“Don’t it feel like the wind is always howl’n?
Don’t it seem like there’s never any light
Once a day, don’t you wanna throw the towel in?
It’s easier than puttin’ up a fight.”
— “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” Annie
Orphan Annie’s song could convey the plight of dairy farmers not just in South Carolina but throughout the country. Nearly 650,000 dairy farms were located in the United States in 1970, but just 40,219 remained at the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a June NBC news report titled, “Best advice to U.S. dairy farmers? Sell out as fast as you can,” the message was, “Cows in the U.S. are producing more milk than ever, but they’re consolidated on bigger, more efficient farms. In 1987, half of American dairy farms had 80 or fewer cows; by 2012, that figure had risen to 900 cows.”
Farm Aid calls the rapid dwindling of U.S. dairy farms a “crisis” as small and mid-sized dairies have given way to large ones. Primary reasons include the production cost, which is higher than retail returns, the influx of plant-based milk replacements entering the marketplace, and a general focus on “bigger is better.”
In South Carolina, the news is no different. According to The Dairy Alliance, which serves all dairy farms of any size in eight Southeastern states, currently around 16,000 milk cows remain in the state. “The five largest herds have about one-third of all the cows, which is roughly 5,250 head; two-thirds of the cows are still on farms milking less than 500 cows,” says Elizabeth Moretz, the alliance’s senior manager of farmer relations.
Satterwhite Dairy in Newberry ranks among the top five. The fourth generation dairy farm in 2013 went big to survive. “There aren’t many of us left; we’re dwindling,” he says. Currently, approximately 1,300 cows produce 13,000 gallons per day. In summer, production lessens somewhat because of heat and humidity, explains co-owner Kevin Satterwhite.
In 2014 Satterwhite Dairy installed a 60-stall rotary parlor, which makes one complete revolution about every nine minutes, the time required to prepare and milk each Holstein cow. The machine is a round conveyor belt of sorts for modern large-scale dairy farms. “It’s like a merry-go-round for cows,” says Kevin, explaining that the cows know to line up in the holding pen and then funnel onto the rotary parlor. “They walk on one at a time and then walk off. The boss cows get on first.”
Kevin assures that his cows are “happy” while they wait to be milked and that the milk is of the highest quality. Milk is sold to one cooperative based in Virginia that sends it to a bottler in either Charleston or Spartanburg. “So the milk mostly stays in South Carolina,” he says.
Kevin farms on 3,000 acres with his father, Wayne; his uncle, William; and his cousin, Steve. The Satterwhites only deal with the one specific cooperative, not the bottling facilities. Although dairy farming has always been the main focus of the Satterwhite farm, it also has some beef cattle and row crops.
Kevin says his tenacity as a dairy farmer comes from love of the outdoors and love of animals. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I was born and raised in this and want to continue the family business. But to dairy farm, you really have to enjoy it.”
Even though the Satterwhite diversification plan focuses on large-scale production, a handful of small, multi-generational family-owned dairies still survive, including Hickory Hill Milk in Edgefield and Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer. Both have installed bottling operations in order to cut out a middle man and sell directly to stores and consumers.
Watson Dorn says that Hickory Hill survives against all odds. He graduated from Clemson University in 1984 with an agricultural education degree. At the time, 370 dairies were active in the state. Twenty seven of those dairies were in his county; now just two remain. Since farming is in his blood, he decided it was better to diversify than risk the death of his dairy farm.
Watson is considered a third generation dairy farmer, but he is of the ninth generation to work his family farm, which consists of 750 acres. It has been in the Dorn family since 1764. “Growing up, my parents milked about 100 to 150 cows, and they could make a good living,” says Watson. “But the milk prices have essentially stayed the same over all these years, yet labor and materials are higher.”
In 2008, Watson and family decided that instead of becoming what is known as an agri-corporation or mega farm, or relying on a large cooperative to purchase milk from their 250 Holstein cows, they would bottle their own.
“Everything we do is for the milk,” says Watson, whose whole family assists on the farm in some way. His son, Daniel, followed in his footsteps, graduating from Clemson with an agriculture degree. His daughter, Courtney, is a cosmetologist by trade, but she helps with marketing. Lisa, his wife, is also a Clemson graduate and handles bookkeeping and accounting for Hickory Hill.
The main high-tech implementation at Hickory Hill is what is called an SCR device that acts as a sort of Fitbit. The device measures steps, minutes spent chewing food, and other actions. Low rumination, for example, may point to health issues in the cow. “The collars are equipped with a module that is positioned by the cow’s jaw to collect data necessary for the health of the cow. The devices inform us before there are any clinical signs of a cow having or developing an issue; in other words, it tells us the cow has a problem before she knows she has a problem. It ensures we have a happy, healthy herd,” says Watson, who adds that SCR information can be accessed via his smartphone.
