Cannon County, Tennessee
Andy Cooper operates a grass-based, full-time century dairy farm in Cannon County, near Morrison, Tennessee. Although Andy’s grandfather milked cows, Andy’s father Ray never operated a dairy. Instead, he was one of the early adopters of no-till on his grain operation in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s, had transitioned to beef cattle. He sowed most fields to permanent pasture and hay with some wheat. Like most beef-cattle farmers, he fenced his fields and bought hay harvesting equipment, including disk mower, tedder, and round baler. The farm was predominantly in wheat, Kentucky-31 fescue, and orchard grass. He produced between 400 to 600 round bales of hay per year on his 300-acre farm, of which about 264 acres was grass; and managed a 120-cow herd.
Ray constantly evaluated his operation and was noticing that major input costs were in hay production and harvesting. He took a 25-gallon portable tank, some poly wire, and couplers and began seeing what he could do on 5-10 acres, looking to decrease his input costs into hay. With help from Jim Garrish, former Director of University of Missouri Forage Research Center, he kept increasing his acres in rotational grazing.
In 2000, he quit growing hay and converted to a full season grazing system; the same year he got the name “No-Hay Ray.” He reduced the size of his herd to about 80 cows and subdivided his farm to 25 permanent paddocks averaging about between 10 to 12 acres in size. He was still using existing water, which included creeks and ponds. In 2005, he worked with NRCS to install four Richie 4-hole pressurized water tanks. He added six more the following year. He eventually fenced off the creeks and a couple of ponds from cattle access and converted most of his orchard grass, wheat, lespedeza, Sudex to Kentucky 31 and endophyte-free fescue.
He learned to stock-pile his fescue to assure winter grazing through December to February, and adjusted cattle numbers and temporary paddock size based on seasons and moisture content. Paddocks would be smaller to conserve more grass during dryer months, and larger during good growing periods. He adjusted his calving periods and reduced the size of his cattle from approximately 1300 – 1400 pounds to 1100 – 1200 pounds to fit a full-time grazing operation. He continued this system to 2009 and was recognized as a pioneer in rotational grazing at numerous conservation conferences and in conservation articles.
Andy Cooper graduated from Middle Tennessee University in 1998 with a degree in finance. He spent the next ten years selling real estate, became a mortgage broker, and opened his own title company in Murfreesboro. Watching his dad make advancements in grazing research, Andy began researching to shift his father’s herd from beef to dairy and make as much money as he was making in town on the farm. In 2008, real estate and dairy prices were down, so Andy used the time to transition. He had access to 300 acres and rented 100 more acres. In 2009 as dairy industry crashed, Andy took his plan to the bank financed his swing-12 parlor and purchased Jersey cows. The milking barn was his biggest expense, but still was much less expensive than a combine. He can milk 150 cows in one hour and a half. The barn is scrapped daily to a 16,000 gallon waste water pit. The waste water is pumped about once a month through a portable Irripod pod system, which is the only irrigation on the farm. There are no buildup of nutrients around the barn. When you drive up near the barn, there is excellent fescue growing absorbing any nutrients that may not be collected in the storage water pit. There is minimal odor. He worked with NRCS and designed and installed cattle lanes to safely transfer his cattle to pastures without any resource degradation.
Just as his father did, Andy knew that a full-time grazing system needed to be focused on smaller cows instead of typical Holstein that is typical of commercial dairies. Andy said that he would like his cows in the 700-pound range, where they probably average around 800 pounds. He says it is easier to produce milk from two 800-pound cows instead of one 1,600-pound cow. He milks between 135 and 150 cows daily.
As Andy switched from beef cows to Jersey cows, he began transitioning the old fescue fields to forages that are more conducive to producing milk. Recently, he categorized his grazing into six seasons. Early spring consists of cereal rye. Then fescue for spring, followed by summer with sorghum-sudex. Early fall is oats. Late fall is combination of cereal rye and stockpiled fescue, and winter is stockpiled fescue. Since 2011, Andy added annuals to his grazing to supplement the shortcomings of fescue for dairy cows. He added oats, cereal rye, and BMR sorghum-sudangrass planted for at least two consecutive years on a given field.
Just like his dad, he cuts no hay, so phosphorus and potassium are maintained. Carbon due to rotation is increasing, as shown by earthworm counts, biological activity, and production. Fields are routinely grazed with residue left, and rotated to assure good root growth, as well as shoots rested to produce more carbon through photosynthesis. Grazing management promotes spring volunteered white clover. Andy normally does not seed clovers. His diversity is present due to good rotations and pasture rest. Manure is distributed evenly with mob-grazing for short durations.
In 2014, to add diversity to his winter annuals, Andy planted oats, turnips, and crimson clover. In his rye mix, he planted rye, turnips, and crimson clover. His sizes of daily grazing acres vary by season and species being grazed. He turns the cows in at 12 inches and removes them at 4 inches. Roots are allowed to continuously grow adding to organic carbon. Soil biology is fed through diverse roots, manure being distributed through grazing management, and grasses are being rested allowing for forages to recover. Andy says his operation is very dynamic and he spends a lot of time with his cows. “Happy cows give lots of milk,” he says.