(From left) Jessica Jurcek, Kirsten Jurcek, and Weenonah BrattsetFor Kirsten Jurcek, operating a grass-fed and finished beef farm is sustainable not only to her family, but to the land as well. Jurcek runs Brattset Family Farm full time with the help of her mother, Weenonah, and daughter, Jessica.
Weenonah bought the 183-acre farm outside of Jefferson, Wis., in 1968 and moved her children to Wisconsin while her husband, Harold, continued to work in Chicago as a firefighter on weekdays. Now 290 acres of grassland, the family is currently raising 110 head of livestock.
The farm hasn’t always been perennial grasses and legumes. Jurcek picked up farming midlife after working as a hydro geologist for an environmental consulting and engineering firm for 15 years. Jurcek moved back to the farm about 10 years ago when juggling a family, career, and travel just became too much.
From that point on, the farm transitioned from a row crop operation with continuously grazed pastures into rotational grazing. Jurcek sold all of the equipment and converted 146 acres to hay or pastureland.
“It’s not safe to drive a tractor with a little kid on each leg. It just didn’t work for me to do row crops,” Jurcek said. “The beauty of grazing is the kids can do everything I can do.”
In order to fund the transition and begin work on soil health, Jurcek went through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) cost-sharing program. This enabled her to build perimeter fencing around 64 acres and install waterlines. In 2011, she put a conservation easement on the land so it can no longer be developed.
When it comes to grazing, Jurcek follows a set of simple principles to ensure soil health and sustainability. The first is keeping the ground covered. Brattset Family Farm converted all row crop property into forage-based acreage. The second goal is to minimize soil disturbance. Jurcek hasn’t plowed a field in 10 years and doesn’t intend to again. Because of this philosophy, she interseeds all of her pastures with a no-till drill when productivity wanes.
“When I come back and interseed, I look at what I have in the field, what has established well, and what other plant species will grow well with what is there,” Jurcek said. “As it starts to thin out, I will go in and try to get as much plant diversity in that field as I can.”
Diversity is her next goal. While most of her pastures contain timothy and red clover, she knows that she must plant a diverse mix of legumes and grasses to feed the entire soil profile. She explained that the forage diversity aboveground is reflected in their root systems below.
Because protecting the soil is key to thriving forages, residual cover is a vital facet in her rotational grazing plan. Jurcek prefers to leave 6 to 8 inches of grasses remaining. This shelters the soil and allows for better growth in her cool-season grasses. To maintain this, Jurcek sometimes moves cattle twice a day and feels that this strategy is what pulled them through droughts.
Pasture rotation depends on the needs of the group. With each pasture being a different size and having a different mix of forages, Jurcek determines rotation by trial and error, noting that you can do a lot of harm quickly if inexperienced. If pastures become damaged, cover crops are planted to shelter any bare ground.
Generally, the split herd rotationally or strip grazes smaller paddocks within large pastures. The 23 head of young heifers and finishing steers are given 10 acres a day of the highest quality pastures.
“It’s kind of a science of bringing the animal and plant together at the right time,” Jurcek said, noting that it all starts with the soil.