Managing, maneuvering and maintaining up to 24 pieces of forage harvesting equipment and as many employees throughout a thousand-mile trek seems a daunting task.
For Troy Burnside, it's all in a season's work. Last year, this travelin' man and his crew chopped, hauled and packed mostly corn silage in bunker silos for customers from north-central Florida to northern parts of Indiana and Ohio from July to October.
In all, they harvested about 20,000 acres of forage, a vast expansion from when Burnside started 10 years ago as a 24-year-old chopping 2,400 acres on his own.
“We've made some fantastic leaps and bounds the last few years,” says Burnside, Vallonia, IN. “We'll still expand in the future; I just don't know if it's going to be at the same rate.”
One of his biggest challenges is one most custom guys face: finding good labor willing to work long hours. But his employees also have to be willing to live out of suitcases a fourth of the year.
Fortunately, his wife, Shelly, a media specialist at the local high school, refers students to him, as does his former high school ag instructor. Burnside also recruits young workers from other ag teachers in his and surrounding counties.
“I have four guys who have been with me four or five years,” he says, “and they're all in the 24- to 25-year-old range.” Two run their own businesses that are slow during harvest season. “One has a tiling business. Another hauls manure for a lot of the large dairy farms.
“Working with other people who are in similar businesses but in their slow times when I have my peak time allows us to cross-coordinate equipment” and people, he says. “In my slow time I take tractors and pull manure spreaders, too.”
He also hires package deals when he can. One of his chopper operators owns some semis. “So I lease his semis and the harder he works my chopper, the more money his trucks can make.”
Burnside owns three high-horsepower choppers. One stays behind in Indiana, along with the operator who tiles in the off-season and has a young family. He chops 600 acres of haylage for an Indiana grower five times a year. The other two choppers go on the road.
Originally, Burnside thought a second traveling chopper would allow him more cushion in scheduling. “Then a guy called, and then another guy. Before long, we had two machines that had full schedules. It snowballed for me in a good way.”
Scheduling is another of the tough jobs Burnside juggles. He starts in Florida, where corn is planted the earliest, and heads north as the crop matures.
This allows him to gain more business without spending more money. “To get more out of the investment we already have, we just have to travel geographically.”
Once in a while, however, he has more customers than he has choppers and time.
When several clients have corn ready at the same time, “sometimes you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. What has helped me is to not be afraid to call another custom harvester to help if I'm behind,” he says.
“And if another custom harvester calls you to come help him — even if you really don't want to but can make it work — you need to go. Because you may need him the next week.”
It's important for both harvesters to acknowledge, however, that they're there to help each other — not to fight over each other's customers, he adds.
At times Burnside has had to turn away potential customers. “That's the best way to get yourself in trouble and get a bad reputation — tell them that you can do it” when you know you can't.
Six months before a new season, Burnside arranges hotel stays along his harvest route.
“We're almost always at the same place the same week of the year. At one hotel a few years ago, the guy told me I had rented 80 rooms from him over the past five or six years. So he said I'm on a $35/room rate.”
The days start and end pretty much the same for the traveling crew.
“We leave the hotel at 5 in the morning and get back at 10 at night. We get our breakfast on the way and I push to be chopping by 6. We shut off the machinery about an hour before dark and do all of our servicing on every piece of equipment. Then, in the morning, all we have to do is get in and turn the keys.”
Chopper breakdowns are a concern, especially being so far from home. But Burnside decided to buy Claas choppers because of the company's parts inventory plan and a knowledgeable dealer with good mechanics.
“Claas knows which parts will usually break on its machines,” he says, and will provide him with an inventory that it replenishes every spring.
If a chopper needs a part from the warehouse, that warehouse is in Columbus, IN, just 25 miles from Burnside's home. At times a relative will pick up the part and start driving south to meet a crew member heading north.
“So if I'm 10 hours away I can have a part in 10 hours,” he says.
With traveling crews, customers usually supply lunch. “That could be a baloney sandwich, McDonald's or a home-cooked meal. You just never know.” Evening meals are a little more substantial, but “fast food gets old,” he admits.
Being separated from Shelly and their children, Cassidy, 5, and Cody, 2, gets old, as well, Burnside says. “It's tough to be away from them. But, on the same hand, I know I'm building something to give them some day.”
When the harvesters are closer to home, maybe 300-400 miles away, Shelly and the kids meet up with them. Not only does it give the family time to reconnect, but Shelly also brings parts, supplies and food.
“I tell everyone she comes to get the checks,” Burnside laughs.