Grass-Fed Milk: An Udder Dream, Twelve Aprils a Year

A fortuitous "jail break" led dairy farmer Tom Trantham to the discovery that grass-fed milk was better for his cows and better for his business.

| June/July 2010

  • grass-fed milk - Cows grazing
    The cows that produce Tom's grass-fed milk graze different forages throughout the year.
  • Tom Trantham
    Tom Trantham’s grazing system reduces costs while improving his dairy herd’s health.
  • Dairy Bottling
    Tom and Linda Trantham in the bottling plant, which was converted from an old silo.
  • Happy Cow Creamery
    Tranthams’ store, Happy Cow Creamery, sells dairy products, produce and locally raised meats.

  • grass-fed milk - Cows grazing
  • Tom Trantham
  • Dairy Bottling
  • Happy Cow Creamery

On a two-lane blacktop road in Pelzer, S.C., a cow silhouette adorns a mailbox, and a Holstein flag often flies from a white porch banister on a 145-year-old farm house. The farm is Tom Trantham’s home; the 98-acre dairy is his life. It is only thanks to grass-fed milk that both of things remain possible

His cows, all udder and shine, rest under shade trees after a morning of grazing. One of the first clues that this is not a conventional dairy farm is that they have names instead of numbers. Trantham points out some of his favorite milkers.

“That’s Field Goal. She drop kicked me the first time I tried to milk her. And there’s Houdini, who ends up on the wrong side of every fence I build. Preacher is loud, and Feather has a perfect feather marking on her forehead.”

He’s interrupted by the 1,400-pound groupies nudging, pulling his baseball cap, and generally mobbing him. It’s clear that Trantham returns their affection. He doesn’t flinch, even when one slobbers a bovine secret in his ear.

Trantham’s been listening closely to his cows ever since the day they broke out of their feedlot and changed his life. It was April 1987, and the dairy was going broke fast. Milk prices were stuck in 1972 while feed costs were rocketing off the charts. Even though his cows were winning South Carolina production awards, they couldn’t produce enough milk to cover their feed bill, which gobbled up to 65 percent of the gross income.

Like most commercial dairy herds, Trantham’s milkers spent their days standing on a concrete slab eating an expensive dairy ration from a 100-foot trough. The trend to confinement dairies started in the 1800s and gained popularity with the abundance of grain after World War II . During that post-war era, animal scientists also started improving dairy cow breeds to produce more milk. Old Bossy, who grazed around the farm in 1925 and produced less than 5,000 pounds (less than 600 gallons) of milk a year, would be flabbergasted to learn that her descendents are now averaging 18,000 pounds (more than 2,100 gallons) annually.

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