A Focused Breeding Strategy Leads to Master Breeder Awards

Master Breeder. Two words that immediately summon respect from any dairy cattle enthusiast around the globe. It speaks to a dedication to your breed as well as a long-term breeding philosophy that yields long-lasting success. All of that rings true for the 2022 recipient of the Robert ‘Whitey’ McKown Master Breeder Award, Palmyra Farm of Hagerstown, Maryland.

If you feel a Master Breeder should have bred national show winners, top production cows, or popular AI sires, Palmyra-bred cattle have ticked that box for the Ayrshire breed. Ralph Shank, Jr. and his sister, Mary Shank Creek, along with Ralph’s wife Terrie and Mary’s husband, Mike, oversee the herd and dairy operation, along with their children and grandchildren – the fourth and fifth generations on the western Maryland farm.

In the Ayrshire show ring, the Palmyra prefix is sprinkled throughout winning pedigrees. Their homebred beauty, Palmyra Berkely P Ruth-ET EX-94, achieved everything a cow can do in the ring – Grand Champion at World Dairy Expo in 2017 & 2018, and named unanimous All-American as a senior 3-year-old and 4-year-old in those respective years. During this time, she made a record over 32,000M 1256F & 960P and, impressively, was the #1 Elite Cow at the time. Nine of her closest fourteen ancestors at top and bottom of her pedigree are Palmyra-bred. Her daughter, Palmyra Predator B Ruthless EX-93, was the winning Junior 3-Year-Old, Intermediate and Reserve Grand Champion at the International Ayrshire Show in 2021.

Ruth was the culmination of a dedicated breeding philosophy. Mary Creek states it plainly, “Our goals have not really changed – we aim for high genetic value with All-American type and high production. Originally our Dad’s goals were simple. He wanted to have one of the largest Ayrshire herds in the country, and eventually he wanted to breed a number one genetic value bull and cow, and sell bulls to AI.  As we started to achieve this, we realized we did not have the type values we wanted.  We thought it was possible to breed for both type and genetic values and that you did not have to settle for just one.”

They didn’t settle and subsequently, their genetics have become popular around the globe. They have sent more than 80 Ayrshire bulls to AI. Palmyra Tristar Burdette was the Premier Sire at World Dairy Expo for seven years running from 2013-2019 before being bumped off his throne by Ruth’s full brother, Palmyra Berkely Reagan, who was the Premier Sire in 2021. On the female side, the farm has had 158 All-American Ayrshire nominations with 50 of those being named All-American. They have won the Premier Breeder banner at Expo 11 times, and have taken home nine Premier Exhibitor banners from the show. Ten times, they have won the prestigious French Trophy for the highest producing Ayrshire herd in the country. Ten Palmyra cows have been ranked #1 on the breed’s Elite Genetics cow list, and Palmyra has exported embryos to ten countries worldwide. It’s a catalog of achievements from a family that has been dedicated to bettering and promoting the Ayrshire breed, and they were recognized with the Ayrshire Master Breeder Award in 2011.

The dream of their father, Ralph Shank, Sr., to build a purebred Ayrshire herd had its roots in his 4-H days. “He and his brothers had limited funds and purchased many blemished and ‘behind the ring animals’ that did not sell. Our Ginger family traces back to an original purchase by my grandfather in the 1940s and was built from there,” notes Mary. That family has produced many show winners and Elite Genetics cows, including the Reserve All-American Senior 3-Year-Old in 2021, Palmyra Reagan R GiGi EX-91. The family has had seven direct generations of All-American nominations.

Over the decades, some purchased animals laid the foundation for prominent families at Palmyra. “In 1975, we made one of our best buys from the National Sale – Oak Ridge Bruis Bonnie who made anything “B” in the herd.  She made tremendous females and males, and is the foundation dam of Burdette.  Sycamore-Meade R.C. Lover EX-90 2E came from the Sycamore Meade Dispersal and made number one genetic females and number one genetic males, including Palmyra Lover’s Heligo.  Covey Farms Reno Rosy EX-91 was purchased in 1998 and started the “R” line that made milk, type and genetic values. Some of our most well-known animals are from this family including Ruth, Ruthless, Rayna, and Reagan,” says Mary.  All three families have made significant impact on the breed domestically and internationally.

The herd size has fluctuated over time and had grown as large as 210 milking cows, which included some Holsteins (added in the 1980s) and Jerseys (added about eight years ago). The much smaller Holstein herd has also been bred with both type and high genetic value in mind,  resulting in 16 Palmyra-bred Holstein bulls entering AI over the years. With sons coming back to the farm either full- or part-time, adding cow numbers seemed to be the answer, but that has changed with some diversification and thoughts about a new business plan. In 2018, they sold over half the herd and decided to focus more on individual cow care. From there, they were about to jumpstart a flush program that had been put on the back burner, and also started to offer boarding services for other breeders.

The milking herd is housed in a freestall facility, but can go out to pasture every day. They had the first milking parlor in the area, built in 1952, and they are still using the original structure which now houses a double-7 parlor that has been modified many times. Ralph, Mary, and her son, Evan, handle most of the day-to-day chores, though the whole family is involved with the farm, with everyone being cross-trained to pitch in on each job around the farm. Mark Creek feeds in the mornings before he goes to work as a herdsman at the nearby Trans Ova facility. Evan, the Klussendorf-MacKenzie award winner in 2018, manages the show string, the boarded cattle, and reproductive program. He still travels extensively as a professional cattle fitter working shows and sales across the country, so they have some young people that help in the evenings and on weekends when he is on the road.

