Walking a new path

“God gave a cow four legs. Let’s use them.” That’s the grazing philosophy of Butch Lay, who, along with his wife Lisa and their children, operates one of the few organic dairy farms in Tennessee. But the Lay’s Muddy Water Farm wasn’t always an organic dairy, and Butch didn’t always think about putting his cows’ legs to use.

“We were conventional farmers for about 15 years, I guess,” Butch recalls. “But then we had a feed shortage in 1984 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.”

That improvement in animal health and production was the proof Butch and Lisa needed. They knew firsthand how hard it was to get ahead as conventional dairy farmers on the steep hillsides of the Smoky Mountains, and they were eager to find a new path.

“A lot of conventional farmers worry about cow health when they go organic. What if they can’t use antibiotics anymore?” Butch says, recalling his own hesitation at switching to organic. “[But] 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.”

“It’s a learning process,” Butch says, “and I don’t know how steep the learning curve is, but it’s a definite learning process for me.”

The Lays are always on the lookout for ways to improve their operation. They have experimented with night grazing, to spare the cows the oppressive heat of Tennessee’s summer afternoons. Their eldest son, Jacob, invented and built a custom fly trap he calls the “No Fly Zone,” which gives the Lays’ cows another line of defense against insects and other pests.

“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,” Butch says. “And that relaxes the pressure on us humans, too.”

“There’s other farms that are close to organic now, they just don’t realize it,” Butch muses. “Nobody forced us to be organic, it was a choice. And we felt like it was the right choice for our family. You’ve got to work with nature. But if you do, nature works with you.”


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