Text written by SARE
Tom Trantham was one of South Carolina’s top producing dairymen back in the 1980s. But he wasn’t making much money. He ran a typical confined feeding operation and his feed bill alone ate up 65 percent of his gross income. Then something happened that changed his life. One day in April 1989 his cows broke out of the feeding area into a seven-acre field full of natural lush April growth—lamb’s quarters, rye grass, a little clover and fescue. The next day there was a two-pound average increase per cow in milk production. Thinking maybe the cows were trying to tell him something, Trantham opened all the gates on his farm and began experimenting with grazing.
With the encouragement of Mike Sligh of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Trantham took his idea to Clemson University professors Jean Bertrand and Fred Pardue. They obtained a Southern Region SARE Research and Education grant to determine the feasibility of a minimum-input, financially sound grazing dairy. From 1994 through 1997, the SARE researchers monitored what Trantham was doing and recommended changes based on their findings. At the end of the project they had a body of scientific knowledge to help other farmers, and Trantham had a grazing dairy system.
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. 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. Watch the video to learn more and to see how Trantham’s system might be adapted to your region. A 12 Aprils Planting and Grazing Guide (pdf) is also available to help describe Trantham’s system in more detail.