It seems all of the pieces have fallen into place at Vision-Aire Farms, LLC in Fond du Lac County. Beyond the neat-and tidy appearance from the road, visitors find a family working in unison and a dairy herd churning out high quality milk.
None of this happened by accident. Clear communication and a laser’s focus to detail are the ingredients for success at a farm recently recognized as one of the six top dairy herds for milk quality in the United States.
Roger Grade (who treats planning ahead as a hobby) and his wife, Sandy, are transitioning the farm they purchased in 1972, to a trio who each specializes on their preferred area of work: their son, David, their daughter, Janet, and her husband, Travis Clark.
“It was the best decision we ever made,” Janet said of returning home to farm in 2010.
Janet Clark is a 2015 graduate of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Institute leadership course. The mother of three projects a sense of purpose and calm while wearing many hats. She cares for the calves and does its bookkeeping. She works part-time for Rural Mutual Insurance Company, and she connects with consumers on social media about farming.
Her brother, David, specializes in the farm’s crops and machinery. He conducts the farm’s equipment repair, mixing of feed and field work on nearly 1,000 acres of owned and rented land. He also provides custom planting, baling and harvesting for a number of other farms. David’s wife, Torrie, is a kindergarten teacher and they have three children.
Her husband, Travis, focuses on the cows. He and employee, Cory Tavs, milk the herd together every day at 4:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in a double eight parlor with a low-line milking system that was built in 2012. They follow a written milking procedure that spells out a protocol for predipping, drying teats with a paper towel, stripping out foremilk, attaching the milking units and post-dipping after the milking machine has been automatically taken off. The cows are housed in a tunnel ventilated barn that was retrofitted from stanchions to free stalls in 2012.
Travis is a firm believer that routine is important to cows. Sand bedding for the herd is applied on the same day each week and stalls are raked twice daily. He pours over the herd’s daily and monthly production reports. The farm’s milking protocols were based off of recommendations from their equipment supplier, Central Ag Supply, that observed how Clark and Tavs milked the cows.
“I listen to everything Pam Reugg has to say,” Travis said.
Reugg is a UW-Extension milk quality specialist and dairy science professor at UW-Madison.
Calves at Vision-Aire Farms are the products of an investment in good genetics and an accelerated feeding program. Young calves are fed two gallons of pasteurized milk daily and kept in hutches until weaned. From there they move to a row of super hutches until nine months of age when they go to a custom heifer raiser. They return to the farm when they are confirmed 60-days pregnant.
The herd boasts many big, strong two-year old cows giving more than 100 pounds of milk per day. The herd of big, registered Holsteins has a 26,782 rolling herd average and a 58,000 somatic cell count average. With the milking herd at its maximum capacity (due to the longevity of the cows and sexed semen being used on first-calf heifers) some cows are being sold to other dairies.
Going by the book has meant selling a cow giving 110 pounds of milk because her somatic cell count was too high, but it has all paid off. The Clarks received a National Dairy Quality Award from the National Mastitis Council in Arizona earlier this month. They were nominated for the award by BelGioiso Cheese, which buys their milk.
The herd’s beginnings can be traced back to Roger Grade’s affinity for registered Holsteins that began as a youth in 4-H. The Grades bought the farm near Eldorado in the Town of Lamartine in 1972, after Milwaukee’s urban sprawl pushed him away from his native Colgate.
“I saw opportunity here,” Grade recalls. “A good location, a good price and a good barn built in 1957.”
Today, the farm’s transition from one generation to the next is being executed with thoughtful precision. They formed two limited liability corporations, one for the dairy another for the land, and are gradually gifting shares to Janet and David. The milking herd has grown from 65 cows to 135 cows to support the three families.
Janet said the transition from off-farm jobs (with weekends off) to farming full-time was a challenge at first. So was getting reacquainted within the local community.
“But I knew this was the type of life I wanted for our family,” Janet said. “I grew up in 4-H and FFA and I wanted that for my kids.”
So did Travis, who grew up in rural Shawano County (near Birnamwood) with horses and poultry, and his uncle’s dairy farm across the road. He grew up showing his own registered Holsteins and milked cows while in college.
Today, both of their daughters show calves as 4-H members, and they describe 4-year-old son Levi as “all farm.”
Prior to joining the farm in 2010, Janet and Travis Clark lived in Dodgeville. The couple met in 1999 and married in 2002, both have ag-related degrees from UW-Platteville. The Clarks are shown here with their children: Grace, 11; Eve, 8; and Levi, 4.Family working together is often the focus on her posts on the farm’s Facebook page.
“I share photos of me and the kids feeding calves,” she said. “On Christmas Day I posted a picture of me and Travis milking cows together. Basically, I’m a mom with kids, so I can connect with other moms who have views on dairy farming.”
Her foray into social media was prompted by her involvement in Farm Bureau and other affiliations. So was a new-found appreciation for the importance of lobbying on agriculture’s behalf. In 2014, Janet traveled to Washington, D.C, with other young farmers and agriculturists and it made an impact.
“It really opened our eyes to what Farm Bureau does and why we need to be involved,” said Janet, who will return to Washington in April with her fellow Institute classmates.
She served as one of the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau’s delegates at the WFBF Annual Meeting in December, and as a Farm First Cooperative delegate. Travis is a delegate for CRI Ag Source. The Clarks are in their second year on Farm First’s Young Cooperators Steering Committee. They were recently accepted to the National Advisory Council for the National Milk Producers.
Since the fall of 2013, Janet also has worked as a customer service representative for Rural Mutual Insurance Company’s agent, Mike Immel, where she specializes in health insurance.
“What better job is there?” she asked. “I’m a farmer and I talk to farmers about health insurance.”
“She is dependable, accountable and communicates well with our clients,” Immel said. “She understands who we are and what we stand for.”
Immel remarked on the farm’s spiffy appearance. He’s not the only one who has noticed. In 2014, the landscaping around the barn that greets motorists along State Highway 23, received a beautification award from the Fond du Lac County Natural Beauty Council that typically goes to tidy homeowners.
It’s clear the scenic farm located just east of Rosendale along State Highway 23 produces high quality cattle, milk and work ethics.
Story by Casey Langan. Original version appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.