It won’t be long before the crew of Zeller & Sons, custom silage harvesters, head to the panhandle of Texas to begin another season of forage cutting.
The business has been in operation since 1993. The owners, Phil and Agnes Zeller, lived in rural Manhattan until 2000, when they established a company headquarters on U.S. 56/77 two miles north of Lost Springs.
After working five years with Phil’s parents, the Zellers launched out on their own in 1998 with one cutter and two trucks. The family enterprise has grown a lot in the past 10 years and now includes four Jaguar Greeneye self-propelled cutters by Claas and 21 trucks, including six semis.
A service truck with a welder, air hoses, tire tools, and repair parts accompanies the crew, as well as several smaller vehicles.
The Zellers’ four sons all are involved in the business. The oldest son, Philip Lee, was 13 years old and already driving truck in the field when they started. He and his wife live in Friona, Texas, southwest of Amarillo. They are expecting their first child in April.
Matthew and James each have wives and live nearby. Joseph is single and lives with his parents. He was four-years- old when they started the business.
“Joe grew up on the floor of a cutter,” Agnes Zeller said.
Her sister, Loretta Smith, and Smith’s husband, Jake, and their son Tyler come from Oregon every year to be a part of the crew. Jake is a mechanic. Agnes’ brother, Bill Calvert, also comes from Oregon to join them.
In a large machine shed at the headquarters, the family was busy last week making repairs and preparing equipment for the 2012 season.
An additional 20 men will be hired to help with cutting and hauling when work begins.
The harvest season begins in mid-April in Texas and continues through October and sometimes into mid-November.
About 75 percent of the work is for two 5,000-head dairies in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. The owners have thousands of acres of irrigated fields of triticale and alfalfa that are chopped for silage, followed by corn. Sometimes rye grass and wheat are also harvested for forage.
The Zeller outfit has its own 15-acre RV park at Friona, where as many as eight campers will be parked for weeks at a time. In mid-June, they will be chopping corn near Waco, Texas.
By mid-July, the crew will have made its way through Oklahoma into Kansas, foraging as they go. They will end up back in Marion County, where they will work for local farmers.
In mid-August, the crew will head back to Texas for more forage harvesting.
Phil Zeller said the outfit needs a large number of trucks because they often haul silage long distances. He said it takes about three minutes to fill a truck and five minutes to fill a semi, but they may have to travel 15 miles to get to the silage pit.
The operation requires a semi-load of diesel fuel every week. Zeller said a cutter that harvests 25 to 30 tons of corn silage per acre burns 38 gallons per hour. With a 255-gallon tank, the cutter is refueled every six hours. Rubber tires also are a big expense.
Agnes Zeller and her daughters-in-law do the bookwork for the business. The women drive truck when needed.
The Zellers have four dogs that accompany them everywhere they go — Tiny, a brown Lab; Sassie, a Pomeranian; Shelby, a Yorkie cross; and Chewy, a Shih Tzu.
“They know when you start loading the camper that it’s time to go,” Agnes said. “They get excited.”
The Zellers are happy to be working together with their four sons and are looking forward to another season.
“It’s like they were born naturally to it,” Agnes said. “They don’t have any desire to go anyplace else.”