A man and his machines


STONEBORO, Pa. – Doris Gander jokes about her husband’s obsession with farm equipment. “Big boys need big toys,” she says. But Charles Gander takes his “big toys” very seriously, turning a lifelong love affair with machinery into a custom farming sideline that is growing as fast as corn in July.

The Ganders and their daughters, Melissa, 10, and Jessica, 6, own 150 acres and farm an additional 750 acres in northern Mercer County near Stoneboro. Doris manages their 50-head Holstein herd.

Several years ago, Charles Gander wanted to switch to zone tillage on the 500 acres of corn he plants, but he didn’t know if he could justify the equipment. Neighbor Kevin Richael of Sunrise Dairy told Gander if he bought the planter, he could plant Richael’s corn, too.

“This whole thing just took off from that planter,” Gander said. “The zone till corn planter just got everything started.”

That first year, 1998, he was done planting his corn and Richael’s farm by May 12, when a call came from a farmer near Cambridge Springs asking him to come plant his corn, too.

Then Gander started talking about buying a self-propelled forage harvester to chop corn silage and haylage. Over one winter, he did a lot of research and talked to custom farmers in New York about what they used – and talked to potential customers to find out if the market was there.

Last year, he bought a self-propelled chopper with kernel processor, a New Holland FX28, and in his first season, Gander chopped 1,600 acres of corn silage, 1,200 acres of haylage and 200 acres of high moisture corn. His two original customers for haylage turned into six customers, as the word spread.

All total, Gander had 26 customers for his farming services in 2000 – and at least six of those customers have been on his 2001 schedule since last fall.

This winter, he bought a 12-row planter to be able to cover more ground. He’s got a 90-day lease on a White 6175 tractor needed to pull the planter, avoiding the investment in a tractor used during such a short time frame.

Although Gander owns only the planter and chopper, he works with other neighboring farmers as “subcontractors” for trucking, dump trailers and tractors with silage blades for pushing and packing silage in bunker silos.

Gander sees those relationships as a win-win situation: He doesn’t have a sizable investment in equipment that is used only twice a year and the other local farmers can get some return on their equipment investment, too. He bills for all the subcontractors’ services.

Many of the farmers who contract for his services use their own equipment or trucks – Gander knows ahead of time who needs what equipment and how many operators.

So far, Gander hasn’t had any trouble scheduling farms, although it’s not unusual for him to get last-minute phone calls from new customers wanting to know if he can come to their place. Ten people called during last year’s chopping season – he was able to squeeze them all in, but one.

“You can only get over so many acres,” Gander said.

This year, the phone started ringing in January, Gander said.

“The hardest part is telling somebody they’re going to be last,” Gander said. “Nobody wants to be last.”

Usually, his own 500 to 600 acres of corn are the last to go in, he admitted.

Rock and roll.

When Gander heads down the lane with the chopper, the farm operator better be ready to roll. The harvester does 6 to 7 mph across the hayfield and chops enough to keep three trucks hopping. Gander estimates he can do 100+ ton/hour in a bunker silo or 1,000 ton/day, with three tractors packing.

He has one full-time employee, Andrew Zahniser, and a part-time employee, Matt Lyons.

Little down time.

Besides the weather, which no farmer can control, equipment breakdowns are a farmer’s worst fear. When you’re a custom operator, that fear turns into a nightmare.

“If you’re broke down, you’re not going to have any business,” said Doris Gander, who maintains the recordkeeping for the custom farming enterprise. “You cannot afford to break down.”

Charles Gander, who was a mechanic during his six years in the Army, keeps a close watch on maintenance, but said it’s critical to invest in new equipment backed by a good warranty and a good service department, to stay in the custom farming business.

“Cheap costs you money. Breakdown time is money,” he said. “Edinboro New Holland kept that chopper running.”

There’s now 550 hours on the 15-ton harvester and he expects that will shoot up to 1,500 hours by the end of this year’s season.

“I make my wife nervous; I talk about a second chopper all the time,” Gander laughed.

Business on a handshake.

Gander does not have a formal, written contract with his clients, although he is careful to discuss terms, conditions and expectations with customers before starting a job. So far, the informal agreements are working, primarily because he knows the people he’s working for, and they know him.

“I’ve worked for people I’ve known all my life,” Gander said, “and they’re reputable.”

Likewise, he said, his clients depend on him. “You know you’re getting competent help; you don’t have to supervise me,” Gander said.

“He’s very conscientious of what people want,” said Kevin Richael, who has hired Gander for the third season of planting corn and the second year for chopping corn silage and haylage. “We try to get him scheduled as early as possible.”

Considering his number of repeat clients, Gander has found his niche and plans to stay there.

“I can ride in that tractor 16 hours a day; I can ride in that chopper 16 hours a day. It’s still fun.”

For information on Gander’s services, rates or service area call him at 724-376-2588.

* * *

Is hiring a custom operator right for me?

By Susan Crowell

SALEM, Ohio – Custom harvesting is nothing new – threshing and filling silo were done by custom operators through much of the 20th century.

But how do you know if paying someone to plant or harvest your crops is good for your bottom line?

If you’re a great cow person, the value of your time with the herd is likely to be higher than the value of your time in the field. That’s one of the reasons Bill Geer called Charles Gander.

“We’re good at getting milk out of the cows, and the more time we spend in the barn, the better,” said Geer, who milks 165 head near Franklin, Pa.

Geer hired Gander to chop his corn silage last year. In two days, plus a few hours on the third day, Gander chopped 2,000 ton of silage for Geer – a job it would’ve taken Geer up to three weeks to finish.

“And the weather made it look like we were smart, because it started to rain on that third day and rained every day for two weeks,” Geer said.

Geer is hiring Gander to plant his corn and chop his first cutting of hay this year, too.

Look at labor.

Mercer County dairyman Kevin Richael of Sunrise Dairy has hired Gander to plant his corn for three years and 2001 will be the second year for Gander to chop Richael’s corn and hay.

“We were thinking about expanding at the time and were short on labor, so we called Chuck,” Richael said. With Gander’s equipment, the farm also made the switch from conventional planting to zone tillage.

It’s the savings on labor and machinery that keeps Richael coming back. “We don’t have to hire extra labor in the spring and don’t have to invest in the equipment,” he said.

“Look at what labor pool you have,” Richael advises. “If you’ve got labor and equipment and can get the work done in a timely fashion, then you’re probably better off doing it yourself.”

Consistent feed.

Cows love consistency and the idea of getting that first cutting off in a shorter, more high quality, window for ration consistency is appealing, adds Geer.

Richael agreed. “I think we got a little bit better quality because he got it in fast and we got it packed good.”

Pencil it out.

No two farm operations are alike and the decision to hire a custom operator is site- and farm-specific.

An Excel program called “OwnvsCus.xls” is designed to help you figure out whether or not a custom operator can help your farm’s bottom line. It can be downloaded from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Profitability (www.wisc.edu/dairy-profit) under “Decision Making Tools (click on OwnvsCus.xls). You must have Excel 5.0 or better to run the program.

Check with your local extension office for help, too.

For forages, the bottom line from University of Wisconsin’s Gary Frank is this: If you feel custom harvesting will improve the overall quality of either your haylage or corn silage, you will custom harvest.

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