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Managing the harvest with a custom operator

Progressive Dairyman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 30 June 2015
cutting corn

When should you use a custom operator?

There are several economic and personal reasons to consider when determining if custom operators make sense for your operation – when milk production (dairy) suffers, when the labour force is engaged in fieldwork, when crops are planted late or harvested late due to labour demands elsewhere, when your machinery line isn’t large enough to get the crop harvested in a timely fashion, when you have aging machinery and can’t justify the cost of replacement, when you’d rather work with the livestock or have an off-farm job, or when you want more family time.



But there are downsides, as well. Timeliness may be an issue; your custom harvester will likely have other clients that are in just as big a hurry as you are. Hiring custom operators also involves a higher cash outlay.

To help you calculate the costs of your decision, Iowa State University has an Excel sheet set up to help you analyze ownership of a combine compared to custom harvesting.

Selecting a custom operator

Good news travels fast, and so does the reputation of a custom harvester. Talking to other producers in your area will steer you toward quality custom operators, and a reputable operator should be willing to provide a list of references. Call the references. Questions to ask the provided references might include:

  • How many seasons have you used the custom operator and were you generally satisfied with the service?
  • Did they have a printed price sheet and contract ready to use?
  • Were they able to provide copies of insurance coverage?
  • Were their services delivered timely (barring adverse weather)?
  • How did they deal with breakdowns, absent crew members, weather delays?
  • Was the equipment capacity and was it in good working condition?
  • Were different payment plans offered?
  • Did the operator listen to any concerns you brought to his/her attention? Were problems addressed to your satisfaction?
  • Can the operator provide crop yields per acre? Load counts from each field?

What the custom operator needs from you


In a word: communication. Provide accurate information on field conditions, weather forecasts, crop maturity and moisture reports. And if conditions change, be sure and let them know.

Richie Rainville, a custom harvester from Vermont, says, “It’s very important to call a week or so before your feed is ready to let your harvester know you’re ready and schedule a date. After scheduling, remember things happen that can slow down or speed up a harvest, so it helps if everyone is flexible.”

Before the job begins, make sure the custom operator has an understanding of your expectations on length of chop, driving excessively on wet fields, kernel processor settings and bunker packing. When the day of operation begins, there shouldn’t be any surprises for either the producer or the custom operator.

In addition, you’ll need to provide field maps with acreages listed, forms to track yield, loads or any other data you require and credit and personal references (don’t be offended; it’s a two-way street, and he has a right to know whether he can expect prompt payment).

There are other things you can do to facilitate the arrangement. Don’t tack on extra acres at the last minute. If you add acres to your operation after your initial meeting, don’t assume a custom operator can automatically handle the extra acreage “while he’s there.”

Keep your fields free of debris – barbed wire, small rock piles, old machinery, fence posts and tires. You may know where these hazards lay, but your custom operator doesn’t.


Use a contract

Many custom operators will ask you to sign a contract. In all cases, it is advisable to prepare a written contract. It’s important to realize this is their business. With a contract, they can schedule operations, make sure they have enough labour force, plan equipment needs and arrange financing.

A contract will protect both your interests. If you have questions about a contract, have an attorney review it before signing. It doesn’t need to be elaborate but should clarify that the operator is an independent contractor and not an employee or partner, set the payment rate and timing, and acres.

Setting the rate

Should you use the custom operator with the cheapest rates? Rates are loosely based on an area average. Several universities compile custom rates data (visit the Kansas State University website for one example) and a quick Internet search should bring up similar data for your area.

Darrick Plummer, a custom harvester in Indiana, says, “At first, we priced according to where we needed to be to obtain a job. We’ve been able to raise our prices in the last few years because of our reputation with quality of work and because of increased operating costs.”

Harry Wallace of Byers Custom Harvesting in Illinois says, “When a custom harvester comes in and offers to cut your silage for half, you need to think about where he’s cutting those costs. Is it in insurance fees?

Custom harvesters all buy the same diesel fuel, the same knives, so if somebody comes in to do it at half-price, you need to know where they’re cutting their expenses.”


You work with several professionals on your operation – agronomists, lab technicians, extension staff, seed and fertilizer reps, and a host of others. While you reserve the right to make final decisions, you still rely on the highly developed skills of these professionals.

One of those professionals you should be able to rely on is your custom harvester, who has a finely tuned skill within a very specific area of expertise. At the end of the day, you’re on the same team.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTO: Before the job begins, make sure the custom operator has an understanding of your expectations on length of chop, driving excessively on wet fields, kernel processor settings and bunker packing. Photo by PD staff.

Lynn Jaynes
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