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Trantham’s Sustainable 12 Aprils Dairy Grazing Program: A Top Farm that Almost Went Under

[ Quacking, clucking,
insect sounds ] [ Background farm sounds ]>>Farmer: [Hooting, cows moo in distance] Come
on girls, come on! I am a farmer, and I
grow crops, not grass. I grow a crop to feed my cows. Only thing I don’t do is — is
I don’t have a mowing machine, I don’t have a chopper,
I don’t have a blower, I don’t have a solo. They do it all for me
and say, Tom we’re full. We’re good. We’re going to get you a
hundred pound milk tonight. [ Quiet farm sounds ] [ Background music ]>>Narrator: Bringing the
people behind our food to life. [ Background farm
sounds, cows mooing ]>>Farmer: Beginning of ’87, I was in the procedure
of bankruptcy. They were actually wanting
me to sign the papers to release everything
over and take the farm. And I knew the amount of money
I owed, I would never be able to pay it in my entire life. [Background machinery sound] I
was denied a loan to buy up seed and chemicals and
chemical fertilizer. And so I was done
for, and I knew it. My son and daughter’d
both left the farm, because there was
nothing left here. I had been the top producer
and up in the top 10 always, and that was working beyond
my facilities and abilities. So it was over for me. And then my cows, actually,
I say they got together and had a meeting, and they
just busted out and went over to an April pasture
that was actually — I was going to plow and put
into sorghum or whatever. But it was clover, and
there was some wild oats and all, but it was just wild. I was so disgusted. I just throwed my hat
down, stomped my hat. That’s it. I quit. I am no longer a farmer. Those are not my cows. If they get out and
get hit by a car, I don’t know whose they
are, but they’re not mine. And that’s the way I felt. So I went in the house
and turned on the TV, and it was the awfulest
program I know I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember the name of it. All My Money, or
Too Many Children, or something like that. But when I saw that, I said,
That’s the other side, Tom. And this is this side. Go back and get this thing
— do whatever you gotta do. Milk ’em till they come get you. [Background birds chirping]
So I milked them that night. And when they came in
the barn that night, instead of being confined all
day and night, they had a more of a pleasant odor about them. They’d been out in that clover
and all that beautiful stuff. And the next morning,
when I milked, and we were up 200
pounds of milk. And when you’re the top
producer in the state, and you’ve had 17 different
items you put in your mix ration to make milk, and they
make 200 pounds more, and you done nothing
different, something happened. I went over in the
pasture, and I noticed that they’d grazed the
top half of the plant — of that — of those plants. I know, as a farmer,
I would’ve mowed that field and put it in hay. I would’ve mowed it
into the ground down and baled the whole thing. But they had only taken
the top half of the plant. And I would say, Okay,
girls, you can get back in there tomorrow and
take the other half. And I put them back in there. We dropped a little bit of milk. And they didn’t take
the other half. They took half of the half. And so that really made me start
thinking of what in the world? And so I let them
into another pasture. And by that time, by a short
period of time, a few days, I was up 500 pounds of
milk, and they were going through everything on this
farm, eating the top half. Then I ran some samples
of the plants. I took the whole plant, and the
top half and the bottom half. I remember the top
half was 22% protein, and the bottom half
was, like, six or eight. So then I wanted to know
what’s the difference here? And I found out that this was
ligtin [sic] fiber — wood — and this is cellulose fiber. And cows don’t make
milk off of wood. At the time of April is when a plant comes
freshly out of the ground. No matter what month, if it’s
just planted and it comes out of the ground, at that
time it is the most nutritional of the time, because
it’s cellulose fiber. And as it grows, it
turns into ligtin fiber, but it also has a
seed head, of corn or millet or whatever you got. But then it becomes
an energy source. But the protein is
gone to nothing. [Farm sounds] Well, I knew if I could
come with 12 Aprils, these cows would perform
in so much better way. But even to my most imagination,
did I ever dreamed it would be as good as it really
has come for me. [Background nature sounds] The
12-April system is a system different than conventional,
and different than grazing. It is a totally different
system that you can develop. And you can’t do it overnight, but you can develop
it piece at a time. We have a hundred acres here on
the farm, and we have 70 acres in pasture, 20 acres in woods. We have 83 cows right now,
and we’ll stay under 90 cows. That’s what fits the land. But what the system is, is
that we have 29 paddocks here, 29 paddocks, with
two and a half, three and a half
acres per paddock. And with that, we have
something growing in every one of those paddocks
that’s different. And we have dividers, that
we can divide this in, to where the cows will graze
one of these paddocks each day. And it’ll look like it’s
been moved with a lawnmower. But the think of it is, it can
be designed any way you want it. You just gotta have
crops that you grow that the cows can get to. [Background farm machine sounds]
What we’ll do with an old crop, we’ll come in here
and mow it four inches above the ground,
with the Bush Hog. Leave this stuff alone. Then at five days,
we’ll come back and Bush Hog it to the ground. And what’s happened,
I’ll tell you the story. I was — I had to go to
town for my Farm Service — fill out my Farm
Service Agency books — papers, you know,
and I had to go. And Doug was here,
and I said, Doug, go Bush Hog field Number 4. Uh, Tom — Doug, just go, do it. I need 4 done. And I took off. I come back, and we
planted that field. And the next — when
that crop came up, plant 4 came up beautiful. Plant crop 3, which was
planted the next day, wasn’t near what the crop was,
and it was all spindly and such. And I said, God,
what’d we do to 4? He said, That’s the
one I Bush Hog’d twice. I said, What do you mean? He said, I’d already Bush Hog’d
it, when you told me to do it. So I said, How many
days was that? And we got back it
was five days. So we’ve been doing
it ever since. So what we find is happening — here again, this is how
Farmer Tom at University of Farmer Tom — we Bush
Hog it and cut it down and plant our no-till crop in
there, and it has to struggle to come with this
four-inch up bud. But what happens when we
Bush Hog it four inches and then go back in and hit
it to the ground, what I think that plant says, That’s it. I called for all my resources,
and now here I’m hit again. I’m dormant. And it actually goes dormant. And that gives my new crop
a time to get out of here, before it covered
