All Aboard Harvest | Tracy: So You Say You Wanna Be A Wheatie
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Tracy: So You Say You Wanna Be A Wheatie

Manley, Nebraska – I manage a couple of Facebook pages that are harvest related and I get this question often, “How do I start my own harvest business?”

Most of the time, it’s someone who already owns a combine and wants to hit the road.

Z Crew

Because we are still at home, I’ve been enjoying the beauty of spring. It was such a long, brutal winter I almost feel like I deserve this extra time at home to soak up all the beauty. 

I usually get excited when I’m approached with questions about the ins and outs of this business. It’s been a passion of mine for most of my life. However, the past several years have been some of our more challenging times – even more so than the early 1980s – and it’s starting to even wear me down. So, let me try to answer this by simply stating some wheatie need-to-knows.

Having a combine is an important part of this equation. But having a combine that is used for two weeks and then parked in a shed for the rest of the year is way different than having a combine that is used for six months. When you’re out on the road and depending on that machine to do the job it is supposed to do, you want it in top-notch condition. This is the number one reason we like to trade machines every other year. It seems after that second year, you start putting quite a bit of money into repairs and parts. I don’t remember not making payments on a combine. Our combine debt will never go away until we make the decision to quit. And we all know what a combine costs … $500,000 plus.

If you have the combine, you have to have headers. Which ones will you be using? Well, you’ll have to have the wheat head—draper, conventional, or stripper—if you’re making the wheat run. Will you be cutting corn in the fall? Then you need a corn head. What about picking crop off the ground? A pick-up head is a must! Depending on what you want to have, new or used, a new one shouldn’t cost more than $100,000.

Z Crew

The Beast showing off the MacDon header.

Z Crew

The corn that was planted before all the rain is growing so nicely with the warmer temps we’ve been having. Come October … it will be harvested with a corn head.

Now to get this equipment down the road you’ll need the necessary items to create your “train.” A power source, or truck, is required. Most harvesters use semis. The tractor pulls the combine trailer and the grain trailer or header trailer. Each combine will need its own truck—unless you plan on making multiple trips from one stop to another.

Z Crew

This is our “train.”

Will you include a tractor and grain cart? We opted not to do this because of the additional expenses of owning the tractor, the grain cart—another $200,000—and then paying someone to run it.  I know it’s been said a grain cart is like having a second combine but we couldn’t justify them being included in our low-budget operation.

A service truck is necessary to haul all the tools needed while on the road and in the field. Ours includes a fuel tank. There are also mobile fuel tanks that can be pulled behind a vehicle. It just depends on how many gallons of fuel you need to get to the equipment every day. Oh … and don’t forget the air compressor!

Z Crew

We didn’t have a “real” service pickup until just a few years ago. It’s pretty darn sweet!

A place to hang your hat at the end of the day requires more decisions to be made. Will you purchase a trailer house or live in a motel every night? You must consider the cost of staying in an RV park for $25 plus per night versus the cost of a motel at $75 per night. Will you want to cook your own meals versus eating in restaurants? One thing to think about before you make this decision are rain days—you will have them. Would you rather hang out in your own space or a motel room? If you’re taking your family … I would definitely persuade you to purchase your own “home on wheels.”

Z Crew

Our “home away from home.”

And what about labor? This seems to be one of the top concerns for the custom harvester these days. Finding someone who wants to work the hours we have to work is not easy. When the sun shines and the wheat is ready to cut, you’ve got to cut wheat! The days are not typically 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. You work when the weather allows. Weather is king on harvest. Oh … and those employees will be paid for the rain days, as well as the days the sun is shining. Expect to pay approximately $3,000 per month per employee.

Don’t forget about insurance for the combine, vehicles and workers comp!  For ease of figuring, let’s make this number a “per machine” expense at $15,000 to $20,000.

Now for the rules and regulations of being on the road. Once you cross state lines, you throw off the “wheatie” hat and put on the “trucker” hat. You will have to know the rules and regulations for each state you enter and what permits are needed. All crew members driving semis are required to carry a Class A CDL in their wallet. Will you participate in International Fuel Tax Agreement? You will if your trucks have apportioned plates and fuel license. Don’t forget the Form MCS-150 and the Unified Carrier Registration! The days of jumping in the trucks and just going are gone.

Z Crew

This was the one and only time we were able to get all our “fleet” up and down the road in one trip. After this year, the girls quit going with us and now it once again takes us two trips to get everything moved. This picture is missing the Frank pulling the header trailer.

Now that you’re loaded, got your trailer house packed and the crew rounded up … you’re ready to hit the road. Where are you going? This is becoming more and more difficult to figure out. With wheat acres being incredibly low and commodity prices not where they should be, farmers are hiring less and less. We tend to rely on our harvest friends—others who are doing the same thing we’re doing. It’s not as easy as it used to be to find those acres that are so desperately needed.

Our job isn’t possible without the farmer and the crops he/she grows. If there is no crop, there is no income. We have no safety net in the form of insurance. With the commodity prices and the weather, things are looking a bit ugly for the harvester right now. We depend on the summer wheat run to make everything work. When the summer crops are replaced with row crops or cotton, we struggle.

Being a wheatie is more than just loading a combine and moving from farm to farm. Looking back, it has been an awesome lifestyle for us. It allowed us to work together as a family. We’ve met some of the best people in the whole country. And it runs deep in my soul. I will forever be grateful for the past 37 years of owning a combine and making this our life. And, ultimately, God has a plan and I have to believe it’s a good one—whether it includes a combine or not.

