HAGERSTOWN, Md. — When Ruth was named grand champion of the International Ayrshire Show at the 2017 World Dairy Expo, Mike Creek was a bit emotional, seeing the validation of what Palmyra Farm has been breeding for over the past three decades. When she repeated the honor in 2018, the Creek and Shank families were elated.
“Ruth is a once in a lifetime cow,” says Mike Creek about two-time Expo grand champion Palmyra Berkely P Ruth-ET EX94. “My family at home is responsible for her wins. I just get to lead her.”
Mike, Mark and Evan Creek are among the fourth generation at Palmyra Farm. Ruth is Evan’s cow, and Evan himself was recognized in October 2018 with the 28th Klussendorf-MacKenzie award. The top herds trust the care of their top animals to Evan’s combination of cow care, wisdom and show-fitting talent.
In October 2019, the World Dairy Expo will be special again as the National Dairy Shrine will honor their mother Mary Shank Creek and her brother Ralph Shank of Hagerstown, Maryland as 2019 Distinguished Dairy Cattle Breeder. They are the first brother and sister honorees in the 70 years of National Dairy Shrine.
Ralph and his wife Terrie and Mary with her husband Mike Sr. operate this respected Ayrshire farm with their children and grandchildren. Ralph and Mary’s breeding program has provided 77 Ayrshire bulls into A.I. units, highlighted by Palmyra Tri-Star Burdette — one of the all-time greats and Premier Sire at Expo the past five years — and new breed star Palmyra Tri-Star Reality.
According to National Dairy Shrine, over 100 Palmyra-bred cows have appeared on the Ayrshire Elite Cow Performance Index with 10 cows ranking number one. The Ayrshire CPI leader (Dec 2018) is — you guessed it — Palmyra Berkely P Ruth-ET (Ex-94), the two-time grand international Champion of the World Dairy Expo, where Shank and Creek have been the Ayrshire Premier Breeder 11 times, Premier Exhibitor 9 times, and shown the grand champion 3 times at World Dairy Expo as well as numerous Premier Breeder and Exhibitor banners at the All-American Dairy Show and Maryland State Fair.
Palmyra Farm has garnered 146 All-American nominations and achieved 49 All-American awards. They are especially strong supporters of youth programs.
As for reigning champion Ruth, her leadsman Mike Jr. says, “She is the culmination of our breeding programs from both sides.”
They bred primarily for show type in the 1980s and 90s, and then shifted the focus.
“We made a concentrated effort to add milk and genetic merit — to breed a more complete animal,” Mike explains. “This combination gave us the foundation we have now. Ruth is what we have been breeding for — for 30 years.”
Not only is Ruth a great cow, she has quite a following on social media. She’s low maintenance and very competitive in the show ring, at the feed bunk and in the milking parlor.
“She’s a competitive, dominant cow,” Mike says with a smile.
In fact, so low maintenance is this four-calf 4-year-old that she breeds back faithfully every year.
An early-bloomer, Ruth maxed out the Ayrshire classification at EX-94 as a 3-year-old because she had already had three calves. She has had three lactations over 20,000 pounds and is well on her way to 30,000 this lactation, putting over 100 pounds of milk a day in the bucket — whether she’s at home or at the shows.
With fat over 4% and very high protein, Ruth is currently the number two genetic merit cow in the Ayrshire breed while her Burdette sister, Rayna, is number one. In fact, the two maternal sisters — Ruth and Rayna — trade top positions, depending on when they calve.
Add to this the four other maternal sisters, including a full sister — in total five daughters by three sires — who are all on the farm, and it’s evident that the Rosy family is blooming at Palmyra.
There are three foundation cow families here. The Rosy’s brought forward Ruth and Rayna, as well as other top 10 genetic merit daughters. Burdette, is a son out of the Bonnie family. And then there are the Ginger’s. The junior champion at the 2016 World Dairy Expo came from the Ginger family.
All of this adds to the great story and connections with consumers through Palmyra Farm Cheese, started in 2009 by Mike Jr. While he is a member of Palmyra Farm, the farm is run by the others in the family team while Mike works off-farm with Trans Ova and concentrates on the cheese business to add value to the farm’s milk.
“I started the cheese business out of the desire to pay a livable wage for the farm’s milk while making cheese that is profitable,” Mike explains. “We reduced the number of cows in the herd to a level where I can buy a higher percentage of the farm’s milk for the cheese.”
On a retail level, the most popular is the Chesapeake Bay Cheddar. Top seller through wholesale channels is the Sharp Cheddar.
Mike crunched the numbers and saw that, done right, he could process and resell cheese at a cost that would allow him to pay $20/cwt for the Palmyra Farm milk — but only on the percentage of the herd’s milk being used to make the cheese.
“That’s a promise I made, to pay $20 for the milk I buy from the farm to make cheese,” says Mike.
Quality milk is the key, and the Palmyra herd maintains high components and low somatic cell counts of 100,000.
“Starting lactations with Udder Comfort is an easy, non-invasive tool for cow comfort and udder quality,” says Mike. “We were introduced to the product at the 2004 World Dairy Expo, and it has become a staple. We use it heavily on our show cows and our fresh cows because it softens so well.”
Mike enjoys the cattle and the marketing. He didn’t think his time should go into cheesemaking initially, which is why he found a vendor to make the Palmyra cheese from the milk of their Palmyra Ayrshire cows. Doing it this way allowed them to build a brand with their cows, but without the upfront investment in equipment. Controlling the cows allowed the to control the quality of the end product.
Location and cattle breed were two marketing points. Not only is Palmyra Farms located near large pockets of consumers in Maryland, the Ayrshire breed is known for its high-component milk. In addition, the five-generation history of Palmyra Farms — and the genetic legacy and progress of the herd housed in freestalls and on pasture — gave Mike a great story for the cheese.
He says that being part of the region’s tight-knit agriculture community is something he and his family take pride in. They are justifiably proud of the genetic progress of their herd and in the achievements of others in the Ayrshire breed and their ag community.
As for Ruth, a life-size cutout of the champion accompanies the cheese to events. And while Mike gets to lead Ruth on the tanbark, spending time washing her and visiting her at the farm, he is quick to point out that she is his brother Evan’s cow and the kudos go to the home team.
— By Sherry Bunting