By Kathy Vander Kinter
In farming, there are many choices to be made daily, monthly and annually. These decisions are often long-term or have long-term effects. In a year with marginal milk, grain and beef prices, it makes sense to review your own operations to determine where costs can be cut or even eliminated and where you can improve for a better profit return. 
One of the things that dairymen and women do best is maximizing milk production and profitability based on numerous factors. At some point in a farmer’s career, he or she will need to evaluate what the ultimate goal is for the farm. Is the goal to be able to do both field work and manage the herd? The goal might be to focus on the cows and seek out a prospective custom operator who has newer, modern equipment that is field-ready and run by a knowledgeable team to bring the highest quality feed to the bunker. When a farmer is focused on the “big picture,” it is easier to find the right custom operator for the job.

When beginning to look for the perfect custom operator, make sure to research his or her background. Determine whether the operator is committed to safety, or ideally “safety certified” to limit your own farm’s exposure. Farmers should strive to work with operators who are professional in dealing with you and the public image of agriculture. Request a certificate of insurance from the operator to ensure proper liability coverage and worker’s comp insurance. Determine whether or not the custom operator is equipment savvy. Not that new equipment doesn’t break, but is the line of machinery well kept? What is the maintenance program? Is the operator capable of repairing the machines in the case of a breakdown or lease another to continue the harvest in an efficient manner? Make sure the custom operator is also reliable. Hire the operator who will be there when they say they will. You will soon appreciate how willing and motivated a professional custom operator is to your work and your ultimate bottom line.
If you already hire a custom operator for harvesting crops, it’s only natural to evaluate him during the harvest window and on an annual basis in a face-to-face meeting. This gives both parties involved the opportunity to review the previous crop season and get a handle on what is expected for the upcoming year. Let’s face it, the bottom line is important to every business. You need a custom operator as much as they need you. 
Communication is also a key element in maintaining a good business relationship. Written contracts can serve as helpful reminders for both parties. What was discussed during the winter meeting? Where was the crop to be planted? What was the agreed price for chopping forages? 
These topics are important things to discuss when hiring a custom operator for the first time or in your annual meeting to discuss the upcoming crop year. Who do you want representing your business? The neighbor down the road with a son or daughter home from college who bought a new machine? Or a custom operator who is going the distance to continue his/her education, spends the money to cover their employees and equipment and requires drivers hold a valid CDL to operate trucks? Does your farm “need” a custom operator?
Along with an annual educational conference every January, the Wisconsin Custom Operators (WCO) organization provides its members with professional development opportunities during the year like our annual safety education and training event. The Safety Certification Program consists of a day-long semi-annual training session and in the opposite year, the operator must attend the annual conference where he/she receives continuing education credits for attending safety presentations. The purpose of the program is to train WCO members and their employees in occupational health and safety in order to reduce incidence rates. Attendees have the opportunity to earn a certificate upon completion.
We created the Safety Certification Program because operating safely is the right thing to do – for the operator, client and community.
My hope is that “WCO Certified” becomes a badge of distinction for professional custom operators. Farmers are under the microscope. Insist that custom operators embrace safety and professionalism.
Kathy Vander Kinter is president of the Wisconsin Custom Operators. Learn more about the WCO at  www.wiscustomoperators.org.


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