The business name is Zeller And Sons Farms. But, in reality, this traveling band of custom forage harvesters also includes wives, extended family members and as many as 20 employees to cut 50,000 acres of forage from Kansas to Texas and back each harvest season.
Phil and Agnes Zeller, their four sons – Philip, Matthew, James and Joseph – as well as the three wives of the married sons, are the heart of the operation.
At peak times, the clan swells as extended family, including a mechanic, travel from Ohio and Oregon to join the Zellers wherever needed. They run five midsize Claas forage harvesters transported on flatbed trailers along with field trucks, a tool truck, tool trailer and a small fleet of campers – as many as 25 vehicles.
“We chop,” says Agnes. “That’s all we do.” The Zellers’ largest customers are several 6,000-head dairies in Texas. The traveling custom operators work there for 10 weeks in spring to cut and ensile triticale and return in the fall for 10 more weeks to harvest silage corn.
When not working for the dairies, they break into groups to handle other chopping jobs. That work is mostly in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, but Phil and Joseph just finished cutting kenaf in Mississippi.
“Most of the harvesting season, we run long hours seven days a week,” says son James, who is 26. “I love it. Running a cutter is in my blood.”
James started chopping at 17, when older brother Matthew judged he could handle the equipment. Now, all four sons and Phil manage crews and run the choppers – as much as possible.
“When you turn somebody loose with $2 million worth of equipment, you’ve got a lot hanging on the line,” Phil says. “All we provide is a service. If you don’t please that farmer and do everything he expects, you don’t show up the next year.”
Phil also largely handles the finances, the logistics of buying fuel on the road and communications with clients.
The women are an integral part of the operation, adds Agnes. She and her daughters-in-law, with their children, travel with the men for most jobs, ferrying fuel and driving trucks in the field.
In 1993, Phil left a job in Oregon’s timber industry so he and Agnes could custom forage harvest with his parents in Kansas. After five years, they started their own business.
“Those first few years were really tough,” she says. “I had always been a stay-at-home mom. And then, all of a sudden, I became a working mom. I didn’t know I was going to be thrown inside a silage truck, the first year, to drive it. The kids went into the trucks, too.”
In fact, the Zellers, who homeschooled their children, at times turned field trucks into classrooms, says Agnes.
Today, the Zellers work 18-hour days about eight months of the year. In the winter, most of the clan take off to hunt, fish and snowmobile, as well as use the downtime to examine their new equipment. If they’re unfamiliar with it, they’ll take apart and put together components like gearboxes to help shorten breakdown periods in the field.
Agnes uses the slow time to wade through a year’s worth of paperwork and tax documentation. When custom harvesters travel from one state to another, or even from one county to another, every jurisdiction requires permits to allow them to work as a business in their area, she says.
Also, as they travel, drivers are required to keep logs of how many hours they drive and how much time they rest, she adds.
The Zellers use campgrounds when moving from job to job. But in Texas, they set up their own campground with laundry facilities. Workers live in campers and are responsible for their own meals and laundry.
About 20 workers are hired for peak harvest times, and turnover can be high. “Some work hard,” says Agnes. “Some work for a bit and leave. Then we have to get more workers and train them.”
It’s important that workers know the rules from the beginning, she adds. “We don’t allow cussing. We prefer that they don’t smoke in the trucks, cutters or campers.”
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The operators don’t have the largest or newest forage harvesters, and they see that as an advantage.
“We don’t have to break anything down. We run headers that fold up and are narrower than the cutters. We just hook up to the cutter trailers and roll the cutters up,” says Phil. “It actually takes longer to hook the campers up than it does to get the equipment on the road.”
They transport eight trucks or campers at a time. “There’s not enough room for all of us to stop at rest areas or truck stops,” says Agnes, and there aren’t always enough Zellers or employees to move everything at once.
Custom forage harvesters, compared to their custom grain counterparts, operate at a faster pace, Agnes believes. “When it rains, a lot of times we can get back in the field sooner. Ours is all action, all the time, for everybody. My husband loves it, my boys love it, and I’m okay with it.
“Grain (harvesters) travel more,” she adds. “We set up a place and that’s our home, although by the time we get through two and a half months in Texas, we are ready to come home.”
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