Why not custom?

by Tamara Scully
Many farmers take pride in handling every aspect of the farm work themselves. The reality is, however, that there are situations in which hiring someone else to do the work can save time, labor, and stress.
“Each crop has a short window in which it can be planted and harvested. Practices such as fertilization and tillage have to be performed, oftentimes, in the same windows,” Scott Magnan, of Scott Magnan’s Custom Service, in Saint Albans, VT, said. “Without proper personnel and equipment, yields and crop quality can suffer, greatly effecting the farmer’s bottom line.”
When multiple jobs all need to be done within the same time frame, or using specialized equipment could mean getting the job done more efficiently and effectively, hiring a custom farming operation makes sense. Even if you could do it yourself, a custom operator might be able to do the job better, do it more efficiently, or free up your time and skills for other endeavors.
Providing a service
Successful custom operators provide a needed service to the community, Matt Brechwald, agricultural entrepreneurship coach and owner of the Off Farm Income Podcast, said. According to Brechwald, farmers who are good at a certain skill set and already have the equipment can diversify their income stream without any capital expenses through custom farming.
The key is providing a high-quality service that others need and doing so in a professional manner. After that, effectively branding your custom farming operation means telling your story, and connecting with targeted customers. Social media is an essential tool, Brechwald said, and one which works by collecting like-minded people — in this case, area farmers and landowners needing your service — in one easy-to-reach place. By being knowledgeable and approachable, custom operators can develop relationships with likely customers, both online and in-person.
Magnan has been running his custom farming operation for 20 years. He primarily operates within 40 miles of his shop. Any farther distance, and the time and expense of moving the equipment — along with the logistics involved if there were a breakdown — would mean a lot more expense.
Custom farming isn’t only about planting, fertilizing, tilling and harvesting. Some custom operators specialize in mixing livestock feed, testing soil, writing nutrient management plans, pesticide spraying, hauling livestock or clearing land. While fieldwork operations are the most common, other types of custom farm operations can graze livestock or provide housing to animals, such as raising calves or dry cows for a dairy farm.
When hiring a custom operator, a fee for service is agreed upon, preferably via written contract, and the custom operator performs the job to specifications. Pricing for custom work can be by the acreage, the hour, or by the unit.
The hiring farmer retains ownership of the crop or livestock, as well as control over all other aspects of farm management.
One advantage to operating a custom business, or to hiring a custom operator, is the honing of expert skills in a given discipline. An experienced custom operator may be better at his particular skill set than the farmer who doesn’t have the time to learn every last detail about the wide variety of jobs they perform on the farm, or the equipment to perform the job, in an optimal manner.
“This is our livelihood, and we take our jobs seriously,” Magnan said. “We bring expertise to the field, no pun intended!”
Newest technology
Purchasing the latest in equipment and technology can be expensive. And, there’s often a learning curve. Magnan’s operation is striving to be a leader in the use of GPS technology. He has branched out into precision agriculture, adding some of the newest technology to his equipment, from manure applications to seed planting, thus allowing more control, impacting success rates and yields, minimizing nutrient losses, and maximizing economic gain.
“We have added seed tube monitoring to three area planters and added hydraulic down-force to one of them,” Magnan explained. “Seed tube monitoring gives us a very clear picture of how the planter is operating, so you can make adjustments while planting. We tested hydraulic down-force as part of a project with the University of Vermont, and found it helpful in managing gauge wheel pressure in variable soils.”
Other equipment enhancements include flow meters, which help to apply liquid manure at targeted rates, eliminating concerns about equipment calibration and making nutrient management plans more meaningful. Steering systems can keep from planting overlap or underlap, and can also be used for fertilizer spreading and other growing season passes through the field.
“Economy of scale plays a factor in how cost-effective custom hiring can be to a farm,” Magnan said. “Even if they are operating on a large scale, they need to consider the additional management responsibility that comes with the equipment and labor needed to get the job done.”
The cost of hiring a custom operator goes beyond the fee for service. Farmers should know the cost of doing the job themselves, assess whether the custom operator can perform the tasks more skillfully or has more efficient equipment available, and determine whether the time saved by hiring a custom operator can be better spend elsewhere on the farm.
Custom concerns
“The farmer who hires a custom applicator with this technology, one who is willing to hold themselves accountable through quality record keeping of applied rates and equipment performance,” is probably in good hands, Magnan said. But even so, forming “a quality relationship” with a custom operator is always the best way to get the most for your money, and communication is key to getting what you need from your custom operator.
Custom farming operations require a baseline number of customers in order to meet expenses, Magnan explained. They often have numerous clients who need to have the same jobs completed in a short time frame. Having an ongoing relationship, where farmer and custom operator communicate well and coordinate timing, helps to keep everything on target. Having roads cleared and tree lines cut back can make the custom operator’s job more efficient.
Little things such as these “provide the custom operator the opportunity to better your crops and your forage making, for a winning business relationship,” Magnan said. “If the farmer chooses his custom operator carefully, he should receive a service that will better his crop and field quality. There can be both savings and production increases, leading to what should be more profit. I believe we are a viable resource in keeping agriculture viable.”

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