By Laura Lengnick, founder of Cultivating Resilience, LLC
This story is excerpted from Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015). Resilient Agriculture explores climate risk, resilience, and the future of food through the adaptation stories of 25 award-winning sustainable farmers and ranchers growing fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and livestock across America.
Tom Trantham owns and manages Happy Cow Creamery, a 90-cow, forage-based dairy farm and creamery located east of Greenville, South Carolina. The inventor of the Twelve Aprils grazing program, Tom transitioned his ninety-cow dairy from feed-based to pasture-based production in 1983, dramatically lowering his costs while improving both herd health and milk quality.
The heart of Tom’s Twelve Aprils system is the successive, no-till planting of short-lived, seasonally adapted annual forages into a permanent Bermuda grass pasture. This keeps his soils covered and provides his cows with high-quality grazing every month of the year. The forages he uses include grazing maize, sudangrass, millet, small grains, alfalfa, and clover. Variables such as weather, forage needs, and field-specific conditions mean that no two years are exactly alike, but on average, Tom makes five to seven no-till plantings a year. Cows graze a planting once or twice, and then the forage is either cut for hay or bushhogged to prepare for the following crop. Tom’s Holsteins consistently top a 23,000-pound herd average, and many of them are still producing well at ten to fourteen years of age.
Tom appreciates the flexibility the Twelve Aprils system gives him to adjust to changing weather patterns through the year. “I prepare for what I think the situation’s going to be,” Tom says, “and then if it doesn’t work, I just bushhog it and plant something else. That’s the great thing about my system.” Tom says this capacity to recover quickly from mistakes or other contingencies has been particularly helpful over the years.
Using no-till also provides a lot of flexibility, plus it saves time and money in fuel and equipment costs. “There’s always a challenge in farming,” he says, “but if you make a mistake. . .or maybe it isn’t a mistake, maybe it rained too much or it was too dry, with my system you’re not set back too much. Just the number of days it takes for you to get back out there and replant. But when you’ve got a hundred acres of corn silage and you lose it, you don’t have another shot until next year, so you’re done for. You’ve got to buy feed and all, and that’ll break you in a heartbeat, to have to purchase feed.”
Twenty-three years of diverse, no-till cropping and management-intensive grazing have produced very high-quality soils throughout the farm. “The organic matter in my soil is just unreal,” says Tom. “When a raindrop hits my ground, it’s just like a sponge. Hardpan is not a problem on my farm. When you walk on my fields, it’s like you’re walking on cushion.” Tom has not used any chemicals or fertilizers on his farm in twenty-nine years. “The one thing that I really believe in, as much as anything I’m doing, is no use of chemicals or fertilizers,” Tom explains. “You can see many of my fields have less weeds than a field that’s been sprayed with every kind of thing you can think of. I really like to be able to do that.”
Tom is upbeat about his farm’s ability to remain productive if weather variability and extremes increase as projected for his region. He views the combination of high soil quality, no-till planting, diverse, short-season annuals, and management intensive grazing as a very resilient production system. “I guess it depends on the degree of weather extremes that we are talking about,” says Tom, “but with my system, I am able to adjust. If one crop goes, another one’s put right in. I can respond rapidly to a situation that maybe others couldn’t.”
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