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A Whole Bunch of Holy Cow Moments

By   /  September 21, 2015  /  5 Comments

Whether or not you’re a dairy producer, Tom Trantham can tell you a lot about learning from animals and managing pasture. Here he describes how he went from being one of the top 10 dairy producers in South Carolina, to the edge of bankruptcy and back again thanks to learning from his cows.

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"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 I don't have a mowing machine, I don't have a chopper, a blower or a silo. They do it all for me and they say 'Tom we're full. We're good. We're going to get you 100 lb. milk tonight.'"

“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 I don’t have a mowing machine, I don’t have a chopper, a blower or a silo. They do it all for me and they say ‘Tom we’re full. We’re good. We’re going to get you 100 lb. milk tonight.'”

In 1987, Tom Trantham was going through bankruptcy proceedings for his dairy farm. His sons and daughter had already left, because there was no future for them there. Tom was days away from packing it in.

Then, his herd broke through a fence and got loose. Tom disowned his cows, saying to himself “those were not my cows”. The bank was going to own them soon enough. He went inside and turned on the TV, hoping to escape the present moment for a little while.

After watching what he called one of the worst TV shows ever, he regrouped. He figured that as long as he still had his cows, he ought to milk them.

So he brought them in from the overgrown pasture that he had been planning to plow up and plant to crops. And he milked them. They smelled better, he thought to himself. More than that, they gave 200 lbs more milk.

Farmer Tom had worked really hard to give his herd the best feed they could get, and then they give him 200 lbs more milk on some overgrown pasture? Holy Cow!

He looked at the pasture, and saw they had grazed the top halves off of all of the plants in there. Well, he figured they could go in there and eat the other half the next day. The next day, though, they only ate the top half of what was left. That was the second lesson he learned from his cows. The top halves of the plant are great feed, but the bottom halves are not. He would have hayed that field taking it down to the ground. The top half would have given 22% protein, but the bottom half was only 6-7%. The cows figured it out, and showed Tom that the top half was the part worth eating. Holy Cow #2!

Tom says,"My cows are grazing a tremendous amount of forage and the nutritional value is out the roof."

Tom says,”My cows are grazing a tremendous amount of forage and the nutritional value is out the roof.”

You can watch Tom tell his story in this 16 minute video.  At 4:52, he describes his “12 Aprils system,” and how he works on recreating the flush of April’s growth every month by double brush hogging and no-till seeding into pasture.  He’ll tell you about another on of his “Holy Cow!” moments when, he accidentally brush hogged a pasture twice before seeding. The extra pass meant the new plants didn’t have to compete with existing forage, and he’s been doing it ever since. At 9:00, he explains the experimenting he did to figure out the best way to make lane ways for his herd. Geotextile, and careful grading make a solid and stable base for lanes that hold up to herd traffic and heavy rains.

Now Tom runs a grazing dairy and he looks at his pastures as crops. His cows average 22,000 lbs of milk, because he gives them high quality feed in every one of the farm’s 29 paddocks. Holy Cow! He’s glad he learned from his herd!

Here it is for our tablet readers.

Thanks to a couple of our On Pasture readers, Geralyn Devereaux and Stein, for sharing this video with us so we could share it with you!

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About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

5 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    Here’s the clip that John is talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrzDh9MRY_k
    It’s not edited out, it is in addition to, and comes from the same folks who made the first video. Tom has done a lot of work with SARE and others to share what he is learning and this is part of that work.

    I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem that Tom is confining his cows half the day. He says he feeds them when they come in in the evening. What Tom calls a TMR is hay made from the “waste” of his pastures after grazing, along with some additional fields.

    It’s clear that trying to create “12 Aprils” on every farm isn’t possible. What you can accomplish depends on your environment. While we can’t all do what Tom does, the point is that we all have the potential to look at what we’re doing in a new way, and to reconsider what our livestock are capable of doing for us.

    • Geralyn Devereaux says:

      What makes a great farmer? Sustainability, profitability, herd health, soil health and generosity? How about having a farm so cool that the kids all come back to work it? 🙂 Maybe that is why Tom Trantham is named 2015 SOUTH CAROLINA FARMER OF THE YEAR Way to Go! Thanks Rachel for the very nice article and Rachel for further video on his methods. I have never seen an honest farmer say there is only one way or that just one aspect of a whole routine is a magic bullet ~~~While we can’t all do what Tom does, the point is that we all have the potential to look at what we’re doing in a new way, and to reconsider what our livestock are capable of doing for us.~~~ – There is more about his farm even more recent improvements in articles out there. good reading!

      • Geralyn Devereaux says:

        Sorry! thanks Kathy!! for further info 🙂 love your site! one of my favorites for meeting the farmers “On Pasture” 🙂

  2. John says:

    I saw this video some time back and could hardly believe it. I then looked further into his story and found some facts left out. I do think there should be full disclosure so people don’t get false hopes of 24/7 grazing. He only grazes 1/2 the day. The other half he confines the cows and feeds silage/haylage/corn/supplements. You can find these clips that were edited out on YT.

  3. Chip Hines says:

    Farmer Tom’s story rates a “WOW!”

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