay. The elder Gibsons had done some custom combining, baling and windrowing, and Matt had custom mowed while working through college. After he married Amy and four large dairies moved nearby, the two couples worked to develop business relationships with them.

Located 40-plus miles north of Lafayette, this area has become attractive to dairies for a number of reasons.

“You know how they talk in real estate about location, location, location? That's what they found here,” says Larry. The dairies are now within 20 hours of several major populations, so, transportation wise, the moves were profitable. It helped that a life insurance company had 10,000 acres in that area for sale.

Indiana's climate was another factor. “The average wind and temperature make it more comfortable for a cow to live here than in the heat of Texas or the variability of California,” Matt says.

“The third reason is, we've got the most abundant and cheapest feed in the country. Our corn prices are historically some of the cheapest,” says Matt, also president of the Indiana Corn Growers Association.

The Gibsons cut and merge hay, and chop silage, for four of Fair Oaks Dairy's sites, located just a few miles from their own farm. They estimate that they harvest about 25% of that dairy's crops. For Bos Family Farms' five dairies, they figure they do 65% of the wheat and rye chopping. Bos buys all of its hay from out West. Fair Oaks also buys some Western hay, Larry says.

The custom operators also harvest for smaller dairies in Jasper County.

Besides devoting entire crews to the dairies, the Gibsons also pick up the odd baling or silage chopping job. “Those are the kinds of things we have to be careful of. We have to make sure we don't jeopardize our big contracts. At the same time, we don't want to tell our neighbors we can't help,” Matt says.

“It takes a lot of worrying, planning and studying,” adds Vergie. “Larry and Matt write out charts with who's driving what machine and for which dairy. And they work at it really hard.”

They also work to keep these mega-dairies happy.

“We have to do a lot of PR work and find out what these guys want and try to meet their needs,” Larry says.

Sometimes, though, that's not possible.

“We work all winter probing these guys,” Matt says. “But they're dairy farmers; they're focused on getting frozen manure out of the barn. Then around April 20, they'll give us a call and want different equipment. So you'll be two weeks away from harvest and have to spend $100,000-200,000 on something that you haven't thought about.”

A new kernel processor the Gibsons tested last year was such a success with one dairy's nutritionist that he wanted the same thing in all their choppers — that season. Although they couldn't accommodate him then, this year the Gibsons outfitted each of their choppers with that $12,000-plus piece of equipment, Matt says.

Do they get frustrated by unexpected demands? “We're just happy that they asked us first,” he answers. “The alternative is that you say ‘No’ and they go somewhere else. Maybe next time you won't get asked.

“What scares us more than anything is not being able to supply them. We're in the business of servicing their needs. And it's for that that we get paid.”

Communication helps maintain good working relationships with clients, they say. “Each dairy has its own management philosophy,” Matt explains. “Some dairies we strictly work with the farm manager; some we work just with the owner. With other dairies, it's a combination of owner, farm manager and nutritionist.” Yet with all dairies, the Gibsons strive to make sure all tiers of management are informed.

Vergie and Amy operate equipment when needed. They also handle the mountain of paperwork coming from and going to each dairy. The type of paperwork, and the amount of work involved, varies, says Vergie.

“One dairy does all the tickets and you get a printed report and check to see if there were omissions. From other dairies, we just get a weight. They'll fax us sheets and we'll figure out all the loads and moisture.” Billing during silage harvest is weekly. “It gets to be too much to let it go,” she adds.

One advantage to harvesting for these dairies is not having to worry about getting paid, Matt adds.

To help clients and diversify their own value, the Gibsons sell bunker and pit covers, bale wrapping plastic, silage bags and twine. Their online store can be visited at www.gibsonfamilyfarmstore.com.

They also bale wheat straw to sell to the dairies — and provide other services.

“We do a number of miscellaneous jobs for Fair Oaks, such as trucking different commodities,” says Matt. “If they have something break down, or if guys call in sick, we supply them with everything from manpower to equipment on a 10-minute notice.”

Their 12 full-time employees do more than maintain equipment off-season. “We have our own excavator and clear brush and fencerows,” says Vergie. They also grow 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and haul compost for the dairies. Employees and some seasonal help attend educational seminars and tech-school classes in winter, too.

“I think it helps in two ways,” Larry says. “It shows them that we have an interest in keeping them around and educating them. And they do learn a lot.”

Some seasonal employees are neighboring farmers who, once they get their crops in the field, work for the Gibsons.

“These are the topnotch operators because they're full-time farmers,” Matt says. “They know how to handle equipment. We enjoy being able to spread some of this work around the community.”

Women Work Well For Custom Cutters

Nearly four years ago, Shelley Miller was fresh out of trucking school with little experience. Yet Larry and Matt Gibson, who have built a small custom harvesting empire in the midst of northwestern Indiana's mega-dairies, hired her.

They knew from past experience that women were dependable and careful with machinery.

“We gladly employ women,” says Vergie Gibson, who, besides being Larry's wife and Matt's mom, runs equipment when not doing the business's bookwork. Matt's wife, Amy, is in the field even more often, she adds.

Rachel Schoon, a local college student, has also run a windrower for the Gibsons for several years.

“I think women are more careful, more meticulous,” Vergie says. “They're kinder to the equipment. Sometimes guys will be fearless while girls will be more cautious and not rambunctious.”

Some custom operators have even said that women are better than men at noticing when a machine sounds like it needs repair — because they don't want to be blamed for damaging equipment.

Another benefit to hiring someone like Miller, who's a single mom, is dependability. “Single moms have to work. I'm here very day,” Miller says.

Long days during harvest can be wearing on the family, she admits. But her teenagers are self-sufficient and busy with summer jobs themselves.

Today, Miller is head truck driver of the Gibsons' 25-semi crew.

“I like working with the guys. I can't lift as much as they do, but I can pretty much do everything else they can do,” she says.

“She's just great,” Vergie adds. “She keeps the guys in line, but they all like her.”