SHARON SPRINGS, N.Y. — Ridgdale Farm is an enjoyable visit with beautiful cows.
“We just like working with good cows,” says Cyrus Conard without hesitation when asked what he enjoys about dairying. No matter how many ways the question was asked, his answer was just that simple, so it’s no surprise the entire registered Holstein herd at Ridgedale Farm, Sharon Springs, NY, is out of Excellent cows. Even with a high percentage of two-year-olds, the milking herd of around 100 includes 70 classified EX, the balance VG.
“We like the crops and tractors too,” his father Wayne adds. “We just like farming.”
In their ‘spare’ time, they restore John Deere tractors and make them useful again. They also do custom combining and big square bales for other farms in the area.
In fact, calling them in from working on the rain-delayed second-cutting on the first dry day in a long while was no small feat for this interview.
However, as I waited with 5-year-old Liam — walking up and down the road and talking — it was easy to forget there’s a world beyond the hills and valleys of crops and hay, cows and pasture and a white fence Liam was proud to tell me he helped paint. Blue skies and puffy white clouds were framed by green fields of growing corn and soybeans. The sweet smell of fresh cut hay permeated the air from the hills above, and the lowing of cattle drifted out of the barn, where the familiar rhythm and hum of midday milking was winding down.
The Ridgedale prefix goes back to Wayne’s paternal grandmother’s family. One of his father’s uncles ran the dairy farm in New Jersey before he was tragically killed by a bull. Then, during World War II, the U.S. Army took the farm because a railroad station was needed.
“Dad got started again on a rented farm and spent some time in New Hampshire before coming to New York when I was 11,” Wayne recalls. His father purchased the original 212 acre-farm in Sharon Springs, and later built a 1980-style tiestall barn.
Today, the Conards milk 102 cows. They farm 750 owned acres and rent additional ground, raising feed for their cows, and cash cropping corn, soybeans, grass hay and some small grains, with their own dryer on site.
Not only do dry cows graze rolling pastures here, the milk cows get out every morning on pasture.
Ridgedale milk goes to Midland Farms, a family-owned wholesaler of fluid milk and dairy products supplied by 20 local dairy farms.
In addition to the rebuilt heifer and bull facility on the hill, the elite cows of Ridgedale impress in their work clothes, all in one location.
The 2021 BAA of 112.7 ranked 4th for herds of 80 to 129 cows and in the top 40 overall.
Yes, this family enjoys working with good cows, and they rely on Udder Comfort to get fresh cows started in lactation and for their show cows before and after showing.
“Udder Comfort softens udders quickly. It simply works best and makes a huge difference in bringing out the quality of the udder. We love it on our show cows and choose it for the results on our fresh cows and any time we need to soften a quarter. We’ve been using this product as long as I can remember,” says Cy, and his wife Morgan Behnke-Conard is quick to add her family in Wisconsin (Burwall Holsteins) are longtime Udder Comfort fans as well.
At Ridgedale, cows are milked three times a day. The herd used to be split between Cy’s place and Wayne’s place — less than a mile apart on the same road — until a fire in early 2018 destroyed the barn where Wayne milked 30 head. The family expanded out the back of their main tiestall barn to consolidate milking at one location the next year, turning the other site into a pole barn for machinery.
The farm has evolved in its over 50 years.
“To cash flow today, as a family farm, we need to be diversified,” says Wayne. “We’ve bought five farms in my lifetime — all last generation dairies. We haven’t enlarged our herd, but we’ve definitely had to diversify the business.”
While the number of dairy farms has declined, the region has maintained its dairy heritage as Amish families have come in buying farms and milking cows.
Ridgedale actually started selling bulls decades ago when Wayne’s late brother ran potloads to California every month.
“We’d put 6 to 8 bulls from this farm on a load,” Wayne recalls, noting they also sold bulls to Cow Town in Vermont in those days. “Then the Amish families came in locally. We supply them, and we also sell bulls over to Lowville. We haven’t needed to advertise.”
The bulls offer deep pedigrees based on type. One set price gives the buyer choice of available bulls. They test for genomics, especially the ones they are collecting on the farm for semen sales.
“Genomics is a good tool, but we don’t play the genomics game,” says Wayne. “The bulls we use have got to be out of good cow families or it will come back to haunt us.”
Dick Witter has done the semen tanks at Ridgedale since he started Taurus Services in 1973.
Wayne reflects on 50 years of breeding during their 50 years of friendship. Some early partnerships included one in 1990 with Hanover Hill.
Ridgedale has had some bulls with Taurus, and today they have a Goldchip out of Ridgedale Folly at Triple Hill Sires. His full sister went EX as a three-year-old.
Wayne has lost count of the number of cows classifying Excellent over the years, estimating more than 300 homebred cows have gone EX. Of those, 20 have gone EX-95.
In fact, Ridgedale is typically in the top 10 for BAA score among herds their size. In 2021, they ranked #4 with a BAA of 112.7 and were in the top 40 herds overall.
