Tucker & Becky Gretebeck
A Farm for All Seasons
A Farm for All Seasons
Tucker & Becky Gretebeck
The second oldest farm in Wisconsin is owned by Tucker Gretebeck’s Grandparents near Edgerton, WI. It has been in their family since the Gretebecks (originally Grytk) immigrated from Norway in the early 1800’s.Tucker’s Dad moved to the Viroqua area in the late 60s to start his own farm and was soon raising 20 acres of tobacco- and made enough to buy his own farm near Stoddard, WI. Years of hard work farming, all while working for the Genoa Power Plant, allowed him to buy a farm near Westby in 1980.
“My Dad overpaid for that farm, because that farm came with a large tobacco allotment, which was hard to get at the time. That and the high interest rates. In 1988 we had a terrible drought and almost lost the farm. Mom went back to school and became the Westby High School secretary. I remember selling off a lot of our farm equipment and cows to make ends meet. That drought in ‘88 just about sunk everyone. My parents were lucky to hang on to it,” remembered Tucker.
“My brother joined the military and I went off to college on a football scholarship. There was just not enough income to support two families on the farm, but my hope was to leave and come back. Even while in college I raised five acres of tobacco. After I graduated, I came back to the area to teach. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, I was laid off nearly every year and was always wondering if I would have a job. There was always either a lack of money or a lack of kids. Teaching in a small district was tough, especially in elementary without tenure. It was during this time that I married my wife Becky (2000) and we built a house, all while farming with my Dad. We did what we had to do.”
“After five years of teaching my final contract didn’t come through. At the same time Becky’s brother moved to Alaska and left the home farm (owned by Becky’s parents at the time). That gave Tucker and Becky the opportunity to take over farming operations. Ernie (Peterson) of Cashton Farm Supply had put pullets in the barn and had seeded down all of the fields to hay, which was good in my favor for transitioning. Two acres of the farm had been sold off, a corner by the road, and a nice house was built. Becky’s parents had asked to get the first opportunity to buy it if they ever sold, and they called soon after we bought the land. They bought it and moved there. My brother Gunnar moved back after the military and moved into the house we built on my Dad’s farm, and we moved into Becky’s parent’s house, so all three of us traded houses and this is where the farming part really comes into play.”
“Since I wasn’t teaching, and there wasn’t any income from the farm yet, I worked construction for a year while I updated the barn. I had decided that milking cows sounded like a way better idea than working inside. I have always had that entrepreneurial spirit. The farm is an empty pallet. Be flexible and look for opportunities,” emphasized Tucker.
“We actually started raising pumpkins a year before we moved to the new farm (2005). What started as ¼ acre and four families turned into a good agritourism enterprise with 4000 people visiting every year. That valley below the farm was just beautiful. We started with an old tobacco barn and then we added something new every year, mostly for the kids, but it became an event location for weddings, school groups, and open to the public on weekends. We gave wagon rides, had actors panning for gold in the creek, and we told a lot of the history of the area. It made people happy, and we really liked doing it.”
“Between my sister Dani’s farm, my parent’s farm, and our farm, it creates a triangle of all certified organic farms, and we work a lot together. Dani’s husband Nate is a John Deere mechanic, and fixes our equipment. Dad still helps, and likes to drive tractors. Up until a few years ago, when Dani sold the cows, he milked every morning for her. It’s neat how we all support each other.”
“We bought the cows and started milking in 2006, and then in 2012 decided to go grassfed. We were one of the first nine Organic Valley dairy farms on the Grassmilk truck. I jumped at the opportunity. When I was in college and my brother was stationed in Germany, he lived in a small town with three dairy farms in it. He knew each one of the farmers and helped out when he could. I got over there three times and they did it all without grain. The cows looked great. They chopped and had silage bunkers for the winter feed. They were small farms, about 35 cows. This is why travel is so important, you get new ideas and see how other people do it. When we decided to go grassfed, we got in touch with some other Organic Valley farmers that had been doing it for years. There were definitely naysayers, but I liked the opportunity to prove them wrong. There are now 150 plus Organic Valley Grassfed farms.”
“I wouldn’t recommend going grassfed cold turkey like we did. That is not the way to do it, but without knowing any better, because we were on time constraints, and because we knew we had the milk sold, we made the transition. That first year was a drought year. We found that those 1600 pound cows were not the best for grazing, and that is not what we have today. Our cows now average about 1200 pounds. I didn’t have much to do with that change. Nature takes care of it. We started with red Holsteins and whatever we could find at the time. At auction we got some Normandys, and still have a lot of Normandy in the herd. With that base of cows we started breeding with Mount Billiards and more European breeds. We found out, and a lot of other farmers too, that you just needed time for the cows to adjust. I also saw that short horns could really take the heat, so I have a short horn bull in with the herd now. You have to build resiliency into the herd,” noted Tucker.
“We milk, in the summer 60, and in the winter 46. The barn holds 50. We have a large group that freshens in the spring, and a smaller group in the fall. I was all panicky about the breeding cycle in the beginning, but it works itself out. We are not seasonal, and I would rather not be since you have to feed them year round anyway. We changed our feeding plan around. We used to feed them from carts inside the barn in the winter, but now I feed them with round bales outside. Even on cold days I can get them outside from 10-4. If it’s really cold I put a lean-to on the back of the barn for wind protection. We now have a McHale round baler that wraps in the field, which makes my life a lot easier and makes for better feed.”
“We have 36 acres of pasture, divided into two, and those split up into 1-2 acre paddocks just for the milking cows. In total there is roughly 150 acres of pasture that house calves, heifers and dry cows. When grass is coming really quick in the Spring, I’ll take first crop hay off the West side while grazing the East. Then we’ll come in and fence and graze both sides. We aim to start grazing around May 15 when the grass is about knee high. Two years ago we had a really late Spring and it was early June before we got them out on pasture. You work with what you have.”
“Another thing we have found super valuable is sorghum sudan. You can get two crops with sudan. I take off first crop hay first, because the soil needs to be 50 degrees anyway. We take the bedding pack manure from the barn, spread it, and then seed in sudan. It’s an amazing crop. It takes half the water, it takes half the nutrients, and it changes your soil structure. Any weed problems you have- it smothers everything out. In the fall we either chop it, or I cut it with the haybine, round bale and wrap. I use it to feed the heifers. We are nearly feed self-sufficient. I bought one semi load of hay last year. I run about 120 total head from calves on up,” said Tucker.
“In 2018 we lost the pumpkin patch in a flood where we got 12-14 inches of rain in one night. We have an old earthen dam in the valley, built in 1960, and the pumpkin patch was right below. It was August 28th, 2018. When that dam broke a wall of water went through about 25 acres. We lost everything in the pumpkin patch. They found one of the wagons we used for tours 16 feet up in a tree. The kids were devastated by the pumpkin patch flood, but half the fun was building it, and now we’re building it again. We’re doing everything in tents for now, but we’ll rebuild as we can. The kids have started selling hanging flower baskets and we added a woodfired pizza oven. Becky has an interest in other animals, so we’ll add a chicken coop. We’re also adding a projection wagon for outdoor movies and a greenhouse. We’ll keep things rolling and see what works and fits. Maybe the kids will want to take over and we’ll try to help them in any way possible.”