Custom Cattle Feeding Leads to Opportunities for the Extended Family

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of the Iowa Cattleman magazine. A to Z Feeders is also part of the Custom Cattle Feeders Directory.

It’s clear after only a few minutes of discussion that Alan Zellmer is passionate about the cattle industry. It’s also clear that he’s even more passionate about his family and the extended family that works with him.

Zellmer, founder of A to Z Feeders of Atlantic, is a first generation cattleman. But his hard work and dedication over the years have led to a second generation of Zellmers in the cattle business, and a growing third generation.

Alan has also incorporated several other trusted and vital employees, who work hard on the farm whenever needed, give valuable input into decisions and eat dinner at noon together everyday.

The Cattle

Zellmer began raising cattle in earnest in the early 1980s. Several years after marrying his high school sweetheart, Brenda, in 1979, he sold 300 sows and bought 200 cows. As the cow-herd expanded, Zellmer built a feedlot to feed out the calves.

An open pen and a cold call led to a successful Waygu business that will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2017. Feeding Waygu is not the same as feeding other cattle, but Zellmer had help from the start. At first, a Waygu specialist from Japan visited the feedlot every three months, offering nutrition and management advice. Within a few years, the feedlot grew to over 2,000 head (one-time capacity) and since then, it has grown to nearly 10,000 head. 

Waygu works well for A to Z Feeders. The cattle are known for their carcass quality, but they are also very docile and easy calvers, with an average birth weight around 60 pounds. The climate on the Japanese island of Hokkaida, where the Waygu originate, is very similar to Iowa's. And the Zellmers are in close proximity to O'neill Parking in Omaha. 

In addition to the Waygu, A to Z has a herd of purebred red angus cows, and those calves are finished on a "grass-fed" ration of forages in Zellmer's relatively new monoslope barn. Much of the grass used in the ration comes from rye, which is drilled in Septemeber after harvesting wet corn. By harvesting ryelage in late spring, Zellmer can capture approximately 24 T per acre of additional feedstuffs, even after allowing the cows to graze on the rye through February. 

"You can have all the money in the world, but without family, you have nothing."

-Alan Zellmer

The People

"The people are the reason we do what we do - so that, if they so choose, they can join the operation," says Zellmer.

Witnessing the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork at A to Z Feeders is an inspiration. Alan and Brenda's mothers both work on the farm, as well as their two sons and one of their son-in-laws. Their four daughters are also still involved and the couple's eight grandchildren, which will expand to 11 in the next year, are learning the same values and skills their parents learned growing up on the farm. Several other employees, mostly childhood friends of Zellmer's children, round out the crew. 

Dinner is reminiscent of a family gathering, with a potluck style buffet line and three kinds of dessert. At A to Z, everyone who works together eats together, and Brenda's mom, Sharon, had no trouble serving the two of us who were visiting from the ICA office. 

"God gives us all gifts," Alan Zellmer says, "and if you can figure out how to use them, you'll never have to work another day in your life." 

The size and diversity of the A to Z operation has allowed for many family members and friends to use their gifts. The cow/calf operation, the feedlot, the row-crop operation, the office and the kitchen all offer opportunities for specialization while preserving the family farm. 

"You can have all the money in the world, but without family, you have nothing."