The Grotjans’ cows are milked in a double-8 herringbone parlor that Grotjan built inside one end of the original tiestall barn on the farm near Eagle, Wisconsin.
The Grotjans’ cows are milked in a double-8 herringbone parlor that Grotjan built inside one end of the original tiestall barn on the farm near Eagle, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

    EAGLE, Wis. – Once Jim Grotjan got his first taste of farming at age 15, he never again considered another occupation. His first part-time job at a nearby dairy farm would lead him into a lifelong career in the industry.
    Grotjan grew up on today’s equivalent of a hobby farm – 85 acres that was home to a couple horses and a dozen or so chickens. His father was a high school biology teacher in Milwaukee.

    Grotjan’s home was 3 miles from where he currently farms with his wife, Michele, near Eagle. His farm is the same place that his parents used to buy milk from once a week and the same farm he began working at years ago as a teenager.
    “I started working here and fell in love with it,” Grotjan said. “You couldn’t get me out of this place.”  
    Grotjan milked cows, fed calves and did other chores as well as field work on the 70-cow farm which was owned by two brothers. A true cow man, Grotjan favored the cows over the fields.
    “I didn’t like being on the tractor,” Grotjan said. “My thoughts were always with the cows. I was always wondering if they needed more feed, and I wanted to get back when I knew it was getting close to milking time. I found field work to be pretty boring.”
    Grotjan assumed a full-time position after completing the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course and stayed at the farm until he was 28 years old.
    “Things weren’t good here by that point,” Grotjan said. “It was the ‘80s, which were tough years on farmers as it was, but the owners made some mistakes and were starting to hurt financially. I woke up one day and thought, ‘What am I doing here? This farm is going broke; this is a dead-end job.’”
    It was August 1988. Grotjan would eventually find his way back to this farm – the farm that first instilled his love for dairying. But in the meantime, he moved on and began working at another farm of the same size near Platteville. Grotjan knew the owner, Jeff Spitzer, from the short course.
    “He was a really smart, progressive dairyman,” Grotjan said. “I learned so much from him. And going to work for someone I knew made the transition easier. I lived in Eagle my whole life, and my first job was the only job I ever had. It was a big step to leave it all behind.”
    Two-and-a-half years later, Grotjan learned of an opportunity back home. Brothers Ken and Jerry Kau, who milked about 60 cows, were getting big into crops and looking to bring in a partner for their dairy. In April 1991 at the age of 31, Grotjan became a partner and the farm’s herd manager. He bought one-third of the herd while each Kau brother also owned one-third. The farm became two enterprises consisting of both dairy and grain.
    Five years later, the Kau brothers decided they wanted out of the dairy. Grotjan bought their shares of the herd and began renting the barn from the Kaus while continuing to buy the brothers’ feed. The following year would give Grotjan another opportunity to expand when the farm he got his start at underwent a forced sale due to bankruptcy. Grotjan bought the herd and the Kaus bought the farm. Grotjan rented the barn and was now milking 130 cows between two sites which required hiring a full-time guy to tend to the 60-cow herd back at the Kau farm.
    In August 1998, Grotjan became a farm owner when he purchased the farm he worked at as a teenager from the Kaus – buying the buildings and 35 acres of the 300-acre farm. It was a real fixer-upper, and now that Grotjan owned the facilities, he immediately began making improvements. The farm went through a period of major transformation as Grotjan ripped down old buildings and added new ones.
    “I tore down seven to eight old, junky, falling-down buildings,” Grotjan said.
    There was one gem amongst the run-down structures – a brand new shed measuring 60 feet by 120 feet which stood next to the tiestall barn.
    “It was the perfect dimension for a three-row freestall barn, so that’s what I turned it into – a freestall barn with 81 stalls,” Grotjan said.
    Grotjan gutted one end of the tiestall barn and put in a holding area and double-8 flat barn milking parlor. The other side of the barn was converted into free stalls to house additional cows. Grotjan now had room to combine his two herds at one location.  
    “Having all the cows at one farm was way more efficient to manage,” Grotjan said. “It was tough milking at both places.”
    He built a cover-all calf barn in 2001 which houses 28 calves. In 2002, he gave the house a facelift as well, replacing the roof, windows and siding.
    Grotjan built another 50-stall freestall barn in 2004 to house a 45-cow herd he bought from a neighbor. Today, this barn is where the farm’s older cows reside. In 2008, he built a new freestall barn containing 140 stalls and maternity pen, and built a new heifer shed in 2010. He also turned his first freestall barn into housing for heifers.  
    Six years ago, Grotjan replaced his flat-barn parlor with a double-8 Germania herringbone, which he said allowed him to increase milking to three times per day.
    “It was a good move that really paid off,” Grotjan said. “I gained 20 pounds of milk per cow per day by switching from twice-a-day to three-times-a-day milking.”
    In the flat-barn parlor, Grotjan was achieving 80 pounds per cow per day. Five months into the new parlor, cows were milking 100 pounds daily.
    “We hit that magic number and have held it ever since,” Grotjan said.
    The new parlor also took milking down from a three-person job to a two-person job where 75 cows can be milked per hour.
    “It’s so much more efficient than the flat-barn parlor,” Grotjan said.
    The original tiestall barn is a mix of old and new. In the new half are the holding pen and milking parlor. The old half contains tie stalls for treating sick cows and pens for housing bull calves.
    Today, the Grotjans milk 200 cows and raise their replacement heifers with the help of seven part-time and full-time employees. Sticking to his original viewpoint on fieldwork, Grotjan does not farm any acres and buys all his feed. He still buys corn from the Kaus and hay from a handful of local farmers.  
    “It’s the perfect fit,” Grotjan said. “My favorite part about farming has always been working with the cows.”
    Grotjan looks back on his farming journey with pride – a journey that dates back to a 15-year-old with no farming experience taking on a job at a local dairy farm. Through the years, that young man bought cows and rented facilities until reaching his ultimate goal of farm ownership. Lifting his farm from shambles to its present glory is an accomplishment Grotjan finds fulfilling.
    “I got to do what I wanted to with my life,” Grotjan said of his career as a dairy farmer. “I’ve always been on the farm. There’s nothing else I ever wanted to do. It’s gratifying to look out my window in the evening and say, ‘I built this.’”