Many years ago as a young student at UW-Madison, I remember a famous economist explaining to an auditorium full of freshman students how farming worked.
'The hardest part about farming is to become a farm owner,' he said.
'There are generally three ways to become a farm owner. You can: 1) Work on a farm, learn, save money, build equity and eventually buy your own farm; 2) Inherit one or 3) Marry one (Marrying one being probably the easiest and fastest).'
I vividly remember that professor and his words, and interestingly, his words of wisdom pretty much hold true many decades later.
Eleven years ago
In 2005, I visited with and wrote about James (Jim) Grotjan, who was milking 170 cows on 35 acres near Eagle in Waukesha County. Although I've talked with Jim at farm meetings over the years and knew he was doing well, I hadn't visited at the farm since 2005. It was time.
From the highway, the farm looks to be a typical dairy set-up from (maybe) the 1960s: long red barn, four Harvestore silos and a two-story farmhouse. On a closer look, however, one will see a transparent walled barn addition, several freestall barns, a hoop barn and long rows of white plastic wrapped bales.
The hard way
Grotjan had to, by necessity, take the famed professor's long-term method to farm ownership: working on a farm, saving money and eventually moving to his own farm and developing a topnotch dairy.
He was raised on a hobby farm near Eagle by his dad, a high school biology teacher and mother with five children.
'My parents came to this dairy, then owned by Tony Kau and which I now own, to buy milk.' he said. 'I began helping Tony do some farm work in 1970 when I was 15 yeas old and fell in love with farming. I continued working here until 1988. I knew the farm wasn't doing well and went to work for Jeff Spitzer at Livingston.'
Spitzer had an outstanding herd with a 25,000-pound average housed in a tiestall barn with tunnel ventilation.
'I learned a lot from him,' Grotjan said.
In 1991, Grotjan made another move in his dairying career when he found out that Ken and Jerry Kau, who milked cows and had a big cropping operation next door to the farm where he had worked for many years, wanted to get out of dairying.
'They felt they needed help in their dairy operation and were considering selling the cows, hiring a herdsman or seeking a partner,' Grotjan said.
Becoming an owner
After much discussion, the Kaus offered Grotjan the opportunity to become a partner in the dairy. Thus, he became an owner, not an employee, in a 60-cow dairy.
'I rented their dairy facilities and bought feed from them,' Grotjan said.
In 1996, Grotjan bought the rest of the Kau herd and the 80 cows from the Tony Kau farm that was now owned by Ken and Gerry Kau (Tony's cousins). Two years later in August of 1998, he purchased 35 acres and the farmstead on the farm on which he had once worked.
'It was very inefficient, and the facilities needed a lot of work,' he said. 'But it was one more step up.'
That's when Jim Grotjan seriously began to plan and carry out his desire for a top-quality dairy.
He began by converting the tiestall barn to a double 8 flat barn milking parlor, holding area and freestalls and rebuilt the 60-by-120-foot machine shed into an 81-stall freestall barn. The parlor and freestall barn made life much easier. A number of old buildings were removed, the barn was painted and he did a good deal of cleanup work.
In 2004, Grotjan built a 51-stall freestall barn alongside the existing freestall and purchased 54 cows from a neighbor who was quitting milking.
With but 35 acres, Grotjan had to purchase all his feed, with the corn coming from Kau Brothers, as does the silage made by a custom harvester who Grotjan hires. Hay is purchased locally. When I last visited Grotjan Dairy in early 2005, his 170 cows were averaging over 80 pounds of milk per day.
Last week, I again visited Grotjan Dairy, talked with Jim and his wife, Michele, and toured the much-changed (since my last visit) dairy .
A 140-stall freestall barn was added in 2008, and a heifer shed went up in 2010.
'I was having the heifers custom-raised until then,' Grotjan said. 'This is working out well.'
In 2013, a Double 8 Germania milking prior replaced the flat-barn system.
Germania, I asked? That name hasn't been sold new for several years.
'True,' Grotjan replied. 'I bought it from Rolf Reisgies, who sells rebuilt Germania parlors at his 'Tech for Ag' company. It is really a great system.'
Grotjan went on to tell how his Double 8 was originally part of a Double 25 Germania and how it was hauled in on a truck and installed so easily and works so well.
Note: Rolf Reisgies was the inventor and owner of Germania Dairy Automation, which was sold to DeLaval some years ago. Through a series of events, he reentered the dairy equipment business and began remanufacturing and selling used Germania (and other brands) equipment at his Tech for Ag LLC (techforag.com) in Rhinelander.
A rare feat
Today, the Grotjan herd is at 200 cows with a herd average of 32,000 pounds and a cell count of 80,000. He is proud of those figures and that Dr. Andy Johnson of Grande Cheese says a herd averaging over 100 pounds of milk a day with a cell count of under 100,000 is extremely rare.
How does Grotjan Dairy do it?
'We don't do anything special,' Grotjan said. 'It's a combination of 1) clean cows, 2) clean equipment, 3) proper milking procedures, and I credit my great employees that work so well together. New milkers are well-trained by those with experience. My milkers (three men and three women) are all local people and all in their 20s who do such a great job.'
He also credits his Pasture Mats covered with a few inches of sand for providing a very clean bedding as partially responsible for the low cell count.
Jim Grotjan has done well for a nonfarm boy but freely credits others for helping him along the way. Certainly his attendance at the UW Farm Short Course was a major influence; Dr. Andy Johnson, well-known veterinarian with Grande Dairy helps in many ways; Gerritt DeBruin, Lake Mills, is his nutritionist; and Rick Logterman, Darien, is his accountant. In addition, Whitewater Vet Hospital works with herd health, and his cattle genetics come from ABS Global and Select Sires.
Grotjan took the long way to farm ownership. He didn't have a farm to inherit nor a wife with a farm (he was just recently married), but his passion for dairying, ability to learn and management skills have made it all work.
As I wrote 11 years ago: For those who see no future in dairying, think again. It's still so true.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at email@example.com.