In hectic planting season, custom farmers carry others' burdens

Jim Dayton
Janesville Gazette
Custom farmer Bob Dorr keeps an eye on the monitor while spraying fertilizer and herbicide onto a tilled field near the family’s farm in Avalon on Friday, April 27.

JANESVILLE (AP) - Whether it’s managing Prairie Woods Golf Course or growing corn and soybeans at his farm east of Janesville, Bob Dorr likes to keep his income diversified.

So doing some custom farm work—handling necessary tasks such as planting or harvesting for other farmers—just makes sense.

He stumbled through a golf analogy to explain: “We have the extra equipment, time and labor force. It’d be like not having all the clubs in your bag, or having all the clubs in your bag and doing 15 holes instead of 18 that day.

“That’s kind of a bad comparison, but you’ve got all the tools and time and the ability.”

After years of decline, custom farming, also known as contract farming, is once again becoming more common, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

In the 1980s, roughly half of all Rock County farms hired someone for some sort of custom work. That number fell to 25 percent in 2007 but rose to 33 percent in 2012, the most recent year of available data.

Farm machinery that is increasingly expensive and more specialized has likely contributed to that turnaround. It’s more cost-efficient for farmers to hire someone for certain tasks than spend six figures on one piece of equipment, said Nick Baker, UW Extension agriculture agent in Rock County.

The clientele doesn’t fit one stereotype. Those who seek custom work can be massive operations or small, mom-and-pop farms, Baker said.

Dorr has six clients, all located in eastern Rock or western Walworth counties. Some of them can till and harvest but need help with planting. Others just want a respite from farm labor, he said.

His foray into custom work began 20 years ago as a way to help a neighboring farmer. A few others contacted him, and he had the equipment to help, so he carved out time in his schedule.

John Reilly started custom farming a decade ago because the extra work helped pay for additional equipment he needed. He raises beef cattle and grows cash crops on his farm west of Janesville.

Through word of mouth, Reilly has about 20 regular customers who stretch from Green County to Racine County, he said.

The jobs he does for each depend on that person’s needs.

Contract farmer Bob Dorr and nephew Chad Bergsbaken check the depth made by their planter while working to plant corn in a field behind the family's farm in Avalon, Wis. Dorr likes to keep his income diversified. So doing some custom farm work, by handling necessary tasks such as planting or harvesting for other farmers, just makes sense.

“Whatever someone feels like they can’t do themselves,” he said, comparing custom farming to a “mini co-op on wheels.”

Reilly has done custom corn, soybean, wheat and hay planting in the past. His clients are responsible for buying seed, fertilizer and other inputs, but Reilly must transport his own equipment between farms, he said.

His machinery moves at speeds of about 20 mph. With travel distances that span multiple counties, Reilly’s custom work enhances the danger farmers experience when impatient cars and trucks zip past them during the busy spring planting season.

“They’re all mad at me for doing 20 mph, but I don’t want to be doing 20 mph, either,” Reilly said, adding that the size of his tractor usually makes him feel safe on the roads. “It’s just as fast as I can go.”

Traversing southern Wisconsin backroads at such a pace creates another logistical challenge for Reilly, Dorr and other custom farmers—scheduling.

Farmers who plant only their own land are at the mercy of volatile spring weather.

But custom farmers also must account for extra travel time. One rainstorm could set back planting schedules for more than a dozen farms.

A storm could drench one field but avoid another completely, Dorr said, requiring him to do makeshift weather checks with his clients after it rains.

Balancing it all requires communication and flexibility.

“I try to tell them what I’m expecting, the time I’m going to be there, but things can really change,” Dorr said. “Like anything in life, it’s all about communication. Mother Nature is a big part of changes, but things break, too. You can’t plan for any of those necessarily.”

He downplayed the unseasonably late snowfall. While he was unable to get into the fields until the end of April, Dorr said it would be easy to recover from the minor delay.

He also downplayed his impact on his clients’ farms. They appreciate his attention to detail, but if he didn’t do the work, they would find someone else, he said.

The added mechanical strain on his equipment can cause extra repair costs, but custom work has been a financial help overall. He still considers it a secondary income source compared to his own farming.

The state compiles an hourly pay rate guide about every three years. Dorr said he uses the Wisconsin and Iowa versions as recommendations and adjusts his prices for each job based on fuel costs and other factors.

In the south central region, Wisconsin custom farmers typically charge a little less than $20 per acre for planting corn and soybeans. Harvesting is more expensive, ranging from about $30 to $40 per acre, according to the state’s guidelines.

Custom farmer Bob Dorr climbs down from the tractor after working with his nephew Chad Bergsbaken to troubleshoot an issue while planting.

Custom manure application is more lucrative, costing about $140 per hour to load manure and spread it across fields.

Custom manure applicators have an outsize influence on the dairy industry. They handle more than half of the state’s 12 billion gallons of dairy manure produced each year, said Kevin Erb, UW Extension state conservation training coordinator.

Baker said custom planters and harvesters are “extremely important” to local agriculture because of the added efficiency they give other farmers. Those outside the industry might not appreciate the work customs farmers do to fit so many fields into such a narrow timeframe, he said.

Reilly said the busy spring and fall seasons create long days, stretching past 16 hours in certain cases. He has learned how to squeeze in naps inside his tractor cab.

But he said the chaos of handling so many people’s fields doesn’t faze him.

“It can be challenging, but everybody’s got different ground. It’s all ready at different times,” Reilly said. “Sometimes it’s all ready at once, but you just make do.”