Maximizing yields on marginal soils became easier for Zeb Zuehls after he divided formerly large fields on his farms in Marquette and Green Lake counties and turned the less productive land to rotations mostly of alfalfa and small grains. That leaves about 800-850 of his 1,300-plus owned and rented acres to rotate between two years of corn for the ethanol market and a year of food-grade soybeans.
All of his production is sold commercially except for enough to feed a few head of beef he and his wife, Melanie, bought to begin 4-H projects for their children.
"My wife and I just started a small herd for the kids in 4-H," he says.
Zeb and Melanie, a human resource worker, have three children, Olivia, 9; Tenley, 5; and Ashlynn, 2. Olivia is also following in Dad's footsteps as a basketball player. Zeb, a former ballplayer at Montello High School, now coaches a boys' team at his daughter's school.
But the kids don't see much of Dad during the crop seasons. In addition to his and Melanie's 250 owned and 650 rented acres, he crop shares on his parents' 450-acre farm just a few minutes away and does custom planting, spraying, baling and combining.
"There are plenty of long days but they are rewarding," he points out. "It can be hectic scheduling" particularly to make time between his own farms and the custom work. Custom jobs sometimes take him up to 40 miles away.
Zeb invested in some equipment that's "oversized for our farm but it helps me to get things done quicker." He's also in his third year on the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association board of directors. "I'm still learning (as a board member)," he admits, but calls the service "very interesting and enjoyable."
Growing up on a dairy farm, Zeb's interests nevertheless gravitated toward crop production. He was a two-time FFA finalist for ag placement in both grain and forage production. He went on to graduate from University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course and began his custom business while working as a spray applicator for an ag retailer. He moved into raising crops on his own while still maintaining the custom work.
His father, Ronald, works with him and he has another part-time helper.
In his own farming operations Zeb shoots for corn yields of 200 bushels-plus on 450 irrigated acres.
"On irrigated fields I can double the yields," he says. When he grows corn on his more marginal soils he aims for 120-140 bushels.
Irrigated corn is spoon-fed fertilizer four times a season. Soybeans get fertilizer out front and wheat is fall-fertilized plus top dressed in spring. Alfalfa is fed in spring and after the second cutting.
"I'm working to get set up for variable rates with planting and fertilizing," Zeb says. "I'm implementing that more and more as we go on."
He's also moving toward more minimum tillage.
"There's a little bit that's conventional tillage," he notes. "Some ground needs to be tilled to warm in the spring, but I'm trying to do less and less tillage."
His alfalfa production from 280 acres each year is sold to area livestock operations, including horse ranches and some exotic animal farms with the likes of zebras, camels and other non-traditional stock. Working with 3 by 3 bales, he also has developed a significant clientele among the area's Amish communities.
"It's a lot of smaller farms," he points out.
He says the bookwork of farming and custom operations can become quite a task and he works with Badgerland Farm Credit on accounting. Probably one of the most stressful parts "is the books," he discloses.
On the other hand, he's fully involved with computers.
"It's challenging with the technology," he acknowledges. "I basically live off the smart phone. It's a pocket computer basically."
Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.