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South Carolina grazier relies on high-quality forages for high-quality milk

Kim Bremmer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2016
Round bale in the sunset

It only takes a mere 30 seconds with Tom Trantham of Pelzer, South Carolina, to understand why he was named 2015 South Carolina Farmer of the Year.

His passion for caring for dairy cows, improving grazing methods and making safe, delicious, wholesome food is extraordinary.

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“Farmer Tom,” as he is so affectionately referred to, has been a farmer for 37 years. In the late 1980s he was one of the top dairy producers in South Carolina, but he found himself carrying an excessive debt load with the rising costs of inputs and the tough dairy economy.

That is, until the fateful day in April 1989 when his cows got out and grazed a nearby field. Milk production immediately increased, and it got Trantham to think about how he could incorporate grazing into his farm.

And life on the farm has never been the same since.

12 Aprils Dairy, where Trantham and his family milk 90 cows, producing 22,000 pounds of milk per cow per year, is appropriately named after his unique pasture-based rotational grazing system.

Trantham’s goal is to provide his cows with the highest-quality April-type feed during every month of the year. Each of his 29 paddocks are 2½ to 3½ acres in size with adjoining woods to provide shade for the cows.

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The cows graze on one paddock for a 24-hour period before moving to the next one to capture the highest level of nutrition in the top half of the plants. All forages are grazed freshly out of the ground, below knee-height.

The cows also receive approximately 15 pounds per head per day of a TMR with energy and minerals to balance their overall diet with what they are grazing. Trantham’s 12 Aprils program is very specific to his farm and location and has allowed his farm to become profitable and ultimately sustainable for future generations.

He is proud to have reduced his input costs $0.42 per cow per day and be able to have a thriving business his son and daughter are able to return to. With a grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Clemson University researchers studied Trantham’s 12 Aprils system and created a manual and educational materials through their learning center for other dairy farmers to reference.

A big part of Trantham’s success has been his trial and error with different forages to continue to improve what his cows eat. He focuses on planting a crop with ryegrass four to five times per year.

Currently, he plants cereal rye, ryegrass and Yuchi arrowleaf clover throughout the fall and winter. According to Trantham, winter is the best time to graze rye, ryegrass and clover.

He prefers using different types of rye such as Wrens Abruzzi, Athens and Florida black for optimum performance based on how quickly they grow, how tolerant they are in the cold weather and how long a stand lasts.

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In early spring, he moves on to sorghum and sudangrasses mixed with clover and ryegrass and rounds the rotation out with Tifleaf 3 millet mixed with clover and ryegrass. Trantham feels the Tifleaf 3 millet works well because it has a fine stem, beautiful leaf, is high in protein and is drought-tolerant. He then grazes alfalfa seven months out of the year in the warmer months.

Trantham is continually walking the paddocks to assess what paddocks need to be re-seeded, what crops need to be planted where and how the stands are holding up. He then makes adjustments accordingly.

Trantham also notes his seeding rates are at minimum 10 percent higher than recommended rates because he strives for a high seed population of high-quality forage that the cows will eat every step they take.

He keeps a careful eye on the sorghum and sudangrasses to make sure the plants are not under a lot of stress, since the production of prussic acid is a concern.

He has tried soybeans and vetch but felt they had too short of a window for optimum nutrition. Mother Nature has also provided challenges of her own in the past two years with a drought year followed by a flood. Trantham continues to try new things and is looking forward to giving some new crops, like balansa clover, a fair try in a more normal year of rainfall.

In addition to the 29 paddocks offering a variety in his rotation, the other important components of the 12 Aprils system are double-mowing with a bush hog (4 inches above the ground and then returning five days later and cutting it right at the ground) before re-seeding, no-till planting, manure management (ultimately eliminating the need to purchase any fertilizer) and road surface management using innovative geotextile cloth covered in layers of rock to eliminate mud on the paths the cows walk on.

Alongside 12 Aprils Dairy is Trantham’s unique “from grass to the glass” bottling plant called Happy Cow Creamery. His milk travels 48 feet from the milking parlor to the blue Harvestore silo he converted into the bottling facility.

The milk is pasteurized at a low temperature and is not homogenized, adding to its creaminess. Happy Cow Creamery is known for its exceptional whole milk, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, cultured buttermilk and eggnog. He also offers a variety of foods from other farmers, including eggs, strawberries, ice cream and more than 115 varieties of cheeses.

Guided farm tours are also a highlight for all the local schools and anyone wanting to connect to where their milk comes from.

The Trantham family loves nothing more than sharing their love of farming and the importance of local agriculture. Trantham has 11 employees at the farm and creamery, including his family. He is quick to mention how he feels that his most important contributor is his wife, Linda, because “she puts up with me.”

Trantham’s innovative thinking and willingness to continue to learn and never give up have truly made 12 Aprils Dairy a success. Trantham adds that he is thankful for everything he has been through – the good, the bad and everything in between because it has made him who he is today.

When asked about how it felt to being named 2015 South Carolina Farmer of the Year, Farmer Tom chuckles, “It scared me half to death; I thought, ‘My gosh, are all the farmers gone?’ But the one thing I want to be remembered by is to be someone who made a difference … and I think I have.”  PD

Kim Bremmer is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Wisconsin.

PHOTO: Round bale in the field in the sunset. Photo provided by Tom Trantham.

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