Contractor profile: Top GeaRZ Contracting

By: Randall Johnston

Top Gearz Contracting is proof of what a hard-working young couple can achieve. This Southland business is on a steady path of growth.

Top GeaRZ Contracting owners Rico Zeestraten and Charlette van Hout-Zeestraten were both brought up on dairy farms; Rico from a family of five children and Charlette from a family of three children. Along with the couple, all of the siblings started their own businesses and forged their own paths fairly early in life. Randall Johnston headed south to find out what it takes to impress Southland farmers in 2022 and how Rico is helping them to stay on top of things.

670ha of silage chopped into three stacks in Twizel this summer with the help of Alpine Excavation

At just 32 and 33 years of age, Rico and Charlette are now seven years into their farm contracting journey and have worked hard to gain a reputation as reliable operators who invest both in people and their modern and ever-growing fleet of machinery.

Based near Winton, a short drive north of Invercargill, they have carved out a solid base of clients in their part of Southland and come a long way since starting out with ‘a few well-used machines’ back in 2015.

Dairy farm support

Rico and Charlette both grew up working for their parents on dairy farms. Rico was doing a lot of the work on his parents’ dairy block that a contractor would be paid to do.

"Since we owned our own machinery, we always just did it ourselves and in a way that’s what led to me go out on my own and do it for other people as well."

To this day, the bulk of the work that Top GeaRZ Contracting takes on is either for or on dairy farms with "a bit of sheep and beef mixed in."

Fendt 724 and Bergmann 980 loader wagon carting grass in Southland

However, Rico has learned that coming armed with a reputation for professional service pays of, and the size of the farms and the scope of the work has increased beyond what he thought possible just a few years back.

"We started out in 2015 with two high-hour Fendt tractors and a McHale V660 baler.

"We don’t really think about it because we’re always on the go, but occasionally, we do realise just how far we’ve come. That’s a good feeling. Having the same farmers keep coming back to us as we build up trust and having new large-scale farmers come on-board as well is really rewarding."

Speaking of others involved, Top GeaRZ has become fairly family-oriented with Rico’s younger brother Troy helping out occasionally, as well as older brother Jevon, who does all Rico’s stacking and runs a silage trailer beside the chopper. Jevon and his wife Elisabeth also own an earthworks business called Alpine Excavations, which comes in handy at times.

Keeping the business running and growing is very much a family affair. Charlette helps Rico to "stay on top of everything" and occupies a tractor seat regularly, as does their son Noah (two) who already has a keen interest in the big machines, especially the baler (his new favourite word) and the big chopper, of course, and Nikita (seven) who grew up in a tractor taking her first trip in the passenger seat at only three weeks old, beside her mum who was the manager and tractor driver on a 600-cow dairy farm with a wintering barn for her parents.

John Deere 7550 chopper

The business has grown and evolved over the years.

"When I first started, my main income on the contracting side would have been baleage, but although the baleage is still ticking along nice and growing, we do a lot more silage and groundwork now."

Fleet upgrades

The latest addition is a brand-new eight-tonne, 242hp, Fendt 724 tractor, purchased from JJ Limited in Invercargill, which arrived in March this year. Rico says the six-litre Deutz engine has plenty of grunt and the cabin has great visibility. Rico’s unashamedly a fan of the Bavarian brand. His son was wearing the Fendt merch when Farm Trader visited, and endorsements don’t come much stronger than that.

The McHale Fusion Vario baler from Power Farming Invercargill, which can make bales from 0.6 to 1.68 metres and tackle 30 hectares a day, was picked up at the start of last year. It gives the weight and moisture of each bale on-screen in the tractor cabin and shows where you are in the baling and wrapping process. Rico has a long-term relationship with sales manager John Brady.

"I know I can just pick up the phone and call John anytime, and I’ve always liked McHale balers. They’re just super reliable with a set-up that I’m used to."

Fendt 724 and Fusion Vario 3 Baler heading to Southland to knock out 640 bales

Also supplied by Power Farming Invercargill was a Kverneland 97150 C Four Rotor Rake with a 10.3- to 15-metre working width, which has just finished its second season. There are not a lot of these on the market in New Zealand yet, but Rico says they’re getting good results with it. Also purchased two years ago was a six-furrow Kverneland 2500i-plough, which allows plough settings to be adjusted from the tractor cabin and has had plenty of use with no hiccups.

Other workhorses include a lightly used (1500 hours) Claas 960 silage chopper purchased about 18 months ago, a used Kverneland beet planter 1900, and an ex-demonstration Väderstad rapid seed drill 400s – all of which have seen plenty of use and allowed Rico to improve and expand on his services to farmers in his patch of Southland.

"I’m definitely a Kverneland guy when it comes to the groundwork. They make a great machine; they’re not very heavy implements but they are well built and seem to have a good lifespan. I wouldn’t go away from the McHale balers either. The McHale gear just keeps going and I haven’t seen anything that would make me change what I’m using for that kind of work.

Nikita and Noah are always keen to lend a helping hand on the farm

"The Claas chopper for the silage has been reliable, too. I had triple-axle Bergmann loader wagons that I bought off my parents Kees and Wilma, which I had been using on their dairy farm – before I got the Claas – and they just seem to go forever. They’re probably the most reliable bits of gear that I’ve ever bought."

The road ahead

After seven years working with the same operator who has recently moved on as a digger operator, Rico is looking looking to hire three more full-time drivers this year, going abroad to find dedicated, hard-working operators with experience. Rico is feeling positive about the future of the business and how it has evolved over the last several years.

"I feel like I’ve built up a good base now, covering all aspects of what I want to do on the contracting side. All the gear that I have is being utilised as much as possible. Now the focus is just on picking up a bit more work where I can with the baleage and growing the silage a bit more. Silage has really boomed forus over the last year and a half, and we have the potential to go even bigger with that."

Taking in the sights on the long drive home from Twizel in the Fendt 927 with Bergmann wagon

Early supporters of the business and ongoing for groundwork are Charlette’s parents, John and Teresa Van Hout, who have three dairy farms, one of which Charlette and Rico Share milk. Also, dairy and beef farmers Scotty and Jeannie Cochrane are regular long-time supporters.

The other is Central Southland dairy farmers Mitchell and Kate Johnston. The foundation and viability of the business was aided by these people and their support enabled it to expand further, along with passion and drive from Rico and Charlette. 

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