New kids on the block
Recent entries to the custom manure application business in the central north region of the U.S. share their experiences with issues such as finding and keeping employees plus balancing the seasonality of the business.
January 13, 2016 by Tony Kryzanowski
Buying quality equipment and keeping it in top condition can make or break a manure business. Photo by Contributed
Because farms are growing larger and more landowners have discovered the nutrient value of manure as a valuable source of organic fertilizer, there are many new business opportunities throughout North America in custom manure application.
However, there are certain unique aspects to custom manure application that new entries to this industry should consider prior to taking the plunge. Among the biggest challenges is the seasonality of this service as well as finding and keeping employees because of its seasonality.
Two new North Dakota custom manure application business owners offer their suggestions on these, and other hurdles faced in this growing industry. Both serve primarily the cattle industry and provide both pen cleaning and manure application services.
Nic and Ben Beach, owners of Beach Custom Hauling, have learned a lot in the seven years they have been in the custom manure application business, headquartered in Carrington, N.D. The brothers started the business from scratch, and while it took a few years to get on their feet, Nic says that it does get easier once a regular clientele is established. But first and foremost, when it gets busy, their equipment has to be in peak working condition and staff need to be in place once the phone starts ringing.
Nic says the key to Beach Custom Hauling earning repeat business is their efficiency and the use of quality equipment.
“We’re really mobile,” Nic says. “We can be in one area and move to another area 60 to 100 miles away the same day, and still get something done when we get there.”
He adds that people entering the industry without reliable equipment don’t stand much chance of success because there is a short window of opportunity and if equipment breaks down for a couple of weeks, this could have serious financial and customer service consequences for the business.
Nic, 30, and his brother Ben, 27, offer their services primarily to cattle producers within about a 150 mile radius of Carrington, generally north of the I-94 highway corridor. There are a lot of cow-calf ranches and feedlots in that area as well as grain farmers, with ranches ranging from 300 to 6,000 head of cattle. There are also some buffalo ranches located in the area.
Beach Custom Hauling applies between 180,000 to 200,000 tons of manure annually and it is all surface applied, with landowners following up usually within a day or two to incorporate the nutrients into the soil. Sometimes, they are right behind the manure spreader. Because the area is primarily farm country, Nic says they are lucky not to have to deal with odor issues.
Most of their business occurs in spring and fall, with fall being the busiest. It’s not uncommon during that time for the brothers and their four staff members to work 15 to 18 hour days, six days a week, usually as soon as crops start coming off in August till close to Christmas in a typical year. The spring season is extremely busy just before the cropping season.
“Spring time is a mad dash to stay ahead of the guys with their planting,” Nic says. “Some feedlot customers like to have their manure hauled out in spring so that they have all summer to let the pens dry and firm up. And it’s good for fly and disease control to remove it then as well.”
The challenge, Nic says is how to maintain cash flow during the slower periods. Their solution has been to diversify their business to include scrap metal reclamation as well as hauling cattle feed and propane. This helps to keep employees year round, maintain cash flow, and makes more efficient use of their truck fleet.
“It’s tough to get that money train rolling and then when things freeze up, it just stops,” Nic says. “If you are going to be a year-round operation, you have to be able to generate income some way.”
Since starting in the custom manure application business, they have found that keeping employees is a significant challenge that limits business growth. So to overcome this issue, Beach Custom Hauling has tried a new approach this year – working with a manure spreader owner/operator. He is a local landowner who is supplementing his income, and this removes the risk for the Beach brothers of having equipment potentially sitting idle for lack of an operator. The owner/operator is responsible for his own equipment and staffing. They simply dispatch him to jobs and provide him with a loader. Should the company choose to expand, Nic says they likely will look at adding more owner/operators.
