Building a Custom Hay Operation? Here Are 4 Tips To Help You Succeed

Is a custom hay operation part of your farm or ranch’s future?

The startup process for a custom hay operation is similar to that of a farm or ranch in terms of the necessary machinery and equipment. Customer service, building a customer base, employing good workers, time management and the right equipment are all important from day one in not only getting an operation off the ground, but sustaining it in the long term.



Startup stories

Toby Roscoe and Cole Baker both had available equipment and area work that enabled them to enter the business, but their paths to custom hay production differed greatly.

After starting with “a couple of area custom haying jobs,” Roscoe built his business as a “natural fit” to his existing forage and beef production.

“We started out with a shared baler and made the decision to build it up from there,” said Roscoe, who now operates three swathers, two rakes and four balers in southwestern Montana. “From a size standpoint, we really like where we are today.”

Baker’s journey was similar with equipment and resources at his disposal. But the untimely passing of first his father and then his brother, led the 24-year-old to take over his family’s crop and cattle operation. He added custom hay production based on local demand and the equipment he already had, including Vermeer Super M balers.

“Our goal is to always be cost-effective and we always work hard to keep our customers happy,” said Baker, who farms near Ashton, Nebraska. “I would like to expand down the road, but we really need to stay on top of the business we’ve got now.”

Despite differing circumstances, Baker and Roscoe have had similar experiences and faced common challenges in building their custom hay production businesses. Here are four tips they say are critical to success in building and growing operations like theirs.

Build a customer base

Cole Baker

Customer relationships are important to the success of any custom haying business. Baker started with one customer and still has a simple goal: Be the hardest worker and take on the jobs that others won’t.

“The biggest thing for me is that we do good work and don’t turn anything down,” he said. “Sometimes, that means neither I nor my crew has a social life, but we hit it hard and put in a lot of time.”

In southwestern Montana, Roscoe doesn’t take on more work than what he and his crew can handle, especially in high-demand times. To him, the quality of his custom work is more important than the quantity.

“It’s mostly word-of-mouth in the beginning, and having lived and worked on a ranch here, I know people and if they are interested in working with us, I just say ‘let’s give it a shot and see how it goes,’” he said. “My goal is to be there first thing in the morning and leave late. That’s what our customers appreciate.

Employ good, dependable workers

Hiring and retaining good employees is a challenge in many sectors of agriculture right now. Finding people he can trust is a big priority for Baker, and it’s something he said takes constant attention.

“It’s tough getting good employees, and that’s what makes the whole operation – having the right hired men,” Baker said. “It’s best to get people who have a farm background and who are going to be dependable. We are spread out geographically enough that if we need to have someone working a ways away, I have to be able to depend on him to keep the operation going.”

The workforce has changed a lot over the years in Roscoe’s area, and he said it’s changed the age demographics for those he hires and retains in his custom haying operation.

“When we started, there was always a neighboring farm kid we knew who we could hire, and it wasn’t very hard to find help. That’s changed. They don’t want to sit on the tractor anymore like they used to,” Roscoe said. “I’m lucky to have a couple of employees who work hard and take good care of the equipment. Keeping them on is a big priority for me, and I know it’s a challenge for a lot of producers.”

Manage the weather and customer schedules

Mother Nature ultimately decides how efficiently any custom hay operation works. She can be especially challenging when time is of the essence during the busiest times of the year, when customers all need hay work done in a short timeframe. Baker stays flexible so weather will not interrupt his ability to best serve all his customers.

“I communicate with all of our customers so everyone’s expectations are realistic. If I have to bounce back and forth between two customers just to get the work done for both of them, I will, if it keeps them happy. But, I keep my equipment working together as much as I can, because it’s inefficient for us to split up equipment.”

Paying close attention to his area’s weather and the elevation of different operations among his customers in the Rocky Mountain foothills helps Roscoe better manage how he schedules work and accounts for any potential weather delays.

“With the weather, it’s simple for us: You just gotta go,” Roscoe said. “We’re in a fairly arid, dry area, and we work our way up in elevation. It seems like by the time we get one operation done, the next one higher is ready and they sort of fall into place pretty well.”

Work with tough, efficient equipment

Baker strives to maintain a cost-effective equipment lineup, and his Vermeer balers help him maintain his high standard of efficiency.

“I’ve run a lot of different balers, but with Vermeer, the quality, performance and service are all there,” Baker said, adding he typically trades balers every one or two years, depending on the number of acres he covers. “It’s just overall quality, and with the service we get from our dealer, you can’t really beat it.”

Roscoe sometimes swaths, rakes and bales in some “rough country” in the Montana foothills. That makes the longevity of his lineup of a TE330 tedder, two R2800 rakes and four 605N balers a huge reason why Vermeer is a big part of his operation.

“Basically, everything is heavy-duty, and that really makes a difference,” Roscoe said. “Our dealer and customer service are just awesome, and that’s a big part of it.”