By Sherry Bunting
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, Hagerstown, Maryland has been breeding for over the past three decades. And when she repeated the honor as the 2018 grand champion Ayrshire last October at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, the Creek and Shank families were elated.
“Ruth is a once in a lifetime cow,” says Mike Creek about Ruth’s second consecutive World Dairy Expo grand champion honor. He was quick to point out the total team effort, but acknowledged with a laugh that Ruth is pretty special to him.
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 with the 28th Klussendorf-MacKenzie award that is presented in memory of Duncan MacKenzie, the 1961 winner.
In fact, Evan has worked with many past Klussendorf and Klussendorf-MacKenzie awardees. The top herds trust the care of their top animals to Evan’s combination of cow care wisdom and show-fitting talent.
In addition to Ruth’s grand champion honor at Expo, Palmyra Farm bred the reserve intermediate champion, and earned premier breeder and exhibitor. They have bred All-American nominees and sires that continue to influence the breed — like Palmyra Tri-Star Burdette-ET, which has been the premier sire of the Ayrshire show at World Dairy Expo for the past five consecutive years. Ruth was also grand champion at the All-American Dairy Show in September.
What makes Ruth special? “Ruth is the culmination of our breeding programs from both sides,” says Mike, who gets the privilege of leading her.
He explains how 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.”
He admits that this meant sacrificing type for a few years, but through this focus, they were improving udders.
“This combination gave us the foundation we have now, what we are showing now,” Mike affirms. “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 — whether that’s in the show ring or at the feed bunk or 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 her 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, she 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 Farm.
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.
Looking at these foundation combinations, it’s no wonder the Creeks are elated to see Ruth bring it all together as a world class grand champion and sharing the top-two genetic merit spot with her sister.
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 his parents Mike, Sr. and Mary and his aunt and uncle Ralph and Terry Shank and Mike’s brothers Mark and Evan.
In addition to his job as manager of eastern operations for Trans Ova, Mike started the cheese business to add value to the farm’s milk.
As the cheese business has gained momentum over the past nine years, the Creek family reduced the size of their milking herd to 50 cows to align better with the cheese production. They had a dispersal sale of the registered Holstein herd on September 27th, and are honing-in on the Ayrshires they are best known for.
The farm and the cheese are two separate businesses, and the farm continues as a member of Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative.
“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 Palmyra cheese is the Chesapeake Bay Cheddar. Top seller through wholesale channels is the sharp cheddar.
“Restaurants buy cheddar and want to flavor it themselves,” Mike relates.
“In wanting to add value, we chose cheese because it is a product with less waste and a longer shelf life,” he explains.
The Creeks looked at the ratios of resale value on cheese and the percentage of milk receiving this added value. 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.
He doesn’t make the cheese himself, but the farm’s milk goes to a vendor who makes what they want.
Quality milk is the key, and the Palmyra herd maintains high components along with low somatic cell counts of 100,000. “Starting lactations with Udder Comfort is an easy, non-invasive tool for quality milk, quality cattle as well as quality of life for our fresh cows,” says Mike. “We were introduced to the product at the 2004 World Dairy Expo, and it became a staple. We use it heavily on our show cows and our fresh cows.”
The Creek family loves taking care of cattle, and they are good at it. They are focused on genetics and simplifying life for the cows in a way that is good for production, reproduction and milk quality.
Mike enjoys the cattle and the marketing. He didn’t think his time should go into cheesemaking initially, which is why they found a vendor to make the Palmyra cheese from the Palmyra milk. This also means they had no upfront investment in facilities or equipment and could begin building a brand with their farm’s milk knowing that the cheese would be good and consistent.
“I’m realistic,” Mike explains how creating this cheese business with this model has allowed the family to market their farm’s genetics and the milk from their Ayrshire cows to nearby consumers without having to immediately get into all aspects of processing investment.
After nearly a decade, the Palmyra Farms name has taken hold. The cheese is available locally through retailers, and Mike works with a wholesale distributor as well as local breweries, wineries, orchards and restaurants that use and carry the products.
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.
But no matter the ideals that a dairy farm and its community brings to the table, at the end of the day, the bottom line is how to derive a profit to cover costs and provide a living. This was Mike’s reason for looking toward marketing some of the farm’s milk to the greater community — through cheese.
They have been rewarded with a large following on social media that has been building over the past several years.
While Mike owns and operates the cheese business, he is quick to point out that family members have all been involved in some way in its success.
And while he led Palmyra Berkely P Ruth to grand champion status two consecutive years at World Dairy Expo, as well as the All-American Dairy Show, and he spends time washing her and visiting her at the farm — he is quick to point out that Ruth is Evan’s cow and the kudos go to the home team.
“My family at home is responsible for this win,” says Mike. “I just get to lead her.”