The Lays’ original home farm north of Knoxville, Tennessee, consisted of pretty steep land. So in 1960, Butch’s father and grandfather bought 400 acres south of Knoxville in the Tennessee River Valley. Though it’s still in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the land is easier to farm and better for pasture. Here, the Lays’ milking herd of 60 Holsteins has a terrific view to the east of the Smokies. It’s a sweet spot for Butch, Lisa, and their children, Jacob, Aaron and Sarah.
Growing up, it was all about the cows for Butch.
“Once I started taking over herd care more, I really got into the cow health aspect of it. We were pretty much a confinement dairy at that point, but then we had a feed shortage in 1984 to 1985 because of a drought. When we ran low on feed late that winter, we turned the cows into a wheat pasture in March and noticed that they started milking better.”
When Butch got out of college, he took on more responsibility on the farm and increased their grazing practices. By 1994, Butch and Lisa leased the dairy facilities and 180 acres of the home farm from Butch’s father and purchased the dairy herd. They started attending grazing seminars and liked what they learned, but they had not yet begun thinking about organic.
“At grazing conferences and pasture walks, I’d talk to the farmers who were graziers and who were also organic, and they weren’t like what most folks think of when they think of ‘organic’ farmers. They were farmers, just like me, and the more I talked to them about organic, the more it made sense.” Butch and Lisa realized they weren’t that far from organic to begin with.
“Lisa and I talked about it and decided we wanted to increase our grazing opportunities and look into going organic. We started our three-year transition in 2010.”
“We had been grazing more and more, feeding whole milk to our new calves instead of milk replacer because they did so much better [on whole milk], and we never used BST [bovine growth hormones] or a lot of antibiotics. There were plenty of things about conventional agriculture we’d gotten away from besides that, like feed with urea in it.” Synthetic urea is the nitrogen component of fertilizer and is often added to animal feed as a cheap source of nitrogen to promote animal growth. “I’d fed it to some calves and they just weren’t looking good. So I started upping their feed ration, thinking they weren’t getting enough, but they just got worse and worse. It finally dawned on me that I was basically feeding them poison! You know, if they eat fertilizer it will kill them, so why are we purposefully putting it in their feed?”
Today, the Lays graze their cows on organic pastures using a system known as intensive rotational grazing, meaning the cows are moved to fresh pasture a couple of times a day.
“A lot of conventional farmers worry about cow health when they go organic. What if they can’t use antibiotics anymore? I had talked to enough organic farmers who advised us to get the soils healthy first and the cow health will follow from that. They were right. We’ve had very few problems with cow health since we transitioned. I’ve learned to be more proactive with herd management. Personally, this way of farming is more fun for me. Organic has given us the freedom to relax the pressure on the cows and not worry about pushing them to give this or that amount of milk, and that relaxes the pressure on us humans, too.
“We love to have folks on the farm for tours to see what we do. And it’s interesting to see how folks react to it. If we see other farmers around town and mention that we’ve transitioned to organic, the men will back up, but the women will lean in and start asking questions!”
Lisa is a pre-K teacher and helps out on the farm whenever she can. She takes care of the calves and helps build fences and put up hay.
“One thing Lisa doesn’t do is help with the milking,” Butch says, laughing. “She read an article 15 years ago in Hoard’s Dairyman that consisted of advice from farm wives. One of them said, ‘never learn to milk or you’ll always be expected to milk.’ Lisa took that article to heart. She’s only milked once, but she loves driving the tractor. Thank goodness I like to milk!”