Farm Horizons, September 1999

Custom combining finds service niche

By Luis Puga

As far as Greg Otto of Lester Prairie knows, he is the only one who has found a certain niche in the local farm economy.

With a pair of combines and wagons for collecting crops, Otto has been lending his services since 1997 to farmers who want to get their crops out of their fields.

Each combine has interchangeable heads that allow Otto to work with a variety of crops, such as corn, beans, soy, wheat, and small grains.

These heads have small wire hooks that pick up the crop. Otto said it takes some time to properly set each head, but then the machine picks up nearly all the crop, missing only a negligible amount.

How fast Otto can move a crop off the field depends on a number of variables. Some crops are easier than others, and higher yields take more time as well.

Another factor is the number of wagons or trucks available to haul away the crop. Otto said, generally, farmers will have their own, but sometimes he must arrange his schedule so as to not pick more crop than he can carry away.

Otto said one farmer required him to come back about four times in one day because there were not enough wagons.

All of this is part of working with his customers, some of whom he's served since his first year of business. He feels this is why he keeps repeat customers.

"I don't think I have any unhappy customers. If I do, they're still calling back," he said.

When Otto began, he admitted, there were many cards stacked against him. One was the fact that the mammoth machines require a lot of maintenance. That can get pricey, but Otto has avoided that overhead by doing most of the maintenance himself.

However, that can be trying as well. Otto related one anecdote from last year in which he broke a drive shaft at 10 p.m.

Fortunately, Otto works at a machine shop in Hutchinson and was able to repair the shaft. Unfortunately, it took all night, and by 10 a.m. the next morning, he was combining again.

However, Otto recounts the story appreciatively. He counts his blessings because he did not have to wait until Tuesday to get the part from the dealer.

He said, "People count on you ­ you've got to be there."

In general, the 22-year-old Otto is very busy during the fall. He's most likely to be found in the cab of a combine somewhere.

Where he's been can be easily traced by hand-painted signs with his name near fields. These signs can be found all the way from Glencoe to Montrose.

The ingenuity of Otto's service is driven by a need to find supplemental income in the farm economy. Otto feels combining, something he's enjoyed since he was young, was a way to remain attached to that lifestyle.

Otto, a farmer himself, knew that smaller operations did not have the money to purchase the combines. He knew that some farmers were providing the service if they had the time after getting their own crops out of the ground on a part-time basis, so the need was evident.

However, with Otto, his customer's crop's comes first. These customers, as it turns out, are not only farms of 100 to 300 acres, but also larger operations who will call Otto in for help.

Otto is also proud to say that he does it better than most. He has no compunction about saying that he may go a little slower, but that is to ensure that he does a good job. He estimates that he does a 100-acre field in about four hours.

He stays busy with multiple jobs and can spend the majority of any given weekend in the combine. Otto said he only sleeps when it rains. But he adds that if you call him, he can be on your farm in as little as 12 hours.

Otto also received good help from his family. Both his brothers, Ryan and Jeremy, are ready to pitch in when needed, as well as his father, Ron. He also gets help from his friend, Garrett Ehrke.

In the future, Otto would like to try some custom square bailing or other custom services. He'd like to start next year, but admits he'll have to see how combining goes.

Until then, this fall should keep Otto busy with jobs. He's hoping for no mechanical problems, but is ready to meet them.

He observed that he has become expert in telling when a ball bearing should be replaced.

You'll never hear Otto complain about breakdowns. It comes with the business, whether it's combining, or farming in general. Otto meets the malfunctions with an attitude of happy endurance.

"I like it. When things go good, it's great. When things break down and you've got five people calling you, it gets kind of hectic," he said. "It's a challenge ­ that's what I like. That's what I like more than anything."

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