Their fleet consists of two Cat 928 wheel loaders, three double frame and heavy suspension 357 Peterbilt trucks, and a heavy-duty Kenworth truck. The trucks are all in the 500 horsepower range. Three MMI International manure spreaders and a Spread-All manure spreader are mounted on these trucks. They chose these specific truck-mounted manure spreaders because the direct drive on the MMI International unit provides the beaters with enough power to chew through bedding pack material. The Spread-All has a simple set up with bigger shanks on the beaters, which again helps with breaking down bedding pack material.
The manure spreaders are 20-ton boxes with moving floor aprons and horizontal beaters. They come equipped with variable speed controls within the cab so that the operator can adjust the application rate by adjusting the speed of the apron and adjusting the speed of the truck. Typically a grain crop will have between 15 and 20 tons of manure applied per acre. To minimize field compaction, the trucks are equipped with single Michelin radial flotation tires instead of the standard dual tires on the back of the truck chassis.
Custom manure applicator Jonathan Hofland, owner of Hofland Agricultural Services LLC with his father, Ray, has encountered similar challenges as far as attracting employees willing to work the type of hours required by a custom manure application business. They are headquartered south of Dickinson, N.D. – an area with plenty of oil activity and competition for employees. They offer their services within about a 150-mile radius of home base.
Two years ago, the Hoflands purchased a custom manure application business and recently sold their cattle herd to dedicate themselves fully to custom manure application. Jon says there was more stability by way of predictable cash flow with the custom manure application business versus the financial peaks and valleys of raising cattle.
“No matter what the prices are for cattle, the manure still has to be hauled,” Jon says.
The business they purchased had two truck-mounted manure spreaders, a Case 621D front end loader, and a Case skid steer. The challenges of keeping seasonal employees as well as servicing customers caused Jon to look at other manure spreader options, which led him to invest in a large volume, pull-type manure spreader. They purchased a Degelman M34 manure spreader with vertical beaters pulled by a Case Magnum 305, front-wheel-assist tractor to complement their two existing, truck-mounted manure spreaders.
Jon says with the pull-type manure spreader, they are able to carry twice as much manure as a truck-mounted manure spreader and can broadcast the manure more than twice as wide.
“Heaped full, we’re about one bucket short of two truckloads in it,” Jon says.
While the weight of the loaded, pull-type manure spreader is a concern with some customers at about 40 tons per load, the wide tires on it compensate for the extra weight, plus with a wider spread pattern with the vertical beaters, they are making fewer passes in the field, resulting in less compaction.
Also, he is able to apply the same amount of manure in about three-quarters the amount of time as a truck-mounted manure spreader operation, can load and spread the manure with half as many employees, and operate year round because of the durability of the spreader.
“This past year, we ran all the way through the winter as long as our front end loader could dig into the manure piles,” Jon says. “I didn’t have more than two months where we weren’t actually spreading manure somewhere.”
Hofland Agricultural Services LLC is planning to purchase a second pull-type manure spreader this fall. In doing so, Jon can work the long hours required during the busiest fall season with one spreader and tractor while his father can work with a second spreader and tractor. They have one employee and he only works 40 hours a week. The only challenge with this lean employee approach is when moving from one location to another, as more than one person is required on site to help with the move. In this case, they hire part time help, as needed.
Jon says that in addition to good customer service, their technology is a big advantage because their customers are amazed at the results. In one instance, the company was able to surface apply manure on steep ground where Jon says he wouldn’t even think of taking a truck-mounted manure spreader.
“That customer is in the coffee shop just about every day talking about how amazed he is with the results,” Jon says. Positive word of mouth like that is money in the bank for new custom manure application businesses. At present, they apply about 150,000 tons of manure annually, but Jon expects that to increase to as much as 250,000 tons once they purchase their second pull-type manure spreader.
He says based on his experience, taking the time to do some advance research on equipment performance can definitely influence how successful new entries to custom manure application will be.
“Do your research on any equipment, whether you are buying it used or new,” Jon says. “Know what you are getting into as far as how much maintenance you are going to have to put into it.”