Hickory Hill Milk is collected twice a day and bottled on-site five days a week. “Our milk is all-natural, old-fashioned whole milk,” says Watson, who points out that his company guarantees that the milk is rBGH (hormone) and antibiotic free. “We process our milk as little as allowable for flavor, nutrients, and freshness. Hickory Hill Milk is low-temp pasteurized, meaning it is heated to 145 F, held there for 30 minutes, and then cooled as quickly as possible. This gives our milk the smooth, sweet taste of yesteryear and preserves both the naturally occurring enzymes that help your body easily digest it as well as the beneficial bacteria.”
Granted, this process takes more effort, but they do not seem to mind. The great taste is worth every minute. Hickory Hill Milk is also non-homogenized, a rare find these days that offers a return to nostalgia when a thick layer of cream rises to the top of each bottle.
He explains that the only reason milk started being homogenized in the first place was to eliminate the need for customers to shake it to mix the separated cream with the milk. “There is no scientific reason to homogenize milk.” He explains further that the natural sugars in non-homogenized milk aid in calcium absorption, contributing to the formation of strong bones for osteoporosis prevention, resulting in the lowering of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and more.
He says, “People need to understand that milk is good for you. In milk there is quality calcium and a friendly, healthy fat.”
Hickory Hill sells to such grocers as Fresh Market, Publix, Bi-Lo, Ingles, Lowe’s, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare. Clemson Blue Cheese and Clemson’s Best Gourmet Ice Cream are also products made with Hickory Hill Milk.
“We’re never going to get rich as dairy farmers,” says Watson, “but we persevere.”
Thomas Trantham, Jr., of Happy Cow Creamery on 12 Aprils Farms is much newer to farming than Watson. He started farming in 1969 while living in North Carolina. “I began raising replacement heifers for dairy farmers. This was my first experience, so there was much for me to learn. This experience lasted for about 8 years before my family and I realized we had a desire to have our own dairy farm. We began looking at advertisements, and in 1978, having looked into several dairies in other states, we decided to move to a fairly small dairy of about 100 acres in South Carolina.”
Eventually, they named the actual farm 12 Aprils Farm — their dairy business, though doing well before the 1980s, had begun to struggle like most in the country. Thomas ran a typical confined feeding operation, and his feed bill was 65 percent of his gross income. Then, in April 1989, his cows broke out of the feeding area into a seven-acre field full of lush April grass. Thomas recognized that there was a two-pound average increase per cow in milk production the next day.
Because Thomas noticed how “happy” the cows were, he decided on the name Happy Cow Creamery for the farm’s dairy products.
Still challenging then, and now, was the ability to receive a fair price for milk after all the work that goes into the process. As dairies folded or joined the ranks of large-scale operations, Thomas, like Watson, decided to set up a bottling plant.
Currently, 90 or so Holstein cows are milked daily, beginning at 5 a.m. “After milking, the cows are fed a TMR (total mixed ration) made with our baleage (a mowed crop that is wrapped up for feed) and a ration we mix, especially for our grazing program,” says Thomas. “This will depend on the time of year for the different kinds of crops we have planted. The cows are then turned out into one of our 29 grazing paddocks.”
Many chores must be completed following the milking. The milking parlor has to be cleaned; towels used to clean cows have to be washed; and some calves have to be bottle fed their mother’s milk. Other calves that are weaned are fed grain and clean water and also get some “loving.” They then feed the free-stall calves and the heifers. This entire process takes place twice daily. Approximately 175,000 gallons of milk are produced annually at 12 Aprils Farm.
The Trantham family’s ongoing motivation, besides surviving in the dairy industry, comes from the 12 Aprils Farm’s successful grazing program, which emphasizes a year-round, pasture-based rotational grazing system, as well as revenue generated by their on-farm store. “Most rewarding to me,” says Thomas, “are the people who have worked with us in our store, some whom have been there for the 16 years we’ve had it open. For me, it was a personal matter of following God’s plan for my life. The commitment to hard work has allowed us to enable others to be a part of what we call here ‘a better way.’ Our farm and our grazing program have been privileged to share with fellow farmers in other states and other countries the Master’s plan of our 12 Aprils grazing program.”
Thomas’ wife, Linda, also works on the farm, and their son, Thomas Trantham, III, “Tom,” is poised to take over 12 Acres Farm and continue the Happy Cow Creamery business. Thomas knows dairy farming will continue to be a challenge for future generations.
“The loss of dairy farms affects small communities in many areas — fewer seed suppliers, farming equipment suppliers, jobs, and sustainable family farms, whose incomes have been greatly reduced. One of the greatest sources of wealth, shared by many at one time, is now shared by only a few.”
But despite adversity, Thomas says dairy farming is a happy endeavor for his family — and his cows.