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.
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.
The confined feeding arrangement worked until the glut of milk, fueled by the move to large-scale production, suppressed the price farmers were being paid. The generally accepted remedy was to buy more cows in order to have more milk to sell. “Get big or get out,” was the warning throughout the industry, and many farmers were warned to sell out to consolidating dairies. All over the country, small dairy farms closed their barn doors for good.
In 1987, the possibility of using recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to stimulate milk production was just on the horizon. Even though rBGH was being touted as safe, and the only way for a dairy to pull ahead in the financial race, Trantham feared for the long-term health of his cows. He wouldn’t go for it.
“Financial advisors told me to get out of the business if I wasn’t going to put my herd on hormones,” says Trantham. “Those were dark days; I’d wake up and think maybe the place had burned down or all the cows had died in the night, and I’d be free.”
Then one morning the milkers broke out of their feedlot into a 7-acre pasture of natural lush April growth — lamb’s quarters, ryegrass, a little clover, and fescue. At the next milking each of the escapees produced about 2 pounds more milk. For 92 cows, that was 184 extra pounds from eating a free meal!
Thinking the cows were trying to tell him something, Trantham watched them graze and noticed they were eating only the top half of the plants. He opened all the gates on his farm and began experimenting with grazing. The concept was more than a little strange for a dairy farmer who had been advised to raise cows by confining them, growing feed, buying supplements, toting their food into the barn, and hauling their manure out.
On the free-range April pastures, the cows produced about 5 pounds more per day and began leaving some of the expensive dairy ration in the trough. In the heat of May, production slowed, and by June had fallen to the pre-grazing level. But Trantham had glimpsed the possibility of a more natural life for his cows and was determined not to lose it. He renamed the farm Twelve Aprils Dairy to keep the dream in front of him.
He divided pastures into paddocks where he planted grasses, legumes, and small grains suitable to each of South Carolina’s seasons. As they grazed, the herd fertilized each paddock with their manure before moving on to fresh grass. When they finished cropping the nutritious top half of the plants, he moved them to a new paddock. The cows didn’t produce as much milk as when they were gorging on dairy feed, but profits went up anyway. Trantham was saving on feed costs. And vet bills — once hundreds of dollars each month — were virtually zero.
“My cows stay healthy and produce well beyond the average commercial dairy cow’s life of 5 years,” Trantham says. “One produced until she was 17 years old.”
Trantham took his idea to agricultural scientists at Clemson University who helped refine the planting and grazing program with a grant from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. After visiting grass-based dairies in Ireland, Trantham continued to experiment. He reduced paddock sizes, tried countless forages, invested in irrigation, and bred smaller cows.
Even though he was content to just make more profit on less milk, in recent years Trantham has had the satisfaction of watching his Holstein cows produce an average of 22,000 pounds (about 2,590 gallons) of milk per 305-day lactation cycle (about 8.5 gallons per day), beating out commercial dairy averages by about 3,000 pounds (350 gallons) a year.
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