Are you up for the challenge?

Until then … “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

All Aboard Wheat Harvest is sponsored by High Plains Journal and John Deere. Tracy Zeorian can be reached at





  • David McMillen
    Posted at 11:23h, 13 June

    What an incredible, eye opening narrative. When you see the outfits going down the road and think “Boy, I’d like to do that”. Reality paints an expensive picture just to get started.

    • z crew
      Posted at 14:35h, 13 June

      Your reaction is EXACTLY what I was hoping to accomplish. I believe so many people view what we do as easy and so much fun. What they don’t understand is the incredible amount of expenses we incur and the sacrifices made. I neglected to add all the “stuff” you would miss while away from home. Sometimes, the nostalgia of the industry gets in the way of true life. I wanted to tell true life. Thank you for leaving your comment, David!

  • Tom A Anderson
    Posted at 18:05h, 13 June

    Being involved in agriculture is not a job. It is a passion for the lifestyle. The work is always their with not much guarantee of profit. The folks in ag are a tough independent lot. Their also some of the nicest most honest people you will ever meet where a handshake & their word is a bond that will never be broken. They hate red tape but love mother nature. And yes they have a operating budget that most people cannot perceive. They work harder than most but usually are very humble about it. After all the trials of it they wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why I love it so. Confine them to a cubicle & most would die. But they are truly needed.

    • z crew
      Posted at 18:37h, 13 June

      I agree with you 100%, Tom. However, unless it’s just us (Z Crew), the expenses are slowly eating us up. And the farmer is doing whatever he can to survive, as well. Sometimes, that means telling the harvester they’ve had for years they can’t use them and they’ll have to rent a combine to cut the acres that weren’t hit with hail. When that happens, the job we were counting on is gone – as well as the income. Wheat acres are less and less each year. I hope I’m not sounding like I’m whining and instead telling you what is real life for the harvester. Unless the harvester is also a farmer, we are 1000% different than the farmer. We have A LOT of expenses riding on the acres that we need to cut. And I can’t blame the farmer for wanting to do what they have to do to turn a profit. It’s just very discouraging. We found out yesterday we lost job #3 to hail. What’s left standing will be cut by the farmer with their combine. I will pray for more acres to come our way but in this Ag climate, I’m not counting on it.

  • Paul E. Tomlinson
    Posted at 20:18h, 13 June

    what an interesting story, hope you & Jim have a safe & successful harvest season-

    • z crew
      Posted at 16:51h, 16 June

      Thank you, Paul! Your encouragement means a lot!

  • Norm Rotruck
    Posted at 05:24h, 14 June

    Oh, tracy! This is one of your best blogs ever! Really enjoyed the info and what you guys go through to get the wheat in despite all the obstacles. Thank you so much or the insight and God bless you and your family!Norm Rotruck

    • z crew
      Posted at 16:51h, 16 June

      Oh gosh, Norm! Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m so glad there are people like you out there “rooting” for us! 🙂

  • Tom A Anderson
    Posted at 09:33h, 14 June

    That’s the sad part of being a harvester or producer for that matter. The expenses.. Margins are very tight & like you say so many things are uncertain. The bank demands repayment regardless of your income or not. I think we would all be better off if we could go back to yesterday but we can’t. wishful thinking. My kids will not farm because of all of this. Farms become fewer and larger so less work for fewer harvesters. My wife was raised in Perkins county Nebr. near Madrid. When she was young the park in town was full of traveling harvesters during wheat harvest. The country was mostly wheat. Now it’s mostly corn some soybeans, wheat acres are much fewer. So not as much work for harvesters like yourself. I believe the only thing we can all do is leave it in Gods hands.

    • z crew
      Posted at 17:00h, 16 June

      I believe there are several circumstances regarding the number of harvesters. There are less and less wheat acres being grown and more and more fall crops taking its place. The price of wheat doesn’t give the farmer any incentive to grow it. Unfortunately, the harvester really depends on those summer wheat acres to make it all work. With the wheat ripening from south to north, it allows us to work more than just the six to eight weeks of fall harvest. Normally, we are on the road for 100-120 days with the wheat harvest. The cost of machinery and parts are getting out of hand for us. There’s not much more jump we can take in cost of machinery to justify trading. Machinery is much larger than years ago. We can cut more with one machine than we could 40 years ago. Our one machine can do almost the same amount of acres that three of my grandpa’s could do. Farmers are beginning to lease combines more than they used to. The leased machine is direct competition for the harvester. There’s so many changes that have taken place in the last five to ten years. It’s discouraging to see but it’s also change that may have to happen to make farming what it needs to be. Thank you for your comment, Tom.

  • Fred Engelke
    Posted at 20:06h, 15 June

    Well said I couldn’t have put it any better, custom harvest is a good life but with times like they are its not so glamors any more. I worked for a guy in late 60s it was different then. Hope you have a good harvest

    • z crew
      Posted at 16:50h, 16 June

      YES! I WAS so different. It was different just 10 years ago. It’s definitely a business that must be managed well or it won’t survive. And even the best managers are beginning to see the changes. Thank you for your comment, Fred!

  • Bernie Westhoelter
    Posted at 10:57h, 23 June

    Followed for many years with High Plains Journal. Always enjoyed the articles.

    • z crew
      Posted at 15:33h, 23 June

      Why thank you, Bernie! You’ve probably read Jenna and Taylor’s stories then. 🙂
      Thank you for letting me know you’re out there and you’re reading my words.