WAUPACA, Wis. – Rachel Bouressa has the type of training and hands-on experience that inspires graziers. As a grazing coach she’s sharing her knowledge in the newly launched Wisconsin Women in Conservation. She’s also a grazing planner for the Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council – a position funded by grants from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. She’s on contract for the latter agency.
She also operates a grass-fed-beef operation near Waupaca. Prior to returning in 2014 to her family’s farm, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and environmental science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also studied agroecology at the university before returning to the farm.
Becoming involved as a coach for Wisconsin Women in Conservation was a natural fit, she said. In 2018 she hosted a Women Caring for the Land workshop at her farm, one of a series of workshops hosted by the Wisconsin Farmers Union in partnership with Pheasants Forever.
The Wisconsin Farmers Union is one of the partners in Wisconsin Women in Conservation, a three-year project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The project is led by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in partnership with the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Renewing the Countryside, as well as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
The goal for the project is to engage women farmers and landowners, connecting them with partners who can help them in their conservation journeys. Grazing livestock is one of those journeys.
As a coach Bouressa is continuing her journey. She started her grazing operation with 13 head of Angus cattle and 15 acres. Currently she grazes 50 head of British White Park cattle on 120 acres, including 10 acres in native warm-season grasses. She’s testing the warm-season-grass pasture’s performance.
She started with Angus but through participating in pasture walks she learned about the docile temperament of British White Park cattle and transitioned to them, she said. She also heard a presentation regarding breed selection by Laura Paine, an agricultural educator with several years experience in managed grazing. From that presentation Bouressa learned one could graze more animals per acre with medium-sized cattle such as British White Parks.
The Wisconsin Women in Conservation project, she said, will help women learn from each other. Many new and beginning graziers have met with Bouressa – such as Olivia Halbur, who grazes sheep and dairy heifers near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
“She lives grazing,” Halbur said. “Rachel helped speed up my permanent pasture goals.”
Halbur has a flock of Texel sheep, a meat breed. She currently has 22 ewes and 26 lambs. The Texel is a medium-sized breed that puts on muscle efficiently and performs well on grass.
She also has 13 laying hens she raises in a portable chicken tractor. Her goal is to pasture them on the same ground four days after sheep have grazed, she said. The poultry eat parasites, which helps keep them from infecting the sheep.
Halbur and her husband, Ted Halbur, also have a custom dairy-heifer-raising business. They’re currently raising 50 heifers but plan to buy more land to expand. Bouressa helped them with a heifer-grazing plan.
Carrie Stevens of May Hill Farm near Fond du Lac also was referred to Bouressa.
“Rachel helped us with an actionable plan, which included fencing and water plans,” Stevens said. “She has given us resources and explains how she grazes on her farm.”
With cost-share funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Stevens is expecting to install fencing in July.
She and her husband, Joe Stevens, purchased their farm in 2018. It had been a conventional row-crop farm but the couple is transitioning to a grazing operation.
“We’re working to improve land quality,” she said. “We’re on highly erodible land in the Milwaukee River Watershed. We want to contribute to soil health as well as to the health of our livestock. We’re a small family farm and want to leave it for our kids.”
The couple currently has 20 head of stocker cattle and raise chickens for meat. They also keep honeybees and are working to create pollinator habitat.
“Being new to grazing there are unknowns about what we might face,” she said. “That’s why Rachel is helpful as are (the Natural Resources Conservation Service) and GrassWorks. I appreciate knowing who to contact.”
Helen and Les Van Ornum own a 40-acre farm near Hortonville, Wisconsin. She and her siblings also own a family farm in a trust. While working on family-farm planning with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Outagamie County, she learned about grazing assistance offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The county office put her in contact with Bouressa.
Helen Van Ornum had watched a video about rotational grazing and how it had improved soils in Africa. She wondered if rotational grazing would help improve the soil on her farm.
“I live on a sand hill,” she said.
She and her husband thought they could improve their soil by applying manure. But that wasn’t enough so she considered grazing as an option.
Bouressa helped her by suggesting grasses that could work on sandy soil. Bouressa also shared her knowledge about rotational grazing where pastures are split into smaller paddocks and cattle are frequently moved to allow grazed pastures to regenerate.
“Rotational grazing is a scientific method,” Van Ornum said. “It makes so much sense. I had started grazing cows on pasture that was too large. Rachel helped me ‘right-size’ with smaller paddocks. Now when I walk up the cow lane, the cows will come to me and follow me to the next paddock.”
Bouressa said she’s had several good female mentors. With knowledge gained from them, her educational background and her own grazing-operation experiences, she’s paying it forward and inspiring others.
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.