Ayrshire key to their cheese

ELVERSON, Pa. – “Mostly, consumers want to know our products are made locally, and that the milk comes from our cows, that we grow the feed and take care of the animals,” say 2019 Chester County, Pennsylvania Farmers of the Year Don and Pam Gable. They have spent the past 15 years bridging the knowledge gap with consumers and developing loyal customers for the cheese and other dairy products made with the elite Ayrshire milk at their Conebella Farm, just 30 miles west of Philadelphia in Elverson.

The Ayrshire heritage dates back to 1938 on this five-generation farm near Elverson, which has been in the family since 1923. Since 2007, they have been connecting with consumers through cheese and now fresh products, and the Ayrshire breed has been a key to it all.

Pam runs the cheese business, and Don runs the dairy. Their sons Kevin, Tyler and Josh started a hay business a few years back, and when we visited in 2019, Josh still had some ownership in the equipment and was working in agriculture off the farm. Tyler does the feeding and helps at some of the farm markets. Kevin is the farm’s mechanic, and his wife Emily (Witman) helps Pam at markets and events. Together, the boys run the cropping, and the hay business is their baby.

At the 2022 Pennsylvania Farm Show, and their 15th year in the business, the Conebella sharp Cheddar earned the blue ribbon. It is a team effort between the Conebella Ayrshire milk custom made into aged raw milk cheese at Oakshade in Kirkwood.

The Gables also send their Ayrshire milk to Kirchenberg’s in Fleetwood to make soft cheeses and cheese curds, which earned the farm a 2nd place red ribbon in the Cheddar/ Colby/ Monterey Jack category. The Conebella / Kirchenberg team also had third place with their Pizza Curds in the flavored cheese class, the largest category of the show.

Conebella Ayrshire cows are the legacy going back to Don’s grandfather, who purchased the farm’s first Ayrshire in 1938 that led to the Trident bull so pervasive in their herd.

“We breed for production and components, obviously,” he says. “But I do want type. I like to look at what we are working with.”

He observes that with the limited pool of bulls this can be a challenge. One they’ve met and exceeded. Over the years, it’s not uncommon to see a dozen Conebella-bred cows among the top 125 on the Ayrshire Elite CPI list with some in the top 12. (In the most recent list for summer 2021, Conebella had 3 of the top 4: Conebella Wilfred’s Larissa, VG-88 was the top cow of the breed with 4-08 305D 22,350M 4.9% 1094F 3.6% 795P. Her dam, Conebella Percy’s Lavonia, VG-88 came in fourth, with her last lactation of 5-11 345D 30,500M 4.1% 1261F 3.1% 954P, and herdmate Conebella Wilfred’s Alyssum, VG-85, ranked #2 with records over 27,000M.

The CPI looks at fat and protein, type and other factors, including daughter pregnancy rate and udder depth.

The Ayrshire breed has given the Gables a marketing edge to diversify into retail cheese. The 110 cows produce 19,000 pounds of milk with 4.1 fat and 3.1 protein and their somatic cell counts are consistently around 150,000.

Their keen attention to cow comfort and udder hygiene are also keys to producing high quality milk for high quality fresh and aged cheeses and dairy products.

The Gables have been using Udder Comfort for over a decade to soften udders during the first week after calving. “There’s a lot of products on the market, but Udder Comfort is still the best one out there that really makes a difference,” Don relates. The Gables were one of two Udder Comfort gallon-drawing winners at the Keystone Farm Show in January.

A big plus for the breed is the age-old claim that Ayrshire milk is easier to digest. Don talks about an ad from the 1940s in his boxes of breed memorabilia that urged mothers to choose Ayrshire milk because it was deemed easier for babies to digest.

“We hear this from our customers,” says Don, “and we hear this from one of our cheesemakers.”

“Our fresh cheesemaker says he loves making curds with our Ayrshire milk, that it’s so creamy,” Pam says with a smile, adding that customers who have avoided milk and dairy products because of stomach upset, also tell them they are happy to love dairy again.

Conebella has had an A2A2 bull (Timothy) at Select Sires, and they believe the likelihood is strong that the protein in their Ayrshire milk is easier-to-digest. They haven’t started labeling A2A2 yet, still promoting their products as from the milk of Ayrshire cows, “our cows, our feed, our farm.”

