A pioneer who developed a grazing dairy and an on-farm bottling plant and creamery, Tom Trantham of Pelzer, S.C., plants forage crops throughout the year. This replicates the lush and nutritious grazing available during April on most farms.
He calls his farm the 12 Aprils Dairy. His bottling plant is the Happy Cow Creamery. His 93-head milking herd produces 22,000 pounds of milk per cow per year.
As a result of his success as a dairy farmer, Trantham has been selected as the South Carolina winner of the 2015 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Trantham joins nine other state winners as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
A farmer for 37 years, Trantham owns 122 acres and rents 52 acres. He’s a grazing advocate. He uses electric fencing to establish two- and three-acre paddocks. Trantham moves his cows daily. Pasture walks help him visualize what the paddocks will look like in two or three months.
Some of his forages include rye, ryegrass, berseem clover, sorghum or sorghum-sudangrass, Barduro red clover, Tifleaf 3 pearl millet, crimson clover, triticale, Marshall ryegrass, grazing alfalfa, oats, and mammoth red clover.
Depending on the mix, these crops will produce forage yields of 5.3 to 16 tons per acre. He’s able to irrigate a limited number of paddocks. His most important implement is a no-till drill he uses for planting.
“I plant Florida black rye in August and graze it in November,” says Trantham. “I plant Wrens Abruzzi rye in September and October to graze in January and February.” Fixation balansa is a new clover he’s looking forward to planting. Trantham has learned what works and what doesn’t. For example, he tried but abandoned soybeans and vetch as pasture crops.
In the spring, he plants sorghum or sudangrass. “We plant these in cool weather and still get good stands,” adds Trantham. During June, he plants Tifleaf 3 pearl millet that provides grazing until the fall. As fall approaches, he mixes clover and ryegrass with his cereal rye plantings.
He grazes forages below knee height, and bales plants between knee and waist high. If plants are above waist high, he mows them and leaves the residue in the paddocks. Some of his round bale hay has tested as high as 22% in protein.
“The cows eat the top half, the healthiest parts of the plants,” he says. “With the 12 Aprils concept, forage quality peaks just after the plants come out of the ground.”
Trantham was born in North Carolina and owned a California grocery store as a young man. In 1978, he wanted to farm. So he sold his store, bought his land near Pelzer and started his dairy.
It was a success at first. Milk production was high. He fed a total mixed ration to his confined cows. By the mid-1980’s, however, he was deeply in debt. One day his cows escaped their confinement and grazed lush plants. He milked the cows and found that milk production actually increased during the day they grazed.
This discovery led him to develop the grazing dairy. He persuaded his lenders to delay foreclosure. Hay donations helped him get through a severe drought, and he was on his way out of debt.
He still feeds mixed rations, but only enough to provide vitamins and minerals cows need. Their main meals come from grazing.
By planting forages so often, Trantham’s farm can quickly recover from drought. When he relied on corn silage, drought had a longer negative effect because the silage was needed to feed the cows for an entire year.
Trantham pioneered in using geotextile fabric to eliminate mud from areas where cattle frequent. This fabric is overlain with a layer of small rocks or gravel.
His creamery is known for its eggnog, buttermilk and chocolate milk. His milk is pasteurized at a low temperature, but is not homogenized. He sells whole milk for $4.50 per gallon to his retail customers, and charges $5.50 per gallon for chocolate milk and buttermilk.
In addition to his milk, he sells strawberries from his farm along with foods from other farmers, including cheese, eggs, ice cream, butter and the like. Eventually, Trantham would like to start making and selling his own ice cream. He also offers farm tours for groups, mainly school children.
He employs 11 people at the farm and bottling plant. Family members work there too, including his wife Linda. “Linda is a twin and her sister is married to a dairy farmer,” says Trantham.
His daughter Tammy manages the dairy and the grazing programs. His son Tom III runs the bottling plant and handles the farm’s wholesale accounts. Tom, Tammy and Tom III share in conducting the fieldwork. His daughter in law Ashley conducts the farm tours for children. Another daughter Tracy is married to an Illinois farmer.
His farm has been recognized by Greenville County Cooperative Extension, Pelzer Lions Club and the City of Greenville.
He is a founding board member of Generations group home for boys and Slow Food Upstate. He has also been a member of the Pendleton Farmers Society and a 4-H supporter.
He has been a member of the USDA-Farm Service Agency state committee, the S.C. Heritage Corridor and has been recognized by the S.C. Wildlife Federation for his conservation. He was Progressive Farmer magazine’s Man of the Year in 2003. He has been active in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). He received a lifetime achievement award from CFSA, SARE presented him the Patrick Madden award for sustainable farming leadership, and he served as president of RAFI.
Trantham is now thankful for all he has been through. The financial hard times led him to establish the grazing dairy and the on-farm creamery. This, in turn, led his family members to come back and work on the farm.
He’s especially proud that he converted his blue Harvestore silo into the bottling plant. Trantham says the Harvestore symbolized his old way of dairy farming, and the bottling plant represents the new focus. Now, his milk travels no more than 48 feet from the cows to the milk bottle.
Trantham is slowed down a bit because he’s battling Parkinson’s disease. But he’s still a consummate milk salesman. “Hi, I’m Farmer Tom,” he says to a young girl visiting the farm with her mother to buy some milk.
As the South Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Trantham will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.