ELDORADO - Roger and Sandy Grade, Eldorado, are in the process of transitioning ownership of their dairy and crop farm, known as Vision-Aire Farms, to their children who are involved full-time with the operation — son David, daughter Janet, and Janet's husband Travis Clark.
The farm Roger and Sandy purchased in 1972 on State 23 east of Fond du Lac has grown by leaps and bounds. They began with 38 milk cows and are now milking 160, with a total herd of 320. Their acreage has mushroomed from 130 acres to 600. Grain is hauled away by semi-truck, and their tile plow is equipped with a GPS guidance system for help with installing underground drainage.
But what really rises to the top is the quality of their milk. Recently, Vision-Aire Farms was selected as one of the top six farms in the nation to win the prestigious Platinum-level National Milk Quality Award. Presented by the National Mastitis Council, the award is based on the owners' attention to detail in the care of their cows — factors like cow comfort, using utmost care in preparing for the milking process, strict monitoring of herd health, and consistent testing of milk samples.
Roger and Sandy, along with Janet and Travis, flew to Arizona to receive the award at the three-day national conference.
"It was an unbelievable honor," Roger said, noting everyone in the contest pays attention to detail when it comes to milk quality.
"Obviously we were very excited and shocked," said Janet (Grade) Clark. "It wasn't really a goal of ours to win the award. Best quality milk is what we strive to do every day. Whether there was an award out there or not, we were still going to do our best."
While David Grade has been working on the farm continuously since high school, his sister Janet has not. Six years ago, she and her husband Travis left their full-time jobs and their home in Dodgeville, Wis., to join the family farm business.
Janet, who had worked in banking and Travis as a mortgage broker and crop insurance salesman, both had gone to UW-Platteville for four-year agriculture degrees. Now living in Rosendale with their three children, it's just a hop, skip and a jump to get to the farm every day. Eventually they hope to live on the farm.
"Making the move back was exciting but also difficult at first," Janet said. "It was exciting because I love animals. The difficult part was the fact we went from having nine-to-five jobs to working all the time. Plus, we had connections to our other community. The first year was the hardest."
Overseeing Vision-Aire Farms is a team project — one the Grade family handles well. Responsibilities are divided among them. Janet, who also has a part-time job as a health insurance specialist, handles the bookkeeping and financial services. She also does all the evening calf feedings. Travis, who also sells crop insurance, is in charge of the dairy. He is there every morning and night for the milking process. Employee Corey Tavs assists Travis with the milking.
"Between us, we watch the cows very closely and can monitor the health of the herd," Travis said.
David handles all the land/crop decisions and the equipment repair. Crops planted include corn, beans, alfalfa, and wheat. Married with three children, David lives just down the road from the farm. In his spare time, he enjoys doing woodworking projects — in fact, years ago he built custom cabinets in his parents' remodeled kitchen. Roger, who oversees the management of Vision-Aire Farms, helps David with field work and equipment repair, along with hauling manure.
Sandy feeds calves every morning and helps Janet with the task at night. She also takes pride in her ability to keep the lawn and outdoor area around the farm buildings looking good. That is evident in the fact that twice the farm has won the Fond du Lac County Natural Beauty Council Beautification Award.
"Our farm isn't just about dairying," Sandy said. "We have several enterprises related to agriculture such as custom planting, harvesting, chopping and baling hay and straw."
With a total of 11 grandchildren, Sandy says enjoying them is one of her favorite roles. In addition to Janet and David, the Grades have two other children. The oldest, Marsha, is a wedding/event coordinator, is married and lives in Stevens Point with her husband and two children. The second oldest, Brian, is married, has three children, lives in Brandon, and is district sales manager for Dairyland Seed. He also helps out on the farm.
While the whole family is involved with the Farm Bureau organization, Janet has taken it a few steps further. In 2015, she enrolled in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau's Institute Leadership course. Recently, she was among a select few from around the state chosen to travel to Washington, D.C. The main purpose of the trip was to discuss agricultural issues with government representatives.
The leadership course has led to public speaking engagements. "I do a lot of that," she said, noting the course dealt with topics such as interview etiquette, personal development, strengths and weaknesses to name a few.
"The leadership course has helped me grow in those areas," Janet said. "It's improved my networking skills and has helped our farm become more recognized."
Part of that recognition comes from the social media presence Janet creates for the farm. Her obvious love for the cows shows in the comments and photos she posts on Facebook/Vision Aire Farms. Videos of a calf relaxing in its comfy bed, pictures of healthy cows munching on hay, and Janet's children interacting with the animals are threaded through the screens of the farm's Facebook page.
As one of just six farms in the nation to earn the Platinum Award for their milk quality, Vision Aire Farms was launched into the spotlight. One of the major reasons, says Roger Grade, is because of changes made at the farm.
"The biggest factor was the change we made to the low-line milking parlor and housing the cows in sand-bedded free stalls," Roger concludes. "The health of the herd improvement was fantastic."