by the other crop, and where it won’t get the sun. And that spindly crop
wasn’t getting the sun. But then after it got
out of the crop — out of the old crop,
it done fine. But we lost a bit of
nutrients now, by not doing that five-day, double Bush Hog. [Background farm machine
sound] We only use it when we’ve planted, when we’ve
mowed or plowed or grazed. We only use manure in
a field that needs it. We have a record of every field
we put it in, and how much. We manage the manure. And now it’s saving me thousands
and thousands of dollars. I haven’t bought chemicals
or chemical fertilizers now in over 21 years —
on this entire farm. This field was planted
three days ago, with a no-till planter,
Bush Hog’d two times, to be able to make sure
that it would come up. She’ll probably be up
tomorrow, maybe after that rain. But you can see the no-till
marks with the no-till planter, all out through there. [Background insect
sounds] There you can see, just coming out of the ground. So this field will
look like that field, in about 20 more — 20, 25 days. [Background machinery
sounds] Every day they went out this one road, one line. And by the time there
were mudholes that deep, and they were like this,
the cows will step here. Here’s your mudholes. Every day after day. And in the area where
they came in was so muddy, it was up to the hocks. And we had a cow
jumping out of that, up on the cement ramp,
and broke her leg. So I quit. That’s it for 12 Aprils. I’m not doing that again. That is not going to work. We dumped truckloads
of crusher on in, and it just, like, sucked it up. So we were really in
trouble with that. Well, then SARE, I asked
for a farmer’s grant to research what type of things
that would work on roads. And so we tried four or
five different things. And then all of a
sudden we heard about this geotextile cloth. We took a road dragger and
made a ditch, like that. And then the cloth comes
over there, tucks in here. Then we put four to six inches
crusher right on top of that. So this keeps crusher
on from traveling, and holds the carpeting
from gutting up. So now you got this nice road,
and you just take the tractor — a dump truck — and put crusher
on, gravel, four to six inches on top of it, pack
it, and it’s done. Here’s some of the geotextile
cloth that the crusher on it is drained off of. But you can see, still,
it does the job it has to. It was — it had about
three quarters of an inch of rain last night,
and no effect. As far as the cows go, there’ll
be no effect to them at all. There’s no mud to walk in. [Background grassy
sounds] I think the variety that we have here, I truly
feel the cows really do appreciate it. Because they’ll come
into a field, and when it’s a new field, it’s like they broke their
neck [chomping sound], they start grazing. And that’s what I always say. Those cows — you
see those cows here? They’re down there making money. Rotational grazing is
they’ll — this grass here, those cows will eat that,
but the protein level is low, and the nutritional
value is low. So they won’t have
maybe six or eight or 10,000-pound herd average. But they’ve cut their
input costs. So they’ve done that. But I didn’t cut my production. I’m 22,000-pound herd. But I plant — I graze
a crop, not grass. I graze a crop. I don’t graze Fescue. I don’t graze Bermuda. I don’t graze any grass. Now, I do plant ryegrass
with my crop. But I plant a crop. I plant it four, five times
in the year, a different crop. And so my cows are grazing
tremendous amount of forage, and the nutritional
value is out the roof. [Background bird calls] For the
fall and winter, I planted rye, ryegrass, and Yuchi
clover, and, wow! It was unbelievable, and so —
as it would grow up knee-high, and I would — I would —
testing it, like, 22% protein or 18 or 23 or whatever. And so we have a period of
time that that would work. Then I knew there — I found
out there were other ryes. There was Florida Black, and there was Rand’s [spelled
phonetically] Abruzzi, and Athens. And you could find out that some of those have quicker
periods of time. They’ll come up quicker or
last longer or take more cold. And so those are the things that
you find out, and I don’t know, in South Carolina, I
can tell you for sure, but in other states
throughout the country, you need to know
what performs better. And a lot of times the
questions we ask are — the answer is not what
we were looking for. I used to ask, as a farmer
— conventional farmer — what ryegrass is the
best to grow here, and it was Rand’s Abruzzi. But yet Florida Black would
be two, three weeks prior to Rand’s Abruzzi of
being able to plant it, to where I would have two
or three earlier grazing, than the Rand’s Abruzzi,
and then the Athens. So I started working with
all these and — out. And in the winter there’s
no doubt, rye, ryegrass and clover is the key. Then when my April comes, I
may plant sorghums or sudans or whatever, and they
are my early spring. But in the summer, seven months of the summer can be
alfalfa, grazing alfalfa. And they say it doesn’t
work, and you have to have the chemicals. I haven’t used any chemicals
in 21 years on this farm. But when the weevils
come for the alfalfa, all I do is put 1400-pound hose
things on, and they’re gone. And the protein — the cows’
protein level was increased a little by the weevils, maybe. I went to the millets,
because we have a lot of dry weather here. And I went with some — at
beginning I went some — just some common millet. But then I found out that teff
leafs free, that it would — a fine stem, a beautiful
leaf and high in protein. And it would even wait for rain. So my July April — July
April and all, is millet. So I have 12 Aprils. I have something on this chart
that will grow all year long. Something will grow
any time of the year. But if you only have two Aprils,
you got one better than you did. So from two Aprils on
to 12 is a success. And as time goes by, you’ll
find there’s many more things to plant than you’d
ever dreamed of. [Background sound] By the way, all of my seeding is higher
rates than recommended. Now I would probably go
no less than 10% more than commonly is
recommended for your grazing, because with this grazing, you need very good
forage seed population. And the cows, I want ’em to eat
plenty, every step they take. So you don’t do it
scanty, by any means. What I learned is to
follow, instead of lead. I had to follow my cows out to that pasture, when
they broke out. I had to follow them to see that
they’d ate only the top half. I had to not say, Here’s a hay. I mowed this field
to the ground, and you’re going to eat it. And that — and I’m
going to put this stuff in it to make you eat it. So I found out is what the cows
really love and happy and come to me and do everything
like that, is when they got that top half of that plant. Farmer Tom, this is fantastic. You’re welcome. [ Quiet nature sounds, squawk ]>>Narrator: This video has
been made possible with funding from Sustainable Agriculture
Research and Education — SARE.


