Andy Cooper is the seventh in our series of Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Andy Cooper is unique in that he operates grass-base full-time dairy. That is the cows meet most of their daily needs by grazing instead of intensive feeding of silage and hay. The Cooper Dairy is in Cannon County, near Morrison, Tennessee. Andy is the son of Mr. Ray Cooper (No-Hay Ray).
I believe it is essential to share the history of Mr. Ray in order to appreciate the evolution of rotational grazing to the present day dairy farm. The farm was recognized as a Century Farm in 2002. Although Mr. Ray's father milked cows, Mr. Ray never operated a dairy. The farm was operated as a cash-grain farm in the 1960s along with about 40 beef cows. Mr. Ray was one of the early adopters of no-till, late 1960s. In the 1980s, he transitioned to beef cattle enterprise. 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 400 - 600 round bales of hay per year. The farm is approximately 300 acres with 264 acres of grass (pre-dairy). He managed about 120-cow herd.
Mr. Ray constantly evaluated his operation and was noticing that major input costs were in hay production and harvesting. Mr. Cooper is known to try new things and open to change. He once said change comes upon us, and we as humans are resistant to change. Ray believed that we need not be afraid of change. With that attitude, he took a 25-gallon portable tank, some poly wire and couplers and began seeing what he could do on 5-10 acres. This is a lesson on any changing management practice, start off small, and master it before expanding. Mr. Ray kept looking at decreasing profits from higher input costs from hay. He was always reading and looking for new ideas. He came upon Jim Garrish, former Director of University of Missouri Forage Research Center. With his research and better technology in electrical fencing, he kept increasing his acres in rotational grazing.
In 2000, he made the plunge to quit growing hay and convert to a full season grazing system on his entire acres. He cut his last 78 rolls of hay in 2000. The name No-Hay Ray stuck with him. As he transitioned, he sold his hay equipment in 2003. He reduced the size of his herd to about 80 cows. During those years, he subdivided his farm to 25 permanent paddocks averaging about 10 - 12 acres. He was still using existing water, which included creeks and ponds. In 2005, he worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pam Hoskins, District Conservationist and installed 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. His efforts gained him "Tennessee Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence". He then reworked one pond to use for emergencies and had the entire farm subdivided off with fencing and water. He converted most of his orchard grass, wheat, lespedeza, Sudex to mostly fescue. He had both Kentucky 31 and the endophyte-free fescue.
He learned to stock-pile his fescue to assure winter grazing in December - February. He learned to adjust 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. Andy had a talent for crunching numbers, so he majored 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, and enjoy the life on the farm. With Ray wanting to retire, the transition was made after many hours of research and a few trips to New Zealand, as well as studying research from Denmark and Argentina. Andy, like Ray focused on profit and not maximum production. In 2008, real estate and dairies were both down. Andy used this 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 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 Mr. Ray did, Andy knew that a full-time grazing system needed to be focused on smaller cows instead of typical Holstein that is dominant in traditional commercial dairies. Andy said that he would like his cows in the 700s, 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. The day that I visited, he was milking 148 head. This of course is variable and ranges from 135 - 150. Andy said this is a business, not a petting zoo. He says he expects three things from his cows: they calve annually, they produce milk, and they do not cause trouble. If any of the three rules are not adhered to, then they are promptly sold and off the farm they go.
The cows harvest the forage themselves but do receive some supplements. They receive approximately 6 - 7 pounds of soybean hulls, hominy, and cotton seed daily. The ration is changed seasonally by proportion of protein or energy due to what forage they are currently grazing. For example, the ration will consist more soybean hulls and cotton seed when cattle are grazing sorghum-sudex, which has more energy. More hominy is given when the herd is grazing annual cereal rye, which has more protein. Keep in mind, Andy is more business related, and he watches and gets a feel based on milk production more than thinking empirically.
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. He has slowly taken old fields in fescue, sowed them in annuals for a while then rotated to BarOptima Fescue, Novel Entophyte free, and more palatable. He maintains Kentucky-31 fescue on rougher ground and near shade.
In his perennial BarOptima and Kentucky-31, he turns the cattle when forages are 12 inches in height, with post-graze residual targeted at four inches. The fescue provides grazing in spring, late fall, and with winter stockpiling. Pastures are clipped once a year, and sometimes twice, as needed. The BarOptima is fertilized in both spring at 30 units and fall at 40 units of nitrogen. He uses ammonia nitrate and urea. Just like his dad, he cuts no hay, so phosphorus and potassium are maintained. Carbon due to rotation and pastures staying fertile are increasing as shown by earthworms, 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 rest of pastures. Manure is distributed evenly with mob-grazing, intense cattle numbers for short durations.
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.
In order to preserve the soil carbon, he is building in his rotational grazing, Andy kills his fescue in the fall with glyphosate. He uses a no-till drill to plant oats and cereal rye in separate fields. Oats are grazed twice in fall and once in spring. Rye is grazed once in fall and twice in spring. When soil temperatures reach 60 degrees, usually near the first of May, sorghum-sudangrass is drilled with no-till drill. The summer annual is grazed from June to frost. All of the annuals receive 30 units of N after each grazing totaling 120 units of N per year.
With fescue being dormant in the summer months, Andy keeps his cows off the BarOptima while grazing the summer annual. At night, the cows are grazing the sorghum-sudangrass where they are consuming approximately 85 percent of their dry matter. They are milked in the afternoon among the shade and graze Kentucky-31. Andy milks his cows 9 months then they are not milked from December through February. When cows are dry, they are on stock piled fescue. The reality of a grazing dairy is there is variability in milking seasons. Milk weights may be somewhat lower while on Bar Optima fescue, then an increase on rye and summer annual. Andy says that is fine with him. Profits are the bottom line not maximum production.
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. Early on, he will use 2-3 acres, later down to 3/4 - 1 acre. Again 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. Andy also spends a lot of time with his cows. He says, happy cows give lots of milk. After spending time on the farm, one can see healthy soils producing healthy forages, which produces ample milk, making Andy Cooper a happy farmer.