They own 300 acres but have a contract with a neighbor who provides all of the cropping and manure handling, then returns hay, straw and corn silage to the farm. That allows the family to keep their entire focus on cow care. They feed a TMR to everything over 4 months of age and use a variety of commodities in a corn silage, hay and straw base. The rolling herd average for the Ayrshires is 22,516M 4.0 895F 3.1 709P.

Another highly successful family venture has been the Palmyra Farm Cheese business begun in 2009. Michael Creek recognized the opportunity that was coming to direct market products to consumers, especially if a farm was located in the right area. “He pushed to start the business. Our customers are our neighbors just over the hill – we have plenty of local population that wants to buy a local product. We have some of our milk made into Cheddar cheese, as research told us that Ayrshire whole milk was especially suited to make that variety. We now make 10 different flavored Cheddars that we market direct or wholesale throughout the mid-Atlantic region and sell online also through our website. There have certainly been some big hurdles, but we have managed them and continue to grow.  The pandemic caused us to modify and start offering custom cheese boards customers could pickup from their cars,” relates Mary.

Milk from the farm is shipped to an area cheesemaker, who makes the quantities of the different flavors they want. They didn’t have to invest upfront in processing facilities or equipment and that allowed them to keep focusing on cow care. Quality milk is the key to consistent, high-quality cheese, and they strive to keep somatic cell counts under 100,000 while pushing for higher components. Their unique Chesapeake Bay Cheddar, flavored with Maryland’s famous seafood seasoning, is very popular with their direct to consumer local market, while their Sharp Cheddar is in demand with the restaurants, breweries and eateries they supply through wholesale distributors.

Michael is a Director of Operations with Trans Ova, as well as the majority owner of Palmyra Farm Cheese. He helps to manage the marketing and brand of both the herd and the cheese business. He also, like his mother Mary, enjoys judging dairy cattle shows around the country. Mary Creek judged the International Ayrshire Show in 2015, and Michael took his spot in the center of the Madison ring in 2021.

In addition to judging, the family has dedicated countless hours of time to leadership roles in the breed organizations. Ralph Shank Jr. has been president and director of the Maryland Ayrshire Association, and along with his wife, chaired the 1998 National Ayrshire Convention. Mary Creek has served on the U.S. Ayrshire Breeder’s Association Board of Directors, and was the World Ayrshire Federation President from 2012 to 2016. She works tirelessly to promote US Ayrshire genetics around the world.

With the smaller milking herd and the renewed flush program comes the opportunity to sell genetics right from the top of their herd, and they have announced a May 27th, 2023 sale – Foundations of Palmyra & Springhill. The sale will be run in partnership with prominent Ohio Guernsey and Holsteins breeders, the Lang family of Springhill Farms, which will be the physical location of the sale. In the past, Palmyra has sent a few head to consignment sales and sold a few privately, but never hosted a sale.”We have never done anything like this before,” notes Mary. “It’s new territory for us. We’ve been planning it for two years, and have done a lot of flushing and matings in order to have top offerings.”

It’s another step along the path started by Ralph and Mary’s father and grandfather. Both Ralph and Mary credit their parents, Ralph Sr. and Patricia Shank, as guiding lights in their lives. “Obviously your parents have a huge influence, but our Dad had goals and he was driven. He had little to start with other than passion and hard work. They always told us that if you worked hard enough, you could achieve anything. So, we work and we work hard and our children work hard with their lives and to help us keep going. We talk a lot and ask a lot of questions to ourselves (Becky Payne from Ayrshire calls this our “parlor talk”). Our veterinarian, Dr. John Heizer, our many AI friends, our nutritionist, the breed association representatives, 4-H and FFA leaders, university advisors, and our huge group of industry friends are people we lean on frequently.  No one gets anywhere alone and we have used a huge network of support to help us achieve everything,” praises Mary.

In 2020, Michael, Mark and Evan Creek were honored as the 2020 Young Ayrshire Breeders by the US Ayrshire Breeders Association. All three see a bright future for the breed, with the moderate size of the cows allowing them to fit into many different management structures. They  feel the breed needs to work to increase the national herd average to high component milk production, avoid haplotypes, increase and promote genomic testing to improve its accuracy, and increase the percentage of the national herd that carries the A2A2 gene. Marketing the adaptive abilities of the breed to commercial dairymen, small dairies looking to enter direct-to-consumer markets, or youth who are interested in a new dairy project for 4-H and FFA is imperative to keep Ayrshires gaining in popularity and numbers.

Mary is proud of their Maryland family farm, but acknowledges that the dairy business in the mid-Atlantic is shrinking. “We have learned we need to change. Maryland loses 19% of its farms each year.  If we want to continue to milk and breed cows, we have to look at different options all the time. Right now taking on boarders (the number of clients varies, but we have had as many as 16) has been a big asset, and Evan is a huge part of making this work for us. There are many people that love this industry but do not milk cows and need someone to do that for them. We try to work with each client to understand their goals and help them achieve them.  There are different stresses when working with other peoples’ cattle but it is very rewarding to watch them enjoy success. There will always be a need for purebred genetics as seed stock. How can we keep ourselves relevant? Creativity is a key.  Dad and Mom never shrank from a challenge so I guess we should not either!”

By Kathleen O’Keefe, Cowsmopolitan