Bottom line: The Gables know their customer.

“We get questions about grass-fed and non-GMO and organic. None of those labels fit what we do here,” Pam explains. “A lot of people just assume that if a product is labeled organic, it’s local. Or if it’s local, it is organic. We tell our story… about our cows, our breed, how they are fed, and that the next generation is involved on our farm.”

“We have learned to accept that not everyone is our customer,” Don adds. “Our customer is the believer in local foods. They want to know the farmer, and we try to give them a broader understanding that seems to satisfy most of their questions.”

Don sees the pursuit of ‘local’ as being stronger than any other label out there. Conebella’s location is close to the “foodie” population around Philadelphia that want to support local farms, he says.

Every Tuesday, he loads up, puts out the spread, and talks to customers all day long at the farmers market. He says it’s a nice break to get off the farm. He jokes that for years he never got past the mailbox, and now he’s out there enjoying conversation with customers.

“I look at the economics today and think, I’m glad we diversified when we did,” Pam affirms about the decision in June of 2007 to get the raw milk license and begin traveling farmers markets with aged raw milk cheeses made for them with their milk by Oakshade, a cheesemaker in southern Lancaster County.

Today, they are growing this part of their business with the addition of pasteurized fresh cheeses, cultured European-style butter, yogurts and smoothies, made with their Ayrshire milk by Kirchenburg Farm, an artisan goat-cheese maker in Fleetwood, Berks County.

The only product they can’t sell off the farm is the raw milk they jug daily for the drive-up self-serve cottage on the farm.

During a two-hour late Friday afternoon visit, at least five cars drove down the lane, and occupants exited the self-serve cottage with milk and cheese in hand. Those customers who come to the farm for raw milk are a big part of Conebella’s overall sales.

Pam is quick to point out that this is a whole different kind of work, it takes time and effort and management. It also takes spreadsheets, communications, contacts, and organization. At the end of each week, she’ll send a group email to wholesale customers asking for their orders by 5:00 p.m. Saturday. By Sunday evening, she is planning the next week’s orders of fresh products, adding to the wholesale orders what they expect to need between the self-serve store and the various farm markets and events they have coming up.

Monday morning’s milk goes to the artisan in Berks County, and Tuesday afternoon, she’ll pick up the products. One week she’ll make a wholesale run toward Philadelphia and the other week she’ll deliver to the Kutztown area. She works with other farms making a different assortment of products – like the Nesting Box in Kempton. They make ice cream, and they put out Conebella cheese curds for their customers.

After 15 years of making consumer connections, adding retailers and restaurants buying their products wholesale, and adding fresh products to the mix, they have gone from using 5% to over 16% of the milk from their 110 Ayrshires in their own products.

The conventional market for their milk through Lanco-Pennland Quality Milk Producers cooperative is still their main source of income.

The spring flush is when most of the aged cheese are made for the year, using the seasonally surplus milk, whereas the fresh products are managed weekly and biweekly throughout the year. Since adding the fresh products, Pam says the shorter shelf-life makes the ordering process more intense to manage but it also gives them more diversity at the markets.

“We try to do fresh products every week during festival season,” Pam explains. “The curds have a two-week label and the mozzarella and yogurt have a three-week date. The fall is full of festivals, and we have to manage it to take the freshest curds. That takes some management. Sometimes we overshoot and sometimes we run out. Doing fresh curds every week helps with that.”

The foray into the pasteurized fresh products has opened new doors – giving the Gable family a whole new line of wholesale accounts and new products to capture the attention of their farm market and festival customers as the Conebella story continues through wholesaling, farmers markets and events held by local vendors – like orchards and wineries in Berks and Chester counties and beyond.

“There are more ideas about where we can go with this,” says Don, “But it comes down to knowing what you can manage, what fits your lifestyle and still manage the farm and the demands of the seasons and the weather. More isn’t always better. We focus on knowing who is our consumer and managing those relationships… and the cows.”

— By Sherry Bunting, Fall 2019, updated Spring 2022

2021 photo – 4 generations

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