Purebred Holsteins make up the herd, which now averages about 75 milkers with 10% dry at any time of the year. Many are still producing at 10 to 14 years of age. The oldest died of natural causes at 17 years old.
Despite the current interest in Holstein/Jersey crosses for grazing in hot climates, Tom prefers pure Holstein genetics, selecting bulls of smaller stature that pass along the qualities he calls "dairyiness" which include a deep barrel, strong feet and high quality udders. He also looks for bulls with a lot of white in the color pattern in deference to the South Carolina heat.
"I think the modern Holstein is the best milk producer ever, they are just breeding them too doggone big," says Tom. "I drive a Ford truck and I'm not about to put a Chevy engine in it. I prefer to get my smaller size through selective breeding within the Holstein gene pool. The quickest thing to change in genetics is stature."
Tom used to raise his own replacements but now contracts them out at three months of age getting them back two months before their first calving at 24 or 26 months.
"When we raised our own heifers they were secondary to the milk cows; with the contract farmer they are first, and they show it. He takes care of his heifers the way I take care of my cows. Around here if something's going on with the cows when it's time to breed heifers, I would have to put off the breedings. Because heifers are his primary concern, they are bred on time. With this replacement program we can now afford to cull cows for reasons other than necessity, such as temperament"
Even though Tom thinks a 12-hour schedule is perfect for cows, his are milked at 5 a.m.and 4 p.m. for human convenience. In years past, during the hottest months he milked as late as 6 p.m., but in the summer of 2000 he installed misters and fans in the holding area. Not only did it get him out of the barn sooner in the evenings, but the cows were more comfortable and produced more milk, even showing up early on some days, anxious to get in. He estimates that the minimal investment paid for itself the first summer.
The side opening, single four milking parlor is less efficient for milking speed than other designs but is Tom's favorite because it places the cow broadside so he can view her entire body twice a day. In a herringbone design, he would see only her udder and back feet. At each milking he can see her ears, her eyes, her attitude, whether she's shivering or if her nose is running. Tom credits this kind of regular attention with keeping his herd healthy, milk production up and medical costs down.
The rolling herd average is 18,300 pounds per year with 17,400 pounds for the lowest month, usually July or August and 18,700 pounds for the highest month, April. Milk flows directly from the cows into a 1000-gallon refrigerated stainless steel tank, where it is picked up every other morning.
"By the time we hang up the last milker, the contents of the tank are 34-38 degrees," says Tom.