A choice at harvest

Custom work discussed during tour at Steinhagens’ dairy

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BELLE PLAINE, Minn. − The decision to have his fields custom harvested was an easy one for Gary Steinhagen.
“We have one part-time employee who milks in the mornings and on the weekends, and my dad and brother come help; but some days, it’s two hours of hard labor and me, so that’s why we do custom harvesting,” Gary Steinhagen said. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
Steinhagen grew up in town and rented a number of farms before he purchased the farm near Belle Plaine in Scott County in 1997. He and his wife, Lori, and children – David, Greta and Martha – milk 90 cows. They also farm 305 acres of corn for silage and shelled corn, hay, soybean and winter rye.
“I used to milk more, but I also used to be a lot younger,” Steinhagen said.
The Steinhagens implemented custom harvesting into their dairy and said it has aided in helping them run their farm at full force.
Steinhagen shared his experience of custom harvesting during a farmer-to-farmer tour hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension July 5 at the Steinhagens’ farm.
Among the speakers at the event were Steinhagen’s custom harvesters, Greg and Jeremy Otto of Lester Prairie who own Otto’s Custom Chopping and Pumping, and David Bau, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota specializing in agricultural business management.
For five years, Steinhagen has worked with Greg Otto and his family to manage the dairy’s harvest work.
“Before that, I worked with someone else for 15 years, so I have been having my silage custom chopped for 20 years,” Steinhagen said.
The Otto family got into custom harvesting as a way to fulfill the needs of farmers.
“We do basically anything custom that there is a need for,” Greg said. “It was also a way that my wife, Heidi, could stay home full time, watch the kids and still be a part of the operation.”
The Ottos serve dairy farmers of all sizes, from 10 cows to 3,000 cows.
Larry Dreier, who farms with his family near Norwood Young America, attended the tour and also has his fields custom harvested.
“It used to take us a week to 10 days for harvesting, and we have more cows and more acres than we used to,” Dreier said. “Now, we’re usually out of there in 24 to 30 hours and that means that the bunker doesn’t sit open for rain to get in.”
Some benefits of custom harvesting for Steinhagen is that the job works around his schedule, and his family can help with harvest.
“I have to rely on my son to help cut so it helps for us to cut on the weekends because then my son doesn’t have to take a day off work,” Steinhagen said. “So, then we chop on Monday, but other people don’t like chopping then.”
Greg agreed.
“You get to know your customer and know the guys who want to be early,” he said.
Depending on the farm, each job may look different.
“We run trucks at certain farms, and choppers, trucks and push tractors at other farms,” Greg said. “We don’t necessarily do everything on the farm; we just do parts of it. It depends on what the need is.”
All of their trucks have scales, and some of the farmers even run equipment alongside them.
“We work with whatever the farmer wants,” Greg said. “We have some guys where we are doing everything from start to finish, and we don’t see them. And, then we have other guys who are running a push tractor alongside ours.”
With new customers, the Ottos said they fall right into place with their busy schedule.
“Everybody plants different varieties at different times and harvests in different ways,” Heidi said. “Usually, we can fit a customer in and never skip a beat.”
To watch the weather, the Ottos maintain communication with their customers, monitor the sky and flip through a wide assortment of television and radio channels.
“We never plan like it’s going to rain; we always plan to keep on going,” Heidi said.
Greg agreed.
“I always have a saying that if you don’t cut hay, it won’t get dry,” he said.
Bau compared the options of owning, leasing or sharing machinery to custom hiring at the event.
“With owning equipment, you can do what you want when you want,” Bau said. “But, do dairy farmers have a lot of free time when fieldwork gets involved in the dairy routine? It’s kind of a hassle, isn’t it? So, you can do it when you want, but can you do it when it should be done?”
With leasing, Bau said there will be lower payments compared to most conventional loans but the price is similar to ownership.
“Lease companies are in business to earn a return on their capital,” Bau said. “If you have enough money to purchase machinery outright, you will spend less in the long run by owning it.”
With sharing of equipment, Bau said to make written agreements on who uses the equipment when.
“Make sure you know who is going to use it first and last,” he said. “And, calculate your investment. Most farmers can combine their corn one week and soybeans one week. Is it really worth it to have that investment if you only use it 10 days out of the year?”
Lastly, Bau said custom hiring allows the farmer to gain a short-term control over harvesting without investing a large amount of capital.
“Custom work takes the burden off dairy farmers, but calculate out what works for your farm and situations,” Bau said. 

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