12 Aprils Grazing Dairy Manual
Instead of whispering to horses, Tom Trantham listens to cows. He's been listening and watching them ever since the day they broke out of their pasture and changed his life. It was April, 1989, and the Trantham dairy was going broke fast. Milk prices were stuck on a 1972 tune while feed costs were rocketing off the charts. Even though his Holsteins were winning South Carolina production awards, they couldn't produce enough milk to pay for their feed bill which gobbled up to 65% of the gross income. The newest weapon in a producer's arsenal back then was BST. Even though it was being touted as safe and the only way to pull ahead in the financial race, Tom 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," recalls Tom. "They said there was no way for me to make it. 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 day the milkers pushed through the confinement feeding area into a seven-acre field full of natural lush April growth--lamb's quarters, rye grass, a little clover and fescue. At the next milk pickup there was a two-pound average increase per cow. At 92 cows, that was 184 extra pounds from grazing a field that had been scheduled for chemical burndown and planting in sorghum for silage.
Thinking maybe the cows were trying to tell him something, Tom opened all the gates on his farm and began experimenting with grazing. On the free-range April pastures, the cows produced about five pounds more each day and began leaving some of the total mixed ration (TMR). In the heat of May, production slowed and by June 1 had fallen to the pre-grazing level, while TMR costs were back up. But Tom had glimpsed the dairy farmer's dream of more milk on less money and was determined not to lose it.
With the encouragement of Mike Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Tom took his idea to Clemson University professors Jean Bertrand and Fred Pardue who obtained a Southern Region SARE Research and Education grant to determine the feasibility of a minimum-input, financially sound grazing dairy. From 1994 through 1997, the SARE researchers monitored what Tom was doing and recommended changes based on their findings. At the end of the project they had a body of scientific knowledge to help other farmers, and Tom had a grazing dairy system.
"When I first started experimenting with grazing, production dropped to 15,000 pound average but I still paid my bills because of the decreased feed costs, " he says. "Profits continued to improve as I moved further away from conventional dairying."
Today Trantham's milkers consistently top an 18,000-pound average, and he thinks they can do even better as he tweaks the system with irrigation, smaller paddocks and other improvements. As a cooperator on a Southern SARE Professional Development project headed by Steve Washburn of NCSU Tom even toured grazing dairies in Ireland, seeking more ways to improve his system.
"That's where I learned I needed to reduce my paddock sizes," he recalls. "I saw first-hand how moving them every day or even every milking can minimize paddock damage and allow faster regrowth. I learned a lot about irrigation options and came home to install more than $10,000 worth of irrigation on my farm, a risk I would have considered reckless in the days when I would have invested that much and more in feed supplements. But unlike feed supplements, the irrigation will pay off for the rest of my life, not just for this season."
Tom is also experimenting with some lane materials as part of a SARE producer grant project, making him the only person to date who has participated in three types of Southern SARE grants. He continues to try new ideas and evaluate every part of the system for efficiency and cost effectiveness.
"My goal is to eventually net $60,000 per year with 60 milkers," he says. "When the new reservoir, roads and fencing are all finished, I can do that. The reservoir will hold 4.2 million gallons including every drop from the paddock run-off, roof drippings and driveways. My NRCS consultant says I will be the first person to ever wear out a drop of water. The system will irrigate 41 acres of summer and winter grazing crops, of which 18 acres are permanent grazing alfalfa."
A popular speaker at conferences, appointed to the USDA Small Farms Commission, past chair of the Southern Region SARE program and active in SSAWG, Tom is often asked how he finds time to manage his dairy. He readily admits to being away from home much more than he was in the old days, a plus that makes him feel guilty.
"What scares me is that I feel like I am goofing off," he says. "The Twelve Aprils system is what makes that possible."
Even though Tom relies on grazing for every month of the year, he does not consider himself a grazier.
"I am a dairy farmer, with the accent on farmer," he explains. "Every season I plant some sort of crop for the next season. This method would not work for someone who just wants to move cattle from one paddock to another between milkings and get maybe 6000-10,000 pound averages. But for someone who enjoys the farmer's life of planting and nurturing crops, this is a satisfying way to boost those averages up to what conventional milkers produce."