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Palmyra Farm transmits a show-winning tradition

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 30 September 2015
mary creek

Just a stone’s throw from the iconic battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, Palmyra Farm has a colorful history of its own – full of blue ribbons and purple banners.

In 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011, the herd was named the Premier Breeder and Premier Exhibitor of the International Ayrshire Show at World Dairy Expo and Premier Breeder in 2007, 2009 and 2012.

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To top off this impressive list of achievements, their homebred bull clinched back-to-back Premier Sire honors for the international exhibition in 2013 and 2014.

Such accomplishments circle back to a solid foundation of not only strong cow families but also an inherent passion for dairy cattle passed down through multiple generations of the Shank and Creek families.

A family affair

Brother-sister duo Ralph Shank and Mary (Shank) Creek are the third generation to breed and show high-caliber Ayrshires on the farm near Hagerstown, Maryland, and the fourth generation is keeping that tradition alive and well.

“Every family member is still very interested and hands-on,” Mary says.

Mary and Mike Creek have four children, and though they are grown, each keeps close ties to the family farm. Mark works there full-time, while Michael is home to help out on weekends.

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Evan lends a hand when he is not on the road traveling as a dairy cattle fitter, and though Jordan and her husband are part of a 9,000-cow dairy in Georgia, she still owns Ayrshires at the home farm and shows at World Dairy Expo.

Ralph and Terrie’s son Ryan recently started milking his own herd nearby, and their daughter Erin is also there as much as possible.

Beyond making a name for itself in the show ring, Palmyra Farm is recognized by consumers who purchase their exclusive cheeses. Michael took the lead on this value-adding venture in 2009.

A portion of the milk is shipped to an off-site factory, where it is made into several varieties and flavors. These cheeses are packaged and sold through restaurants and local vendors under the farm’s label.

Bitten by the ‘show bug’

The Ayrshire breed dominates the 170-cow herd, which includes a few Holsteins. “We have been a traditional Ayrshire herd,” Mary says, crediting her grandfather’s love for the red cows and the show ring. “My grandfather loved to show. That’s where the ‘bug’ came from.”

Palmyra Farm’s show string made its debut at World Dairy Expo in 1977 when the National Ayrshire Show was held there, and just two years later, they exhibited the champion cow.

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As their national breed show moved to regional shows over the following years, they took cattle to Madison less frequently, but for the past decade, Palmyra Farm has been back in full force, and their presence has certainly been noticed.

Consistently standing at the top of the show’s competitive cow classes has earned the family a pile of the expo’s coveted Premier Breeder and Premier Exhibitor banners over the last 10 years.

creek family photo“The very first one [in 2004] was a huge surprise,” Mary recalls. “It was such an honor because it’s a reflection on our breeding decisions, philosophy and management practices.”

Leading up to these honors, there have been a few unforgettable moments at World Dairy Expo for Palmyra Farm. One such day was in 2005, when they started off their morning with a triple sweep of cow classes, taking first place with their milking yearling, junior 2-year-old and senior 2-year-old Ayrshire cows.

Another was the senior 2-year-old cow class in 2009, when four of the top five cows standing in the center of the ring bore the Palmyra prefix.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Mary recounts. “My dad (who had passed away before then) would not have believed it. He would have been so excited and proud of something like that.”

Key cow families

Mary attributes much of her family’s show ring success to a trio of cows that have stood the test of time.

“We have three primary families: the Bonnies, Gingers and Rosies. Nearly everything can be tied back to these foundation families,” she says.

“The Bonnies have been the most prolific … the Rosies have been extremely consistent … and the Gingers are one of the original families that my grandparents bought back in the 40s, and that family continues to flourish here after all those years.”

But she does not measure success by ribbons and trophies alone.

“All three of these families have been very productive,” she explains. “They are complete cows – not only did they win in the show ring, but they produce and they reproduce and they influence the breed in many ways. That’s one of our breeding goals. We expect our cows to be able to do it all – not just show or just milk.”

Mary believes it is genetics that makes these breeding lines so special. “They have to have the ability to pass the genetics along as well as the desire to express them,” she says, pointing out the hardy attitude and determined nature of these animals. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”

It’s not only Palmyra’s female offspring that transmit greatness; their homebred bull, Palmyra Tri-star Burdette, is making his mark on the Ayrshire breed. Two Premier Sire banners from World Dairy Expo are a testament to his impact.

Mary describes the mix of emotions as gratifying, humbling and exciting as she and her family watch cows sired by their bulls do great things. “It has just been fascinating, and at times overwhelming, to stand back and take that in,” she adds.

However, Mary believes the most valuable traits aren’t the ones passed on in the cows; rather, it is the love for all things dairy that the Creek and Shank families are passing on to their children and grandchildren. She adds, “Now, we have the next generation involved and intend to transition it on to them.”  PD

PHOTO 1: Though World Dairy Expo has become a staple stop on Palmyra Farm’s annual show circuit, one will not find them in the barns this year. Instead, Mary Creek will be at the center of the colored shavings, serving as the official judge of the International Ayrshire Show. Photo provided by World Dairy Expo.

PHOTO 2: Though the Creek and Shank families are pleased by the cows they have bred, they are most proud of passing on a passion for Ayrshire dairy cattle to their children, who all remain involved with the farm. Pictured here are three generations (from left to right): Mark Creek, Michael Creek, Mike Creek, Mary Creek, Evan Creek, Jordan Creek Gelber, Richard Gelber, Ralph Shank, Terrie Shank, Ryan Shank, Amanda Shank holding Kayleigh Shank, Brian Meyers, Erin Shank Meyers. Photo provided by Mary Creek.

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