Bouressa’s pastures flourish despite unusually dry conditions

Dan Hansen
While checking out her pasture Rachel says: “I'm pretty pumped to be in the driest summer since 2012, and have grass up to my ears. Gotta love being a grass farmer.”

WAUPACA COUNTY – Although recent rains have provided relief for some areas, most of Wisconsin is experiencing its driest year since 2012, with many counties having a moisture deficit of more than five inches.

This lack of moisture is naturally raising concerns among farmers especially during this critical time for growth of crops including corn, beans and hay.

However, this is not what Rachel Bouressa is facing on her pasture-based beef farm in southeastern Waupaca County, where some of the grass is currently nearly shoulder high. 

Continuing the legacy of her parents, Robert and Barbara Eder, Bouressa has been grazing several acres of the farm since she and her husband purchased the property six years ago. She began with 35 acres and has added 50 more acres of pasture.

As someone who practices regenerative agriculture, Bouressa’s primary focus is on the health of the soil, which consists of Hortonville Sandy Loam and Plainfield Sand.

“We’re not as sandy as areas southwest of Waupaca, and we don’t have heavy clay like some northern areas,” she said.

Management changes

Going into 2021, Bouressa made the decision to graze more and harvest less hay.

"Last year I cut and baled hay in the spring, but I was already feeding it in July; I had spent all that time, energy and money on harvesting, and it just seemed like a waste and not much fun,” she said.

“This year instead of harvesting the hay like I normally would, I left it all, and that’s working out pretty well,” Bouressa said. “I should be able to get an extra pasture rotation this way, which will be the equivalent in feed value to baled hay without having to make the minimum three passes in the field (cutting, raking, baling).”

That means Bouressa will be buying hay for winter feed.

Despite grass growing over the fence, Rachel Bouressa isn’t concerned as she says the animals are trained to respect the fence even when the current isn’t on.

“I work full time off the farm and I’m not an equipment person, and I do not enjoy sitting in my tractor and burning diesel fuel. Besides, I don’t have the extra hands to help with raking and hauling bales,” she explained.

Bouressa isn’t concerned about a lack of hay or possible significant price increases.

“The people I buy hay from don’t have livestock. They just make hay and are looking for people to buy it,” she says.

Direct marketing beef

She has a growing herd of British White Park cattle, a heritage breed known for its docile nature, easy calving, and exceptional meat.

“Our pastures are a grass/legume mix with great diversity, which helps maintain pasture quality throughout the growing season and provides excellent feed for the animals,” she noted.

The meat is marketed statewide through her website:

"We’ve been direct marketing our grass-fed beef for five years. And we usually sell out quickly,” she said. “But as we expand our pastures and add more animals, we should be able to serve more customers.”

According to Bouressa, an important part of being a successful grazier, is to have small paddocks so the cows trample the grass really well and spread manure. "But you also want to be moving them frequently, at least once a day,” she said. "And by preventing the pasture grasses from going to seed you won’t have a lot of weed pressure.”

Providing a regular fresh water supply is also important for grazing success.

Grazing strategies

Bouressa is currently representing Wisconsin on the National Climate Change Policy Advisory panel.

“Since January I’ve participated in many conversations regarding strategies graziers need to consider in order to develop and maintain a resilient system,” she related.

Noting that grazing is already an inherently resilient system for both beef and dairy farming, she and others are exploring ways in which graziers can become even more resilient.

One strategy gaining popularity is incorporating warm season grasses in the mix.

“Depending on your system, you can do a perennial native mix or a warm season sorghum-sudan annual cocktail mix to see how well these grow in drought conditions when the traditional cool season grasses aren’t doing well,” Bouressa suggested.

A strong supporter of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), she says much of the farm’s infrastructure, including the perimeter fencing and waterlines, would have been very difficult to put in place without NRCS and EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).

Bouressa also is a certified grazing planner.

“When I hand off my grazing plan, I always say the only thing you can plan on is things will not go according to plan. Most people learn the most by actually doing the work.”

Adaptability is important to grazing success.

“As farmers we are really vulnerable to changing weather patterns, so when you’re planning your operation, have contingency plans for the changing weather conditions, and also be able to make decision on the fly,” she stressed.

“Grazing is so cool because, as opposed to cropping, it’s management intensive every day; and because you’re out there every day you can tweak your management based on what you see. Be observant, look at everything, and make adjustments based on various things like weather conditions and what the animals are eating,” she advised.

Bouressa stresses the importance of soil health.

“When you focus on having healthy soil first, everything else falls into place. Manage for soil health, including microbes and diversity, and use your animals and grass as tools to achieve that. Remember, it’s not how much rain we get, it’s how much rain we keep that matters,” she said.