Kathy Vander Kinter

There is a fair amount of interest in owning a custom harvesting business, but do you have what it takes to sell yourself to potential clients? Running a custom operator business involves a lot more than just driving big machines.

If you are on the client end of the relationship . . . how do you know that you’ve hired the best possible operator for the job? Some of the smaller, less evident services provided and tasks accomplished may be a good indication.

A lot of the maintenance and harvester adjustments that are made to the operator’s machine are done over the winter months — before the big spring push. Without the shiny hoods and shields opened or removed, most maintenance and adjustments that take place during winter are not visible to the typical onlooker when the machine rolls into the field.

Use quality parts

There are a number of questions and issues that need addressing between the custom harvester and the farmer-client. One that may not immediately come to mind includes the quality of the parts going into the machines. High-quality parts improve durability and longevity, reducing possible harvest downtime.

Most custom operators are going to spend a little extra money and go with higher quality parts that extend wear life, especially on things like cutting components. Overall, the use of high-quality parts reduces the cost of labor and maintenance spent on each machine. This is a win-win scenario for both parties when you can lengthen operating time and reduce the cost of downtime in the comfort of one’s own shop!

When a custom operator shows up in the field, it usually gives the farmer some sense of pride when a shiny, smooth-running machine and a couple of nice, newer model trucks show up to harvest. It also portrays a sense of confidence that the custom harvester performed the necessary maintenance over the winter and is profitable enough to upgrade to some newer and more efficient equipment. I’m not saying that a little rust or faded paint on a machine won’t work or do just as good of a job, only that newer, well-maintained equipment goes a long way in generating a positive first impression.

Once the fully tuned-up forage harvester is in the field and ready to begin the first pass of the season, about 70 percent of the forage harvester’s total power usage is going to be directly related to chopping, processing, and discharging of the crop. A good indicator that the operator has experience and knowledge of the machine is that they start out slow, watching the monitors in the machine, listening closely to the sounds of the machine, and making any necessary computer adjustments.

In the field, minor adjustments are usually required and can be done by an experienced operator using the onboard computer technology. The operator is routinely adjusting the header height to ensure that there is limited crop loss and ash content in the final product. Knives are sharpened regularly, and the shear bar is set at the proper gap to ensure the best fuel economy from the chopper as well as uniform crop length and flow through the machine. That minor tweaking taking place can have somewhat of a major impact on the fuel consumption of the machine and overall crop quality at the feed pad.

More to do

After the crop is trucked to the bunker, packed, and covered, the job of a top-notch custom operator does not end. It then becomes time to remove machine components and diagnose the wear patterns to moving parts, including knives and the shear bar. Proper maintenance between forage cuttings is essential to running that machine at 100 percent capacity. It may not be something that most people see, but the maintenance and replacement schedule is perhaps something to ask about when hiring a custom operator.

A business-oriented operator will also check with their clients between crops to ensure they’re satisfied with the job done on the previous crop, discuss expectations for the upcoming crop, and view forage lab results to grade themselves.

This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 24.

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