Roger and Sandy Grade moved to their Fond du Lac County farm near Eldorado from Washington County in 1972, after feeling the pressure of urban growth. They bought 135 acres and started with 36 cows.
Over the years, Vision-Aire Farms has grown to 611 owned and 265 rented acres. Today, their 157-cow Holstein herd averages more than 24,000 pounds of milk with 3.9% butterfat and 3.1% protein.
Roger and Sandy raised four children on the farm. Since 1999, their son David and daughter Janet, with her husband, Travis, have come back to work on the farm. Their oldest son, Brian, who works as a farm machinery salesman for Riesterer and Schnell, occasionally helps with farm work.
As each child returned, Roger and Sandy expanded their operation.
While attending Fox Valley Technical College's farm operating program, David continued to help on the farm; during this time, the farm land base grew. Roger and Sandy were also looking for a way to allow David to build some equity in the farm.
"We had always hired someone to do our combining," Roger explains. "Each year, I was writing this big check to someone else, and we thought, 'How can we do this differently to make it more beneficial for our business?' "
In 1999, Roger and Sandy formed a partnership with Brian and David to purchase planting and harvesting equipment. This partnership is called Vision-Aire Custom Enterprises. Roger, David and Brian are each a one-third partner. They plant and harvest several hundred acres of crops every year for neighbors. The enterprise also has given Brian and David the ability to create farm equity.
"We kept growing the business as more neighbors wanted us to do their harvesting and planting," Roger notes.
In 2010, daughter and son-in-law, Janet and Travis Clark, joined Vision-Aire Farms. Janet and Travis are both ag graduates of University of Wisconsin-Platteville. They then formed Vision-Aire Farms LLC in 2012 to allow the next generation to build equity in the dairy operation.
Bigger and better
Recently the Grades' dairy operation has seen a lot of changes. In 2010, an expansion began that took the herd from 70 cows to 157. A heifer shed was remodeled into a 34-stall sand-bedded freestall barn. A year ago, a double-eight herringbone milking parlor was built, and the existing tiestall barn was remodeled into a 67-stall sand-bedded freestall barn. Dry cows and bred heifers are housed at their second farm, where David and his family live.
"Our focus is to keep the cows comfortable," Janet says.
They also raise 111 heifers and calves. Newborn calves are housed in individual hutches until they are weaned at 2 months of age. They are then moved to group housing and kept in super huts. Heifers are sent to a custom heifer raiser when they are 8 months old and return when they are confirmed pregnant.
David is in charge of the crops, feeding and manure handling. Travis is herdsman and is responsible for the daily operation of the dairy. Janet has taken over bookkeeping responsibilities from Sandy.
Sandy, who is a cancer survivor, feeds calves, maintains the landscaping, works part time at Target in Fond du Lac and helps take care of the 11 grandkids. Roger still oversees most of the large management decisions, but has enjoyed handing over the daily responsibilities of the farm.
Their oldest daughter, Marsha, lives in Stevens Point with her husband, Steve Van Ark, and their son and daughter. Brian and his wife, Torrie, live in Brandon with their two sons and a daughter. Janet and Travis live in Rosendale with their two daughters and a son. David and his wife, also named Torrie, live at the second farm with their two sons and daughter.
Fields are planted to corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. About half of their crops are used to feed their herd, while the other half is sold as a cash crop.
All fields are soil-tested every three years in 5-acre grids to balance crop nutrient requirements. To help control soil erosion, some fields are planted no-till. They use minimum till on the rest. The Grades also work closely with a crop consultant.
Off the farm
Over the years, Roger has been involved in many community and agriculture organizations. He was a 4-H leader for 25 years and served on the Fond du Lac County 4-H Leaders' Association Board, including one year as president. He is a member of the Fond du Lac County Holstein Association and served six years on that board, including being president. He is a charter member of the Fond du Lac Area Agribusiness Council. Roger has also served on the Badgerland Financial board of directors for 29 years. He was a member of the Pickett Cooperative Board for nine years. He is a Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau director and was a district delegate for Genex Cooperative. He is a trustee in his church, as well.
Janet says she is proud of the farming operation her family has built.
"I am so thankful that my father has a teaching heart and is willing to hand over his wisdom and business to my generation," she says. "I look forward to learning from him and growing what he has started. Someday, I can tell my children and grandchildren that it all started with him, a dream and a lot of hard work."