Welcome to Crystal Spring Farm, a century farm (circa 1903) in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. This farm earned the first Dairy of Distinction in Lehigh County, and has been the recipient of multiyear recognition by Land O’ Lakes, receiving three consecutive milk quality awards.
Hubert Sell’s family primarily farmed potatoes, with some orchards and a little dabbling in dairy. In 1966, when Hubert and his wife, Grace, became the farm’s owners, they opted to focus on the dairy herd. Crystal Spring Farm is now home to 300 cows, with a Holstein milking herd of 130 head. The family grows all of their own feed for the cows, farming over 300 acres; breeds their own replacement heifers; and raises Holstein and Angus crosses for beef. They use 30 percent of their milk output in their own on-farm processing plant.
“The freshest milk and ice cream in town” isn’t an exaggerated claim. At Crystal Spring Farm, soon after the cows are milked, the milk is immediately pasteurized – using high-temperature, short-time pasteurization (HSTS), which heats the milk to 168 degrees Fahrenheit, and then homogenizes and bottles it twice each week in the on-farm processing plant. But that’s not all – they make their own ice cream, too.
Early on, the family realized that they would benefit from processing their own milk, keeping control of their product from cow to cooler. That led to the establishing of the processing plant, café and farm store in 1975. These facets of the farm are run directly by the family.
The ice cream here is truly home-grown: The milk comes only from their herd, and it never leaves the farm, going from cow to cone without leaving the dairy. Although many other dairies purchase premade ice cream mix from regional processing plants and don’t use their own milk when making ice cream, Crystal Spring Farm uses its herd’s milk and cream to make its ice cream base. Natural flavorings are added; other ingredients, such as candy pieces, chocolate chips or cookies, are added in to make a variety of ice cream flavors.
Cream is saved and frozen during the winter months, when ice cream demand decreases, so that enough of the herd’s own cream is available to add to the milk for ice-cream making during the busy summer months. With a butterfat content of 14 percent, Crystal Spring Farm’s ice cream is smooth, creamy and solid, without a lot of air content.
Over 10,000 gallons of ice cream are made here each year. Crystal Spring Farm ice cream is only sold at the farm’s on-site retail store and café. The ice cream is sold prepackaged in quarts or half gallons, in Dixie cups, ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cakes, or served at the farm’s Tulip’s Café.
A wide variety of milk – skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, whole chocolate, orange, strawberry and other specialty flavors of milk, along with ice cream – is sold exclusively at the farm store, which was built in 1975. The store has a small grocery and a full-service deli. Tulip’s Café features homemade beef barbecue, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, pickled cabbage, salads, soups, pies, cakes and ice cream cones, sundaes, shakes and even soft serve, all made on-site from the dairy’s own milk.
“It’s pasteurized when it’s very fresh,” Scott Sell said, so the shelf life of their milk is longer than that of standard pasteurized milk from the grocery store. Because the family handles the product from milking to sale, the entire supply chain is under their control, avoiding issues with mishandled products.
This start-to-finish oversight also allows them to continually improve their ice cream, too. The precise amount of fat and proteins, and the ratio of ingredients, can make a difference in the product. Hubert continually researches and experiments to try to further improve the ice cream. Recently, they began cutting back on the small amount of skim milk powder, used as an ice cream ingredient, to craft a fresher, more flavorful product.
Hubert is in charge of making the dairy’s ice cream. He mixes, freezes, flavors and packages the product, along with some assistance from grandchildren Ashley and Jacob. One son, Gary, is in charge of the fluid milk processing, and grows the crops. Another son, Scott, handles the breeding, reproduction and animal care. Together, the brothers, along with one part-time employee, manage milking, feeding and other barn duties. Their sister, Audrey, is in the kitchen with her mother, Grace, and Scott’s wife, Lisa, helps prepare the homemade foods and baked goods. The youngest brother, Ronald, runs the family’s electrical business full time, and his wife, Sue, helps out in the café. Other family members pitch in at the store, handling customer service, inventory and other job functions. The store and café also employ local workers in retail positions.
There can’t be quality milk and ice cream without healthy cows. Having an average somatic cell count of a mere 55,000 helps keep the milk fresh and tasting best, too.
“What the cows eat has a lot to do with the taste of the milk,” Scott said. Consistent taste requires a consistently high-quality total mixed ration (TMR), which also provides the cows with optimal nutrition.
All cows are fed the same homegrown TMR, including the dry cows and heifers. The family grows its own rye, corn, oats, alfalfa and corn, and mixes its own feed. They feed a large portion of forage in the diet and don’t use soybeans or wheat.
“If you have a lot of top quality forage … that’s the way to make milk,” Gary said.
