After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in 1967, Jim Fitzgerald returned to his family's dairy farm in Manitowoc County near Newton and started working with his dad on the farm where he grew up.
A year and a half later, Jim and Sandie were married. In the 1970s, the Fitzgeralds built one of the early freestall barns and milking centers in the area. Two of Jim's three younger brothers joined the family operation and by 1980 they were milking 180 cows.
"In those early freestall operations, there was little attention paid to cow comfort. In 1980, Sandie and I decided to purchase a farm just down the road from the home farm and go back to milking cows in a tie stall barn," Jim explains. The couple began milking 60 registered Holsteins in a tie stall barn and named their farm Fitz-Haven Dairy Farm.
In 1992, Jim took a calculated risk and entered into a partnership to start Quality Roasting.
"This came about because I was growing soybeans and I was having them roasted on the farm," Jim explains. His nutritionist Lynn Davis analyzed the beans and he determined they were basically raw.
"We were spending $25 per ton for nothing, so we fed raw beans for a while," he says. "My nutritionist thought there would be a lot of demand for this so we put together a business plan and started looking for a site for it. I started talking to my cousin Mike Herzog. We did the research for a year and decided we could produce a 'quality' product."
Jim, Lynn and Mike built the business in Valders to sell roasted soybeans directly to feed mills.
"It was a rough first two years," Jim continues.
Scott Rabe was hired as manager and later became an equal partner.
"Today, the success of Quality Roasting is because of Scott," Jim says.
The first month, the partners did just over 100 ton of beans.
"Today, our focus is Exceller meal, a high bypass, highly digestible soybean meal product. We produce 30 ton per hour, 24 hours per day, 6 days per week," Jim says.
In 2011, they purchased a meal facility at Owen in Clark County.
"When we started our business, we had a bin that held 6,000 bushels of soybeans," he says. "Now at Valders we have 1.4 million bushels of storage and another 340,000 bushels of storage at Owen."
Expanding the farm
In 1997, a major expansion on the Fitzgerald's dairy farm grew the herd to 400 cows and Soaring Eagle Dairy was established. A freestall barn and double-12 milking parlor were built.
"We put mattresses in the freestalls," Jim explains. "That was a mistake."
In 2005 they replaced the mattresses with sand and installed a sand reclamation system that allows the Fitzgeralds to recycle 85% of the sand that is kicked into the alleys and mixed with manure. Manure is stored in three lagoons. The first lagoon catches the sand that doesn't get captured for reuse and the solids. The third lagoon holds all liquid.
"After the sand is separated, we let the sand sit for four to five weeks and it is ready to be reused," Jim says. Manure is spread on the fields for fertilizer.
"We estimate this system would pay for itself in three years," Jim recalls. "It turns out with increased milk production, a lower cell count and improved cow comfort, it paid for itself in a year. We wish we went with it to begin with, but that's how you learn."
Between 1997 and 2005, several expansions of the facilities grew the herd to the current size of 1,100 milking cows. Today, Jim and Sandie are partners in Soaring Eagle Dairy with four of their five children and one son-in-law.
"They all get along really well," Jim reports.
Daughter Kelly Goehring, 43, graduated from UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in 1990 and returned to the farm.
In 2001, daughter Stacy Klotz, 33, graduated from Short Course in 2001 and joined the family operation. Her husband Jeremy started working at the farm in 2008.
Oldest daughter Julie Maurer, 45, came back to the farm in 2004 after getting her associate's degree in accounting and working 10 years at Kohler Co.
Son Nick, 30, returned to the farm in 2012 after graduating from UW-Milwaukee with a degree in finance and working for six years at Acuity Insurance.
Daughter Tammy Madson, 39, has an associate's degree in materials management and works off the farm as a purchasing manager.
"They each had to work for wages for two years on the farm before becoming a partner," Jim explains.
The Fitzgeralds' cows have a 31,000 pound rolling herd average. In addition to their cows, the Fitzgeralds take care of 250 calves 5 months old and younger. Their baby calves are housed in a state-of-the art calf barn. After weaning, they are then moved next door to a group housing calf facility where they stay until they are five months old.
In 2005, the Fitzgeralds started another new business venture when they partnered with several area dairymen to have their heifers custom-raised and built The Heifer Authority near Fort Collins, Colo. At 5 months old, the Fitzgeralds' calves are trucked to Colorado and return to Soaring Eagle Dairy about two months before calving when they are between 19- and 20-months-old.
They grow crops on 1,800 acres of land including 1,200 acres owned and 600 acres rented. They raise corn, alfalfa, soybeans and wheat. Since 2010, the Fitzgeralds have been planting their corn in twin rows.
"We buy cottonseed, wet corn gluten, a protein mix and a little high moisture corn depending on the year," Jim explains. "We like to have a 4- to 6-month carryover of corn silage. The hard kernel takes on the moisture from the stalk and softens up. It's more digestible when it has been fermenting for five months or longer."
Soaring Eagle Dairy has in the past served as a UW-Extension Discovery Farm. They currently have a UW cover crop research plot located on their farm.
In addition to working hard on the farm, Jim is involved in helping build homes, a church, a school and a trade center in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He is planning to return to Haiti for two weeks in early April.
Jim is quick to credit his wife and partner of 46 years with much of his family's success.
"Sandie has been at my side since we started farming," he says. "She just never sits still. We raised five children and she very seldom missed a milking. She keeps the books for the farm and cuts all of the alfalfa. She's also very involved with our church. I don't know how she does it."