Consider spreader efficiency when hiring custom operator

When it’s time for an upgrade in manure application, efficiency per spreader is a key consideration for a livestock operation. 

This is shown by data from a variety of southern Ontario livestock operations serviced by Adrian Guntensperger, who runs a Seaforth-area solid manure handling company. He reviewed the numbers in preparation for a panel discussion during the recent North American Manure Expo.

Why it matters: When manure handling equipment wears out or can’t handle greater volume, farmers need to know if it’s worth purchasing new equipment instead of hiring out the task.

Guntensperger was the sole solid manure representative in a session entitled “When to hire a custom operator.” Other panelists included a 1,000-cow dairy farmer in Wisconsin who typically hires out the farm’s liquid manure handling, and a custom operator from Minnesota who specializes in drag hose application. 

Providing financial insight was John Molenhuis, business management and machinery cost budgeting expert for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Guntensperger made calculations based on three different farms his company serves. In all three cases, the ability of a custom operator to be on the job all day, using multiple spreaders, contributed to improved efficiency compared to the farmer doing the job on his or her own.

At one chicken farm with 78,000 birds, removal and application occurs once a year at a farm approximately three kilometres from the livestock barn. Guntensperger Farm Services use three spreaders, taking approximately seven hours to do 65 loads. 

This costs just over $10 per tonne and provides estimated savings of $3,000 compared to the farmer doing it with a single, owned unit and using their own loader.

Factoring into spreader efficiency is what he referred to as “unproductive hours.” In the chicken farm example, the three-km distance from loading to spreading causes wear-and-tear on the equipment but no manure is being applied.

Custom operators have additional unproductive hours because they must also drive their equipment to the job site. When Guntensperger calculates his costs, this adds complexities and it can do the same for a farmer who considers switching to custom operators.

Still, plugging numbers into the same spreadsheet for an 80-cow dairy farm and a multi-site large-scale cash cropper, he showed how his company can do the job more efficiently than if the farmer bought their own equipment.

Molenhuis said OMAFRA regularly updates its fact sheets on manure handling and application. The information is geared toward producers, but he also fields many calls from customer operators hoping to fine-tune their rates.

“We do a custom rate survey every three years,” Molenhuis said, adding the ministry typically gets about 200 responses. That provides a basic idea of costs but “you’ve got to know your own costs because those averages are just that – an average.”

Beyond the dollars-and-cents numbers of spreader efficiency, all panellists said there are other key benefits to hiring out the job. The most important is freeing up labour and equipment for other tasks.

With the chicken farmer example, Guntensperger said, loading, hauling and spreading manure “is done in one day” when the custom spreaders roll in. The farmer, meanwhile, “is going about his day and he doesn’t have to do anything.”

With the dairy example, the farmer is still in the barn and can’t start spreading at 7 a.m. as the custom operator does. “Then they have to go back into the barn at 3:30.”

Wisconsin dairy farmer Dan Brick knows hiring out manure handling does free up time and equipment for cropping. The benefits go beyond getting the job out of the way quickly. Timeliness of cropping activities is also important because it affects yield and profitability.

His farm grows winter triticale to serve as a winter cover crop to be chopped for feed in spring. He likes to see the seed in the ground by Sept. 10, but before that happens, manure must be applied to the field. “Any time after (Sept. 10), you’re giving up yield,” he said.

For his dairy farmer customer, Guntensperger says that if manure isn’t spread within the first 24 hours after harvest, the risk of equipment damage to second-cut or third-cut alfalfa increases daily.

Speaking from Minnesota, drag hose custom operator Rick Martens wondered if his company’s decisions about how much to charge are affected by his location in what he referred to as a “depressed farm economic region.” 

He said his rates don’t generally reflect calculations of cost per tractor hour or spreader efficiency. Instead, he often relies on “gut feelings.”

When he agrees to haul a farm’s manure, he asks himself where fertilizer prices are trending, how much his dairy farmer customers are getting for their milk, or status of commodity prices. 

“I don’t know if it’s right or not but it’s what I do . . . We really have to look at who’s going to go broke in this and who’s going to survive.”

However, Martens agrees that efficiency is a strong selling point for most farmer clients. They want to see that the custom operator is getting the job done as quickly and effectively as possible.

“I feel like we’re in a unique position,” he said. “Customers are happy when we come and they’re happy when we leave.”