OGDENSBURG, Wis. – When it comes to promoting managed grazing, Rachel Bouressa is doing more than just talking the talk. As the saying goes she’s also walking the walk – and often that occurs at a pasture walk she’s organized.
Bouressa is the grazing planner for the Golden Sands Resource Conservation & Development Council in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Her passion for all things managed-grazing goes beyond her position as a grazing planner. She grew up as the fifth generation on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin; her parents were early adopters of managed grazing. When she saw the transformation that took place on her home farm as a result of the move to grazing, she was motivated to focus on grass-based systems and sustainable agriculture in her college education. She received degrees in agronomy and environmental science, and worked in the agroecology master’s program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While attending college she listened to a class lecture on barriers for beginning farmers. It dawned on her she could and should just farm on her own.
She returned to her family farm in 2014 to raise direct-market grass-fed beef. She now has a small herd of British White Park beef cows. She and her husband, Tyler Bouressa, along with their two children are in year three of building their direct-market business.
“We couldn’t be happier with our decision,” Rachel Bouressa said.
This past fall she was at Jeremy Nennig’s Murraydale Farm near Ogdensburg. An Organic Valley dairy producer, Nennig says grazing and organic dairying go hand-in-hand. He began in 2010 working toward his goal of owning his own grass-based dairy farm – as an employee on the farm he eventually purchased in 2014. The layout of his paddocks and lane system was created under the guidance of Derrick Raspor, a soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service in Waupaca County, Wisconsin. It’s a flexible system that includes gateless paddock entrances and a reinforced lane to support Nennig’s 42-cow milking herd.
Raspor was at Nennig’s farm to share insight into the pastures. He stressed the value of the diversity in Nennig’s relatively young but well-developed pastures.
“Each plant provides something different to the soil,” he said. “Whether it’s compaction alleviation, feeding microbes or creating filtration channels, all plants have something to contribute. When you compound that with principles of animal interaction like grazing and putting the manure directly back on the soil, you shift agricultural thinking and norms. Here’s a system that reduces pollution, provides habitat to beneficial organisms and cleaner water for fish while feeding a herd of cows.”
Prior to Nennig’s presence on the farm it had been used for row crops. The pastures were established using a Grassworks grazing mixture – a blend of seed developed by Byron Seeds and Grassworks Inc. It’s winter-hearty, developed for dairy quality. Nennig dedicates 70 acres of land to managed grazing, contiguous with his home and farm buildings. He has no immediate plans for expansion; his wife works off the farm and helps with chores when needed.
So far Nennig hasn’t installed a paddock watering system, and doesn’t have immediate plans to do so. The cattle are watered near the barn at milking time; he believes they do fine with that system, he said. His gateless lane system and reinforced lanes provide easy travel for the herd, which consists of a large percentage of Ayrshire cows.
His initial year of cow ownership in 2010 was a challenge.
“We had a bout with (Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus) going through the herd and I ended up losing or culling a total of 18 cows,” Nennig said.
He replaced those with a group of Ayrshires and has been happy with them, he said. Still he’s using Fleckvieh bulls in his artificial-insemination program for the hybrid value and grazing genetics. He runs at 4.2 percent butterfat and 3.2 percent protein. The current bulk-tank average is 45-50 pounds of milk per cow. He supplements his pasture with 10 pounds of grain daily. He calves his herd year-around, and takes advantage of the premium Organic Valley pays for fall and winter milk.
Nennig milks in a conventional tiestall barn that he also uses for winter housing. His cows go out daily in winter for an eight-hour exercise and feeding session. He provides most of the labor involving the herd, though he has help from nearby relatives for field work. Much of his forage is harvested by custom operators, allowing him time to focus on the cows along with raising a young family.
Keeping his system simple is a priority, he said. That, along with working with a network of professionals dedicated to pasture productivity and soil health, has the young farmer feeling confident in the future.
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.