  1. Cynthia Prater Author

    WOW so much informaiton presented in this episode that I had no clue about. I like Farmer Tom and glad that he and his cows made the way through troubling times. Wish more would take his advise and maybe there would not be so many chemicals in the milk that we use.

  2. olov244 Author

    ty, i know a guy who raises cattle here in NC who needs to see this. he constantly complains about high chemical costs and poor grass for the cows to graze on.

  3. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @heyerstandards Thanks for sharing with your friends – it's something that might work for some dairy farmers there, too. =)

  4. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @KeystoneKorner If you're ever in the Greenville, SC, area – be sure to head south to his farm. He has a creamery and store there (called Happy Cow Creamery), and yes, his milk is awesome!!

  5. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @olov244 I hope he has a chance to watch it. I would think he'd be able to grow many of the crops Farmer Tom did. Might help him out.

  6. AugsburgBear Author

    @cookingupastory We're pushing hard to open up farm gate sales here to unleash the rural economy and keep the money rural. Funny thing about Tom's BushHog story at 2:00. Same thing happened to our church. We'd bought 8 acres for a playfield for our school which had been in row crop cultivation for generations. It was leveled with bulldozers, etc, & we planted grass in the fall. Next spring was a 12" *carpet of Shepherd's Purse. Couldn't afford herbicides, but my weekly mowing killed it back.

