At 74-years-young, Herbert Zeager of Limestoneville, PA in Montour County is still farming 350 acres; feeding Angus steers for beef — about 100 at a time — and caring for guinea keets from the time they are delivered to his barn at one day old until they are less temperature-sensitive and better able to take care of themselves. With the part-time help of his son John, Zeager raises and turns over about 10,000 guinea fowl every 15 weeks.
The Zeager’s historic barn was built in 1866, of post and beam construction, fastened together with wooden pins. The large timbers attest to the barn’s strength and durability. The steers are housed in the lower portion of the barn, which has the excellent ventilation the animals need, in addition to ample space. The air there felt fairly cool even on a hot day, which is important for Angus cattle. “I keep them in the barn all the time. Everything they need is here.”
His feeder steers are all Angus, including a few red Angus and Angus crosses. “They need less grain than some breeds. I supply the facilities, the labor, and the feed, which I raise myself. They take about three hours of labor a day for the 100 head, to make the feed, deliver it to their pens, plus actual feeding time. The steers are trucked here at 750 to 850 pounds, and we feed them to about 1400 pounds.
“When the animals are first delivered to my barn, after they’ve been on grass, I feed a fair amount of hay. Then I gradually reduce the amount of hay and raise the amount of grain that I mix with the corn silage, until they’ve reached finish weight. The proportions are a military secret,” he chuckled. The feed for the cattle only uses about half of the production from the 350 acres that Zeager farms. “I sell the rest to the mills.”
The Angus animals seemed quite tame. “They’re like people. They respond to how they’re treated. We bring them their feed and a dry bed, and treat them well, so they are easy to handle,” commented Zeager as his son threw another bale of straw down through the floor of the straw storage overhead.
When the cattle are ready to market, “They’ll load them onto a double decker trailer and take them to Tunkhannock or to Lansdale.”
In late August, Zeager was cautiously optimistic about this year’s crop yields, and thankful for the last- minute rains. “Someone once described farming as an old-fashioned wooden barrel with staves of different lengths. Each stave can represent a different aspect of farming. Crops only do as well as the shortest of the staves. Crop yields depend, like the well-being livestock, on managing all the little details correctly. For good yields, you need good quality seed that is engineered to grow in adverse circumstances, the right mix and amounts of nutrients, good weed control—and then there’s the rain.
Zeager enjoys preserving the value from the past, as he values his sturdy, well-build barn, constructed in 1866, as well as his farmhouse, built at about the same time. “Ten years ago, I read there was an old barn in Danville that either needed to be moved or demolished. I moved it, taking it apart piece by piece, to my second farm where my son John lives, right beside the home farm. We reconstructed it piece by piece. It’s a sizeable old barn, 45x 90’ with a 45×45’ addition on the side.” It took a lot of patient work, but he saved one historic old barn from destruction.
When we spoke with him in August, Zeager was readying for silage cutting. He has the advantage of many years of farming, both during his growing up years and as an adult, to look back on. “American farmers today are amazingly productive, thanks to the machinery now available. It used to take us four days to fill our 20’x70’ silo. Now, Lloyd Zimmerman’s machinery can cut 10 rows of silage corn in one pass, and deliver it to my silo in three trucks. Instead of taking four days to fill that silo, we now complete the job in four hours.
“When I was a kid, it took Dad 13 weeks to raise a three-pound bird. When I was in high school, raising a chicken to four pounds took 10 weeks, and we thought that was great. Now we can get 4-pound broilers in six weeks.”
The Zeager farm raised broilers for years, until it was determined that their facilities, part of which are on the ground level of the old barn, were better suited to raising guinea fowl.
“The combination of good breeding and extremely efficient feed production, plus automated feeders and waterers and computerization which reduce labor costs, make American farmers better able to compete.”
Zeager has long believed in diversifying so he is not at the mercy of market prices in only one market, a particularly valuable practice right now with beef prices so low. Raising chickens in the past, now replaced by guinea fowl, gives him an additional market, which helps to create a more stable income over time. So does growing all of his own cattle feed plus growing and marketing excess grain to mills. You could say he has a lot of “egg baskets,” a very wise practice.
Herb’s parents were only the second owners of the home farm. “My highest desire is for the children and grandchildren to carry on here when I am no longer able to farm.” They may have to wait awhile, though. Even at 74, Zeager’s energy level does not seem well suited to life in a rocking chair.