NEWTON, Wis. – Jim and Sandie Fitzgerald began farming in 1980 in a 60-cow tie-stall barn near Newton. Since then there have been a couple of expansions and family-member partners have been added.
Soaring Eagle Dairy is now home to 1,200 cows. Other family members on the management team are the Fitzgerald couple’s son, Nick Fitzgerald, and daughters, Julie Maurer, Kelly Goehring and Stacy Klotz.
Goehring and Klotz co-manage herd health and herdsperson responsibilities. Julie manages the employees, parlor and financials as well as details pertaining to rules and regulations. Klotz’s husband, Jeremy Klotz, co-manages crops and maintenance with Nick Fitzgerald.
The Soaring Eagle team is also comprised of several employees, many of whom have worked on the dairy for eight years or more. The family attributes the long tenure and little employee turnover to mutual respect between the workers and the family’s genuine care for employee wellbeing. For the past several years the owners have treated employees and families to tickets to the Manitowoc County Fair.
Every Tuesday homemade baked goods are brought to the office break room – made by one of the milking employees. Team members have the opportunity to attend educational events to add to their knowledge base and experience.
“Sending our employees to educational programs allows them the chance to stay in tune with what’s happening in their area of work – and they always feel more valued and invested in,” Maurer said. “It also supports our culture of being really good at what we do.”
Soaring Eagle Dairy established The Heifer Authority in 2005 near Carr, Colorado. The custom calf-raising operation partners with a veterinarian, a nutritionist and three other dairy operations from northeastern Wisconsin. Under the supervision of calf manager Sara Wipperman calves are raised on-site at Soaring Eagle until they’re five months old. After being vaccinated calves are shipped to The Heifer Authority. About 15 months later – six weeks before calving – the heifers travel back home to settle in again at the dairy.
Regular communication between the Colorado and Wisconsin teams is key to successfully raising calves and breeding-age heifers 1,000 miles away.
“Our general manager in Colorado is the secret to the success of that operation – to the point we’ve made him an equal partner in the business,” Maurer said.
The partners are currently in the process of building a second operation near Haxtun, Colorado. At that one wet calves will be raised through to springers. The group aims to be taking in older calves this fall and wet calves by spring 2020. Weekly teleconferences keep the teams up-to-date on health, breeding and other progress reports – including updates on the construction process.
The Soaring Eagle team decided in 2017 to invest in a grain-storage system to dry and store 120,000 bushels of corn.
“It was a huge leap of faith because of the investment,” Maurer said. “But we weren’t achieving the level of solids in our milk.”
Because their milk is sold to make cheese, they were confident the system would pay for itself in the premiums received for better milk components. The investment has allowed them to consistently produce milk containing 7 pounds of combined butterfat and protein.
The team’s forward-thinking behaviors spill over into many other aspects of the operation. They have long adopted practices with environmental sustainability in mind. They’ve also been for about 15 years a site farm for University of Wisconsin-Discovery Farms.
“We operated under a nutrient-management plan long before we were ever mandated to,” Maurer said. “We’re always excited about new technologies and trying new methods. We recently put more acres into no-till where we’ll use cover crops over the winter months.”
The siblings credit their parents for instilling a strong work ethic into each of them, which has led to the success of the dairy and drives good decision-making.
“As a family we’re prideful perfectionists,” Maurer said. “Those two qualities result in making decisions that lead to outcomes that are good for the people, cows, neighbors and environment. If you’re taking care of all those things, usually the profits follow.”
Selflessly serving others is a byproduct of their commitment to ensuring good outcomes for employees, cows and neighbors. Various members of the family have traveled to Haiti on multiple mission trips to help poverty-stricken communities in need. Jim Fitzgerald has been there 12 times with members of the Green Bay Diocese. They have helped to build schools and trade centers as well as provide clean drinking water to those in the remote areas of Haiti.
Family members played an integral role in the development of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They are active on town boards and in church activities. Tour groups are welcome at the dairy to learn about and see the barns, parlor, calves and more.
“We need to continue to do outreach into the community to provide exposure to the non-farming public,” Maurer said. “It’s our belief that farmers are widely respected but not well-understood. Opportunities to bring people onto the farm are critical.”
An upcoming Agricultural Community Engagement Twilight Meeting will give them an occasion to do just that. As host of one of four on-farm twilight meetings they will open their doors to the public for a tour of the dairy. There will be free ice cream and open discussions. Topics likely to be covered include issues impacting roads, land use, the right to farm, and the shared future of rural and non-rural communities.