THE ROLLING DAIRY country near Shippensburg, PA, is a patchwork of small farms punctuated by large dairy operations. It's not the kind of place you'd expect an inventory of big, expensive machines to make financial sense for individual farmers. But there's still hay to cut, corn to harvest, manure to pump…and opportunity for Martin Custom Farming.

A decade ago, the Martin family started offering custom farming services with one combine, a tractor and a manure tank spreader. The business now includes more than 15 pieces of equipment and several employees to serve 200 farmers across five counties.

“I learned a lot during those first years,” says owner/manager Woody Martin. “I'd run one machine full out trying to get the most from it but soon realized that it was tough to keep employees operating that way. I decided then that I'd have to start thinking differently if I was going to remain competitive, make my customers happy and turn a profit.”

Despite the challenges, Martin liked the business of custom farming and set out to find a workable business model. Instead of focusing on the machines, he decided to concentrate on concepts that made money for him and his customers. “I figured if the customer makes money from my services more so than with somebody else, they'll keep coming back to me,” Martin says. His first concept breakthrough came on his manure pumping and hauling business.

Tractor vs. truck

“I was looking at buying tanker trucks for hauling and pumping manure because that's what other custom operators used,” Martin says. “But a friend who sells Houle tow-behind spreader tanks kept working on me about the compaction-reducing benefits of a tractor-towed tank. I realized that compaction reduction was a great customer benefit and a possible competitive advantage for our business.

Even though Martin promised less soil compaction, many first-time customers were skeptical of his tractor/tank setup. So Martin made an introductory offer most couldn't refuse.

“I told farmers my rate was $100 an hour, but if I did the job and they didn't like it, they could just pay me what they thought the work was worth. A lot of farmers went for that deal, and every one of them was satisfied and paid my asking hourly rate. This year, I expect that we'll pump, transport and spread 115 million gallons.”

Equipment changes

Customers could immediately see that Martin's tractor/spreader concept didn't tear up their fields as much as trucks did, so they gave him their repeat business. But Martin soon discovered that high road mileage and continually pulling the 6,300-gal. tanks up out of pits trashed conventional tractor transmissions. To stay in business he had to change to a tractor with a more suitable transmission. When he tried a Fendt 926, he found that the “stepless” Vario transmission was exactly what he needed. He now owns six Fendt 926 tractors.

“The Vario transmission is totally automatic, there's no shifting and it is incredibly smooth on hard uphill pulls or going down the road,” Martin says. “An added benefit of the Fendt is its higher road speed. At 33 mph I can get a lot more done in a day. On rough back country roads, the Fendt tractor can actually go just as fast as a truck.”

Stopping safely isn't a problem because the Houle tanks have heavy-duty hydraulic brakes on six wheels. Front and back axles steer on the three-axle Houle. “By staying with a 6,300-gal. spreader instead of a larger one, we have an efficient setup that's maneuverable around farms, less than 10 ft. wide on the road and easier to paint a field without skips,” Martin says.

Hay business upgrade

Martin got into the custom haying business in 1998, using a standard pull-type mower. He had considered self-propelled mower conditioners for their added speed but decided they were too expensive and too wide to easily and safely transport between farms. Fortunately, adding the Fendt tractors for his manure business also opened another option for hay. The tractor's Vario transmission operates at speed in forward or reverse, and a “reverse station” in the cab allows the operator seat and the controls to spin around to face the rear. Mounting a Claas Disco triple mower on the PTO effectively converted the tractor into a high-speed front-mount mower with a 27-ft. swath. Martin later traded that mower for an Italian-built ROC mower conditioner.

“The Claas mower was good, but the ROC is simply a magnificent piece of equipment with a standard cutterbar and dual wings that float over the field incredibly fast, making high-quality hay in 23-ft. swaths at 14 mph and folding up to just a 10-ft. width for transport,” Martin says.

Martin says the $100,000 ROC is worth every cent, but it's not perfect. “We found that the merging belts work during dry years, but not in a wet year like we had in 2003,” he says. “We now use a 30-ft. merger from Miller Pro. It puts up hay super quick and with better feed value. We can have alfalfa at 60% moisture in six hours on a nice day.”

Martin offers custom baling for some customers, taking advantage of the Fendt's CANBUS system to hook up to a Claas baler. “The system allows seamless communication between tractor and baler with just one hookup,” he says. “You can also get some information about the baler by looking at the tractor Vario terminal screen, but I think that technology has a way to go before it is as useful as it could be.”

Employees and technology

Ultimately, high-tech equipment makes life easier for Martin's hired employees because automation reduces stress and fatigue. But Martin points out that more complex technology means more training time. “Unlike a regular tractor, you need more than four or five hours of seat time to understand a Fendt,” Martin says. “When we have a new guy who we know has never driven one before, we'll offer him $100 if he can figure out how to start it without any help. So far we haven't had to pay. I'd say it probably takes 12 to 20 hours of training time to get truly comfortable with the technology and unique setup in these machines.”

Having more employees and machines has also kept the workload to more reasonable levels. It helps that Martin offers diverse services with peak activity at different times of the year. Combining, haying and manure hauling keep everyone busy, but weather and equipment maintenance still get in the way sometimes. So Martin recently built a 40- × 80-ft. shop with an attached office.

Be prepared

Running a business sometimes means unexpected things happen, and even quality equipment breaks down. “My biggest piece of advice to someone looking to get into this business is to make sure your equipment dealer has good maintenance and support,” Martin says. “Our Fendt dealer, MM Weaver, has been exceptional for us, always responding quickly when we need them.”

It also pays to have good insurance and a lawyer. Martin's combine recently burned up in the field. Insurance paid for it, but it took time away from production to scrap out the wreck and buy a new machine.

Most frustrating for Martin is that local police have frequently pulled his machines over for commercial vehicle code violations.

According to Martin, code laws that apply to commercial vehicle operators in his state, but not to farmers, were written primarily for trucks and don't transfer well to tractors and other farm machinery.

He believes one sensible solution would to be to adopt the Farm Bureau's proposed change in the Vehicle Code to eliminate the use-based distinction between implements used by custom operators and those used by farmers.

Martin recently lost a decision in a hearing that found he is required to register his machines as commercial vehicles. He now finds himself in a legal Catch 22. He says, “I tried to get my machines registered but found that I can't without a title and gross vehicle weight rating that is accepted by the department of motor vehicles. Since I can't register, it appears we'll just have to pay the fines and keep rolling until the laws change.”