For some producers, custom harvesting is in their blood. Rick Farris has been in the custom business all his life. “There’s not a summer I remember that I’ve been at home,” Ferris says of the business that his father operated before him. He took over the family business in 1965, and has been at the helm ever since.
A good year for Farris and his team is to put 7,500 acres of crop through each of his four Class 7 combines. From south to north, he’ll travel 1,600 miles as his crew follows ripening crops from spring to fall. It’s a daunting task, balancing various crops with unique demands, all the while at the mercy of mother nature.
Custom harvesting can take many forms. It can be as basic as the farmer who’s finished up his own harvest and supplements the rest of the fall by working the fields nearby. These producers may do the work as a “neighborly” favor, or allowing more hours to be logged on a piece of machinery that may otherwise be sitting idle.
For some, however, custom harvesting takes on an entirely different meaning: crews of operators and long lines of combines and tractors that follow the ripening crops, chewing up acreage quickly and efficiently. These operators have a single focus: harvest.
Of course, producers must pay for these services. Custom rates can vary from year to year, county to county, and even crop to crop. In addition, if you’re in an area where several custom operations are working at the same time, there may be a bit more competitive pressure compared to an area with few custom operators.
Farris says there are plenty of challenges he faces each year, the most critical being the recruitment and training of employees. “It can be difficult to find employees, and often we compete with the oilfields,” Farris says. “These combines can be complex, and to get the most out of them we need highly trained workers.”
Ann Johanns, extension program specialist at Iowa State University, says that no matter how large or small a custom farming operation may be, it all comes down to costs. “Perhaps the most difficult question to answer is how much to charge for your custom services,” Johanns says. “It comes down to being able to cover all operational costs. This includes the age of equipment, experience of the operator, distance you must travel…you have to consider all costs.”
Iowa State offers custom farming rate information, as well as online calculators that help producers determine custom farming rates and costs associated with the work.
Maintenance, as you would expect, is critical for custom harvesters. Downtime is money lost that can’t be recovered. “Simply put, we can’t afford downtime,” Farris says. “And when we are traveling during harvest, we are often in areas where dealerships are extremely busy as well. So we do a lot of the maintenance ourselves. We also rely on harvest support teams to keep us running.”
So is custom farming on the upswing? While there’s no concrete data, Johanns says that the current farming economy does have producers looking at ways in which they can spread the costs of their machinery. And custom work can, for some, fit the bill.
And consider this: “The Iowa State custom rate survey publication is one of the two most downloaded items from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach websites,” Johanns says. The other? The cash rent survey. “Custom farming is definitely a hot topic.”