He works with a Cargill nutritionist who visits every two weeks to balance the ration. The ration is fed twice per day to the milking herd, along with a protein supplement, whereas the heifers receive the same ration once per day, plus a hay ration for its other feeding. Gary carefully monitors feed intake and any sorting behaviors, keeping the bunks full with a balanced “all they can eat” ration.
The milking herd is housed in a free stall barn, bedded with sawdust. The manure is scrapped twice per day into the pit, and manure from the heifer barn is piped in and combined. This slurry is stored in silo tanks until it is needed for field fertility.
The farm requires a balance – the right number of cows, enough crop acres to responsibly add manure without excess fertility concerns and planting the best crops for taking up the nutrients, as well as to provide the necessary nutrition for the ration.
“I need the 300 acres just to get rid of the manure,” Gary said, noting that all feed crops are used in the ration, with shelled corn being the only product grown in excess, which they sell off-farm.
Calves are weaned, fed milk replacer and kept in individual pens for about 10 weeks. They are then moved to group pens, where bull calves and heifers are mixed together. The animals are grouped by age. Breeding age heifers and some steers are kept together in an older, converted tie stall barn with outdoor paddock. Here, heat is readily detected. A veterinarian visits every two weeks for pregnancy checks. Confirmed pregnant cows are moved into a separate pen.
“The dry cow program is key to everything,” Gary said. “They need nutrition, too,” and are fed the same high-quality ration as the milking herd. Dry cows are pastured during the growing season.
The herd is milked twice each day. The average cow stays in the herd for five years, with some there as long as 10 years. Although there are solid, nonslatted concrete floors in the barn, hock and foot health is very good. Scott monitors the herd at least daily, and if a problem arises, immediately treats it, preventing lameness concerns. Although the milking herd is housed in an older facility, the stalls are properly sized and bedded for comfort, and adequate ventilation has been provided.
The farm uses transponders to record cow data, such as feed required and amount of milk produced. The data is transmitted during milking and computer software programs then allow Scott to monitor each cow’s performance. The farm does not use the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) program.
A Bray Breeding Calendar is used to keep track of the cow’s production cycles. When a heifer freshens, it is given a number. This color-coded system allows the cows to be tracked throughout their breeding cycles, and herd management activities can be tracked daily.
Meat and eat
Too many replacement heifers led Scott to explore raising cows for beef. He can eliminate raising a replacement heifer calf without affecting the milk supply by breeding his lower production cows to Angus sires. Raising this beef for direct sales provides an additional income stream to the farm.
With Tyson recently leaving the market for Holstein steers, cross-breeding made sense for various reasons. The crossbred steers finish sooner than pure Holsteins do, and the taste and quality of the meat is enhanced by the traits of the beef breed, Scott said.
The crossbred steers finish at 18 months. The Holsteins can take 22 months. That extra time means more inputs go into the cow. The crosses are also sold as young stock to those wanting to raise their own meat.
The steers are co-mingled with the dairy cows until about 12 months of age, when they are put into a separate pen and fed a steer supplement. This is a grain-based finishing diet and includes corn silage and dry shelled corn to add energy and put on the weight.
Two cows and one steer are sent out together for processing every four weeks, and the meat is combined into the farm’s hamburger, sold fresh and frozen by the pound or in patties. The steers also provide steaks, roasts, stew meat and more. Farm-raised frozen beef cuts are sold through the farm store. Dry beef, a smoked product sold by the pound through the deli counter, is a specialty. The meat is slaughtered and butchered under U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection at nearby Springfield Meats.
Beef barbecue, made from the family’s beef, is one of the regular menu items at Tulip’s Café. The café has a dozen tables inside the store, plus a large patio area, where diners can enjoy their meals and their ice cream.
Milk sales have dropped to about three-quarters of the amount they were back in l975, despite a growing population within an easy drive of the farm, Scott said. Sales of gallons have almost halted, with one-half gallons being preferred.
The local food movement hasn’t had as big an impact in the local community as it has in more urban areas, such as Philadelphia. The farm has the hardest time reaching those in the immediate vicinity, who often choose one of the four convenience stores in the area over the farm store for making a quick milk purchase. Consumer education about the origins of milk from processing plants, where milk from many herds and thousands of cows is mixed together, versus the one-herd milk available at Crystal Spring Farm, is still needed. The family uses social media to promote a “know your farmer” mentality, to communicate with customers, and to showcase the behind-the-scenes farming information, which can help customers better understand dairy farming.
“Facebook has done some good for us,” Scott said, allowing them to promote their products and as a way for customers to share their experiences and spread the word about the farm’s milk and ice cream, and the store.
Crystal Spring Farm is focused on quality, as they sell directly to the consumer. The quality of its milk, ice cream, meat and all food served through Tulip’s Café is evident to all customers. From cows to cones, this dairy – just like fresh cream – has risen to the top.