By Doug Rich

It will not be long before caravans of combines and trucks head south to begin harvesting the 2005 Wheat crop. In addition to the usual challenges faced by custom harvesters they will be dealing with high fuel prices this year.

"It absolutely has to have an impact on crews this year," says Tim Baker, operations manager for U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. "It definitely will cause some sort of increased rates."

Greg Thurman, a custom harvester from Burlington, Okla., says the combination of fuel, insurance, and a lack of qualified labor may have some of the northern crews staying home this year. Thurman estimates custom harvesting charges will be in the 15 to 16 cent range for bushels harvested, acres covered, and miles hauled to storage.

"It will have to be higher to offset the fuel increase," says Bill Stevens, a custom harvester from Fordyce, Neb. Although some harvesters may have contracted ahead for part of their fuel supplies, most of it will be purchased as they follow the ripening Wheat from south to north through the High Plains. In some cases there may be a surcharge to help cover the high cost of fuel this year instead of increasing the fee for harvesting. "This is not new to anyone. Most truck lines are adding a surcharge right now." Stevens says the surcharge will vary from farm to farm and area to area depending on the cost of fuel at the time and the quality of the crop. "In my case the surcharge will be based on the number of gallons used. It takes more fuel to harvest a 50 bushel crop than a 20 bushel crop."

Fuel is not the only thing adding to the cost of doing business for custom harvesters, says Steve Shepherd, a custom harvester from Onida, S.D., and president of U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. He says the cost of room and board for their crews is one-third higher this year and the cost of trading combines was up 30 percent. "Our records show that it costs $22 an acre to run this equipment up and down the road," he says.

Shepherd, Thurman and Stevens anticipate heading south to start harvest sometime between May 20 and May 25. Bill Stevens usually begins his harvest run near Vernon, Texas. Weather related issues might delay the start of harvest in some areas. A late frost may have damaged the Wheat crop in some areas, according to Tim Baker. "Some of the earliest planted Wheat may be a loss this year," he says. "It may be late May or early June before anyone is really cutting wheat." Steve Shepherd says striped leaf rust has been a problem in the Haskell, Texas area where he generally starts the harvest season. In conversations with some of his customers, Bill Stevens says there is a lot of variability in the Wheat crop this year. Oklahoma for example has been short of moisture this spring. "Overall, the crop looks good," he says, "It just depends on what will happen when it warms up and gets hot."

Farmers who have not already negotiated a fee with their custom harvester need to be prepared for higher rates this summer or a surcharge if fuel prices remain high.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.

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