Sustainable "12 Aprils" Dairy Grazing
College Park, MD – Although Tom Trantham was one of South Carolina’s top producing dairymen back in the 1980s, his business was struggling. He ran a typical confined feeding operation and his feed bill alone ate up 65 percent of his gross income. Then in April 1989, by chance, his cows broke out of the feeding area into a seven-acre field full of natural lush April growth. Trantham, of Pelzer, S.C., noted a two-pound average increase per cow in milk production the next day, and things have never been the same since.
With a grant from SARE in 1993, Clemson University researchers Jean Bertrand and Fred Pardue worked with Trantham to study his system in detail. Through that grant and a process of continuous improvement, 12 Aprils is now a thriving and profitable dairy.
As the name of his dairy implies—12 Aprils Dairy—Trantham’s goal is to provide an April-type feed for his cows every month of the year. He achieves that by planting his 29 paddocks with a succession of crops that provide the type of growth the cows are most hungry for and that boost milk production. “I plant a crop four to five times in the year, a different crop,” Trantham says. “So my cows are grazing tremendous amounts of forage, and the nutritional value is through the roof.”
Trantham is quick to note that his emphasis on year-round crops makes his system an atypical pasture-based rotational grazing system. It’s not for everyone, and the crop mix is quite specific to his farm and geographic location.
When Trantham grew his own feed, he spread about 150 pounds of purchased fertilizer each year—even when fertilizer labels called for 125 pounds. “I spent thousands of dollars to put out more chemical fertilizer than needed because I had to be the top producer,” he says.
In 21 years as a grazier, Trantham has purchased commercial fertilizer just once for a new alfalfa field. Allowing the manure to be spread by the herd as they rotate through paddocks has contributed to soil testing high in fertility without purchased inputs. A soil tester told Trantham his soil was the highest quality with no deficiencies, something he had never seen in his 30 years in the business.
Trantham has influenced dozens of beginning dairy producers by holding up his farm as an example. Frequent tours and pasture walks have prompted at least a few dairy producers to try grazing systems. He has reached national audiences by speaking at conferences around the country, where he has shown slides depicting green pastures and contented cows to rapt audiences that seem to appreciate his sense of humor as well as his system.
To learn more about Trantham’s successful grazing system, check out these resources available online:
- A 16-minute video, produced by SARE and Cooking Up a Story, in which Trantham takes viewers onto his farm to learn about his transition.
- An in-depth manual based on interviews with Trantham that walks readers through the details of his operation.
- A 2005 profile of Trantham published in The New American Farmer, 2nd Edition.