If you ask most dairymen what their biggest fear was when they made the switch to a custom harvester, the answer is usually if the cutter will show up on time. After a few years of getting to know the cutter, or maybe switching to a different custom harvester because of a previous late arrival problem, the biggest fear remains, “Will the chopper roll in the drive when I need it here?”

From a cutter’s perspective, there are only a limited amount of days to make a year’s worth of payments. We obviously want to cut silage as many of those days as possible. From the dairyman’s point of view, it would be great if the chopper and trucks were sitting in his driveway a week before the crop was ready. The reality exists someplace in the middle. How can both parties be happy the majority of the time? This is where the six P’s come into play: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

The Prior part begins in the winter when you talk about how the previous season went. If this is a new customer-cutter relationship, make it a couple of hour-long meetings. These Proper Planning meetings involve talking about hybrids, planting dates, field locations, ordinary harvest window weather, field conditions, expectations, goals, and a very long list of details and logistics are what will help Prevent Poor Performance. Visiting field locations, examining road conditions, meeting the growers, talking with the nutritionist, and receiving monthly updates on how the crop is growing are all part of the lead up to harvest.

Not a perfect world
This communication will help make the harvest go smoothly. Now we know that sometimes all the planning in the world will do no good when a rainy spell, early frost, or major accident/setback occurs. Proper planning can help us be prepared for some of these by having extra equipment or employees available, if possible. The cutter, hopefully, has a safety training program in place to help prevent accidents, as well as a maintenance program to lessen the chance of broken or worn-out parts causing downtime.

What about planning for rain days in the schedule? It does not take too long searching the internet to get an average rainfall amount for the location and month you are harvesting. How about only counting on being able to harvest seven out of 10 days? If the harvester’s schedule is to be cutting 100 percent of the time, I can say with absolute certainty they are going to be late to arrive at some of their customers. Is the harvester actively looking for more work in the same harvest window as you, or are they willing to focus on you and their existing customers?

Timing is everything
We all know the “go and blow” cutter. This is the cutter that puts acreage and tonnage ahead of quality or service. You will find this type of cutter is most often driven to be this way because they are hanging on by a financial thread. If, as a dairyman, you are comfortable with the amount of risk associated with not knowing when or who is going to be harvesting your crop, then by all means look for this type of operator; they are also usually one of the cheaper cost alternatives available and these cutters are almost always looking for more work because of lost customers.

When milk prices were high, it might have made sense to offer a bit of a bonus to your cutter to help make sure they were at your farm when needed. With today’s dairy climate, that may not be real practical. But on the flip side, we all know one of the quickest ways to lose money is with poor-quality forage. Cheaper is definitely not always better. A quality-minded cutter will usually know their costs and will set their price so that they can be profitable. A long-term relationship with a cutter allows you to work together through market swings, both down and up.

Lost a great one
As I am writing this, many people are making their way to a suburb of Atlanta to pay tribute to yet another great man who was lost too early in life. I got to know Kevin Bien in 1997 when we first started looking at Fendt tractors. Kevin’s passion for “his” tractor line was something I had not witnessed before. As time went on, he became much more of a friend than a corporate guy for Agco. You could always count on a good story, a pat on the back, a lesson on the important things in life like “faith, family, friends,” and a real good laugh.

I was lucky enough to help induct Kevin into The U.S. Custom Harvesters Hall of Fame this past January. Over the last month and a half, I had been getting updates on his battle with a pretty vicious brain cancer. On June 2, Kevin lost the battle. Rest in peace, my friend.

This article appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 20.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.