A young cow Wayne is excited about is his younger son Isaac’s show cow — Ridgedale Raquel EX-92. She was All New York and nominated All American as a senior two-year-old in 2020 with pregnancies in 2021 by King Doc. Raquel is backed by 9 generations EX. She is a Diamondback x EX-92 Windbrook x EX-94 Dundee x six more generations back to the Roxys.
She has been Isaac’s cow since she was a calf and was first-place senior 2-year-old for him at Louisville in 2020. Fresh with her second calf, Raquel was then grand champion of the Fall OHM Holstein Club Show in August 2021 and was in the top third of the senior 3-year-old class (8th of 25) at the 2021 World Dairy Expo International Open Holstein Show in Madison last October.
A milestone for the family among the Reds was Ridgedale-T Raichu-Red EX-96. In 2016, Raichu and her full sister Ridgedale Runway Red-ET were the first homebred Red & White maternal sisters to be approved EX-95 and the first Holstein sisters to do this from the same herd on the same day. Then in 2017, Raichu went EX-96. Both were 7th generation EX back to Roxy with daughters in the herd today.
The Conards lost Raichu in 2020 at 16 years of age. She had been nominated All-American six times in milking form, with sons in A.I. and a string of show wins with Cy at the halter.
In fact, Raichu inspired Cy’s passion for showing, fitting and genetics as they grew into showing — together — earning grand champion three times in the Premier National Junior Show at the All-American in Harrisburg and twice reserve grand champion of the Junior Red & White Show at World Dairy Expo in Madison.
It was at Madison that Cy and Morgan met and married. Morgan’s uncles and her grandfather Wallace Behnke have Burwall Holsteins near Madison. She and her sister grew up with their own small herds of show heifers, and she met Cy while serving as Holstein Princess handing out awards for the Expo’s International Red & White Show. Cy enrolled that fall in the University of Wisconsin dairy farm and industry short course.
Today, Cy and Morgan have two young children, with Liam successfully leading his own heifer calf for the first time at age 5 during the 2021 OHM show.
As a farm run by family members who enjoy the cows and the crops, the Conards are quick to appreciate the employees helping with chores and the aggressive 3x milking schedule – and helping them get ready for events like state Holstein picnic and Sundae on the Farm, which draws thousands of people.
While Jen works off the farm in ag lending and Morgan does graphic design for the area’s tourism industry and for dairy clients, all-in-all, the Conards really enjoy everything about farming together.
Like many things missed in 2020, Holstein enthusiasts were glad to gather and get the New York State Holstein Picnic back on track last fall (2021). Ridgedale Farm was the site with the Conard family hosting the event, just as they did in 1984 when the state picnic made its original comeback.
It was Wayne Conard’s mother on the breed promotion committee back in the early 1980s, who was instrumental in getting the state picnic going at that time — after an almost 40-year hiatus.
“They had picnics in the early 1900s, but then it went by the wayside until 1984,” Wayne explains about that first modern-era New York Holstein picnic bringing 600 people to Ridgedale Farm that year.
The state association has had a summer picnic every year since then, except for 2020, the year the pandemic cancelled everything.
Three generations of Conards welcomed members, friends, and peers from across the state as well as from Pennsylvania and other states too in September.
The picnic featured a silent-auction manned by the Otsego, Herkimer, Montgomery (OHM) Holsten Club selling semen from homebred bulls at Ridgedale.
Picnic-goers saw the bulls and their dams hailing from the Roxys and Follys and an Apple grandson.
They saw daughters of 19th generation EX Golden Rose ABS Ginger, including a red daughter by Jordy. Ginger was the EX-94 grand champion of the 2016 New York State Fair. They saw milking daughters of Thunderstorm and Tattoo, and much more.
For decades, the Conards have raised their bull calves for the herd sire market. Deep pedigrees for type, components and long-lived cows – with special Red & Whites in the mix — have attracted buyers, even as the industry around them changes.
“Every calf here gets raised, and a little over a year ago we started collecting a few of the special ones,” Wayne explains. “Harry Zimmerman comes up from Pennsylvania to collect them for us. We keep units priced affordably, and it has really taken off.”
The Red ones are pretty special, he notes, explaining that their herd had Canadian breeding to bring the Reds in early-on. Wayne also notes that his father was big on butterfat, so that’s bred into the herd here.
Of the bulls being collected at Ridgedale, Wayne notes: “One is from the Apple we had, an EX Defiant out of a Goldwin from Apple herself. Another bull we’re collecting is an Unstoppabull out of a Diamondback from a 94-point Fever from a 92-point Shottle out of the 96-point Folly cow.”
Folly was a legacy cow for Ridgedale, cared for by four generations of family. The EX-96 5E Ridgedale Folly passed away in 2018, just a day shy of 16.
— By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 20, 2021, updated May 2022