  7. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @heyerstandards way to go! Wish you the best on building your rural economy. Many more people are interested in where their food comes from, and with that they want to know and support their local farmers. One thing Farmer Tom had happening in the days I visited was farm tours. Some were school kids, others were families (many with young children). They were are fascinated to see how it all worked.

  8. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @dojochuck Google "Happy Cow Creamery" – I bet they could tell you where to find some. It is real good – wish we had some around here!

  9. Cooking Up a Story Author

    @firee812 I added a link to the pdf of the crops he uses up in the description box just below the video – click 'show more'. Or, you might try to reach him thru his farm website, happycowcreamery [dot] com – he might have a better idea for you.

  10. Jefferdaughter Author

    It's not just the protein, the ENERGY levels are higher in the top portion of the plant. The top receives more sunlight. Plants are solar collectors. Yes, all the 'mowing' could be done with managed grazing, and allowing the cattle or other livestock to trample the organic material onto the ground w/out diesel fuel & renew the forages w/out having to re-plant. Holistic Management Int'l is one info resource.

  11. Jefferdaughter Author

    Other resources you could check out are Holistic Management International. Dry cows or beef cattle are relatively easy to over winter on grass, even in Ohio. Greg Judy uses hay only a couple weeks/winter at most, and finishes beef on grass only. Google Greener Pastures Farms. The methods can be adapted to dairy. Others are doing this with dairy operations, but sorry, I don't have a link. Dairy farmers are too busy to write books or websites. (grin!)

  12. Jefferdaughter Author

    No doubt there are other sustainable dairies closer to you than Ohio, some using methods more sustainable than frequent mowing and re-planting. Eat Wild dot com is one great place to find sustainably produced foods local to you. Enjoy!

  13. itsno1duh Author

    this is for anyone with the muddy road problem he fixed with the geo-cloth… I was making gravels paths and had run out of geo liner. After having a roof job on my house I was hit with a $300 bill to landfill the old shingles. DUH! I used that roofing material under the gravel path at 4-6 inches and it's still there today after 15 years. I was convinced of the ecological safety of this after moving a pile of shingles only to find hundreds of worms in the layers they LOVED the stuff.

  14. itsno1duh Author

    I meant 4-6 inch depth of shingles then cover with equal amount of gravel. You may have to do a deeper amount with tender hooves going over the shingle and nails though… Normally dirt just swallows gravel. It's a cheap fix if you are strapped and can get the shingles delivered.

  15. mybeefcows Author

     Just a quick quick question, does he bush hog and plant the no-till the first day then five days later bush hog again or does he bush hog wait five days bush hog again and plants the no-till

  16. Ashley Clements Author

    great work!  I'm an experienced New Zealand dairy farmer but live upstate New York now. My family moved here 7 years ago mainly for the kids to go to school cause my wife is American. I transitioned an organic dairy here in NY 2008 but the family decided to shut the dairy down. I really miss grazing and milking cows. The winters are very cold here but i always want to achieve my dream and own some land and milk cows somewhere. Its very hard to start off but with my experience i really feel as though something will come along one day. The challenge i found was trying to get a conventional US cow grazing and not looking back to the barn for grain. I cut off grain feeding and used MIG cut labor costs. Keep up the great work i wish there were lots more farmers like you doing this.

  17. Tommy Cowett Author

    Love the university of Tom. Great farm! Great cows! What a great story! Congratulations! Thank you for sharing! I am so inspired! My grandfather was a dairy farmer. My dad earned a pHd in agriculture and moved to the city. I loved visits to the farm and understand the work ethic it takes. I worked for Barenbrug seed company a world leader in forage grasses and legumes for a while trying to teach dairy farmers how to use paddocks and grazing instead of feed systems. I was in turfgrass. The farmers we worked with could use your knowledge. Your awesome. Keep up the great work and many many April's too you sir !

  18. Grayhand Author

    Modern farming mostly revolves around beating the land and animals into submission then drowning both in chemicals because they are too sick to survive without them. You took the opposite approach and listened to what the land and animals needed and both are thriving. We don't need Monsanto we need more farmers with your kind of vision and commonsense.

  19. Dr. Kathy Howell, LPC Author

    I am developing a small sustainable farm in north Georgia. Is it possible for me to come by the farm to see your operation? I want very much to learn your system. I grew up on my parents dairy farm in the 1950s, but they went the chemical way. I want to leave a legacy to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren A natural non-chemical sustainable farm . I would appreciate you letting me know. Thank you. Blessings. Dr. Kathy

  20. Jeremy Ksor Author

    I’m Montagnard indigenous I don’t have cow but some people in my village do their cows eat grass and plants the meat so tasty every body love it .


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