Smart Farming Makes for Happy Cows at Happy Cow Creamery

Happy Cow Creamery’s name is not just a clever marketing ploy or slapping a happy face on the practice of farming. Owner Tom Trantham—or Farmer Tom, as he is known—is a big believer in listening to his cows and letting what they do naturally lead him to better farming practices. And that makes for happier cows and better milk.

Today, the creamery maintains right around 90 cows, putting out about 700 gallons of milk a day, which is bottled right on the farm before being shipped to 55–60 wholesale accounts across the Upstate as well as Happy Cow’s own store that is attached to the bottling facility.

Trantham worked in the grocery store business before turning to the farming life, and that experience is evident in the well-stocked and well-run little store that sells not only Happy Cow dairy products, but also produce from local farmers, over 100 varieties of cheese, and various other items from honey and hot sauce to bread and stone-ground grits.

Tours of the farm are popular with school groups, families, and others who are interested in seeing a working farm in action. Select Saturday tours are scheduled throughout the season (March through November), and weekday tours require a group of 20. The tours are taken on a tractor-pulled trolley, and free milk and ice cream samples are included with the $8 per person tour fee.

 

12 Aprils System

 

Although today the farm is a shining example of a successful family-run farm, it wouldn’t have turned out that way if Trantham had not listened to his cows.

He had bought the farm in 1978 and was using the same confined feeding methods that other dairy farmers used—which is expensive, eating up to 65% of his gross income. In 1986, South Carolina was in the midst of a drought, and Trantham was deeply in debt. He went to the bank, but he was told that they would be unable to extend him any more credit.

“I was ready to hang it up then,” he says. “I told my kids to go out and get jobs, because they wouldn’t be able to work on the farm.”

At this point in his telling of the story, there’s an imaginary meeting of the cows, led by two cows named Tarzan and Nosey. The cows, in his story, were concerned about Farmer Tom because they had never seen him so down, and they wondered together what they could do to help him. They decided to break out of the barn and go into a field full of juicy clover, because everyone knows that cows who eat April clover give better milk, and more of it.

Leaving aside whether or not there was a meeting of the cows, they did, in fact, break out and eat their fill of that juicy clover. And they did, in fact, give 200 more pounds of milk than they had been giving.

From that serendipitous beginning, Trantham embarked on a new system of feeding his cows, which he refers to as 12 Aprils—because April is the best month of the year for milk, so he set about trying to replicate those conditions year-round to keep up the increased milk output. The system involves 29 paddocks of rye grass, clover, or sorghum, depending on the time of year, which the cows rotate through, feeding for 24 hours in each one.

He took his idea to Clemson University’s Farm Extension in 1993, and in addition to Trantham receiving a USDA/SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant allowing him to fully implement his ideas, Clemson researchers Jean Bertrand and Fred Pardue also got a grant to study the system, verifying and documenting its benefits.

For 26 years, the 12 Aprils system has worked so well that others have come to study what Trantham does, and he has won numerous awards, which hang on the walls of his office. The one he’s most proud of, though, hangs in the store: a USDA/SARE award, the prestigious Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Farming. “It says I was the most sustainable farmer of the year,” he says proudly.


 

Photos by Nat Jehlen.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.