At Conebella Farm in Elverson, Pennsylvania, the Gable family has a herd of 100 percent registered Ayrshires and a dairy. When milk prices bottomed out in 2006, it was the impetus to consider cheese production. They wanted to get off the milk price roller coaster, and with their heritage herd, it would have been a shame not to use the cows for all they’re worth. “It was the quickest way we could add income,” said Don Gable.
Conebella’s bulk milk is sold to Land O’Lakes. In 2007, the farm became a state-certified raw milk producer. The six-month licensing process involved testing – both human and cow. The Gables had to pass three consecutive licensing tests. After that, they set up a retail shed on the farm, posted simple signage, and equipped the space with a refrigerator.
Don and his wife, Pam, began shipping raw milk to a Lancaster County cheesemaker, Oak Shade Cheese in Kirkwood. Since then, the farm’s cheese business has flourished as the Gables have added varieties of cheddar, Colby and Swiss cheese and some cheese spreads. “We learned that Ayrshires’ milk makes good cheese,” Pam said.
At the farm store, they sell 14 different raw milk cheeses, seven cheese spreads, raw milk, locally made yogurt and free-range eggs. The family also sells at four famers markets, and cheese products are available at 30 locations from Gettysburg to Philadelphia. The Gables have capitalized on demand and networking.
Lisa Ferraro Klinge, owner of Taste Artisanal Market in West Chester, Pennsylvania, makes their spreads. The Gables label the products. In addition to the retail sales, they sell to several restaurants and a florist who wanted local cheese to put in gift baskets.
“She said she didn’t want cheese from Wisconsin,” Pam said. “If we knew we were going to be doing all of this, we would have taken marketing classes.” They both graduated from Penn State; Don studied dairy science and production, and Pam majored in family studies. “The way this business pushes us is the marketing end,” she added.
In addition to the farm’s website (http://www.conebellafarm.com), Pam used to produce a monthly email newsletter. Now there’s Facebook, tweets and more, all handled by an outside specialist.
“People need to be educated, but it has to be more than Facebook and Internet education,” Pam said. “There are a lot of bad facts out there, and so a lot of bad education. Agriculture needs to get behind itself, to get out there and be proactive instead of being reactive and always having to defend our practices.”
Don suggested that farmers don’t have time to be proactive; there’s barely enough time to be defensive. He said, “We’ll do a festival and the people will ask, ‘Is this your own cheese?'” His response: “Yes, it’s our own cheese, from our own milk from our own cows that are fed through our own forage.” He added, “There’s a whole cycle there. At the end, we offer a good product and a quality education.”
At first, the Gables delivered raw milk for cheese one day per month; now they’re up to three days each month. Ten percent of the raw milk their herd produces is devoted to cheesemaking; 70 gallons of milk are sold weekly on the farm; the rest goes to Land O’Lakes. “It may be 10 percent of our milk production, but the cheese is greater than 10 percent of our gross income,” Don noted.
They milk 100 of their 120 cows and have an equal number of young ones waiting their turn; however, with the demand comes talk of expansion. Pam said they have help milking in the barn, but they like doing a lot of the work themselves. “If you’re going to make the product, you have to know the product so you can speak about it,” Pam said. “We keep trying to grow and find new places.”
All in the family
Conebella has now been home to five generations of Gables. The couple’s sons, Josh, Tyler and Kevin, are heavily involved in running the farm, from milking the cows to cultivating the forages.
When Joseph P. Gable and his wife, Ella, purchased the 198-acre farm in 1923, the Conestoga and Isabella railroad crossings bordered the property. Their grandson, Charles (Don’s father), named the farm “Conebella,” combining the names of the two crossings.
Don’s mother, Josephine, who is in her 70s, lives on the farm and is the caretaker for the calves. “She spends a lot of time with them; she doesn’t just check it off the list,” Don said. Josephine grew up on a Guernsey farm in Lancaster County.
Kevin, who’s 17, is studying heavy equipment operation at the vo-tech school. “He has a gift for fixing things,” Pam said.
Tyler, 21, works full-time on the farm, and Josh, 23, works and lives at the farm when he’s not away working someone else’s fields as a custom harvester.
A herd and its history
The first Ayrshires arrived on the farm in 1938, when Joseph and Ella’s son Harold purchased 10 to raise the butterfat content of the farm’s milk. These Ayrshires came from Penshurst Farm, where Harold’s brother, John, was herd manager.
When Charles managed Conebella’s herd from the 1950s into the 1990s, he won many Ayrshire Breeders Association awards. In 2000, he was inducted into the Ayrshire Hall of Fame. Through the years, Conebella has hosted tours for state, national and international Ayrshire conventions. Visitors from every continent have toured the farm.
“My dad was a cow man, and he liked the cows, so I guess I get my love of the Ayrshires from him,” Don explained. “He was more of a pedigree/history guy than my grandfather. I’d say my grandfather had Ayrshire cows, but my father took it to the next level.”
Calves and heifers are occasionally sold privately and at Ayrshire consignment sales. “We’re marketing better within the purebred market after all the years of trying to grow the herd,” Don said.
Though the farm is maxed out on space, there’s a freestall barn the family built in 2002 and a tie-stall barn they remodeled in 1980. It can hold 60 cows, so milking takes place in two shifts twice a day, at 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. It takes three hours per shift. The herd is housed in the 105-stall, three-row freestall barn and fed a total mixed ration of homegrown forages and grains, including corn silage, alfalfa haylage, ryelage, and dry hay and corn. The Gables only purchase soybeans and a mineral supplement.
“The Ayrshires have done well for us,” Don said. “With my dad’s involvement, he knew people throughout the country. It’s one of the neat parts of owning Ayrshires, but now we’re using the breed in a way that’s more beneficial, rather than just sending our milk to market along with the milk of our Holstein neighbors.”
One hundred percent of the cows are bred using artificial insemination. Some 20 years ago, Conebella used an Ardrossan bull, Evangelist, and bolstered the stature of its herd. “Here, the genetics just clicked, so we have the length, the height and production,” Don said. He keeps one bull on hand to set the heifers. Trident, the son of Evangelist, also worked well in the herd. A lot of Canadian sires have helped Conebella to build size and production. “The bigger the cow, the more milk production, generally,” Don said.
In the fields
Conebella generates more than enough to feed its herd, so the Gables sell excess alfalfa and grass hay, low-sugar grass hay (a specialty) and straw. The boys are instrumental in this portion of the farm’s production. They’ve gradually increased the acreage they’re planting and harvesting off the farm, and currently farm 360 acres.
Three years ago, a local equine veterinarian, Jim Holt of Brandywine Equine Veterinary Associates in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania, broached the subject of low-sugar hay with the Gables because he had clients with diabetic horses (Cushing’s disease). He urged the Gables to test their hay. It was perfect.
The average price of low-sugar bales is almost double that of regular bales. The cost is justifiable in labor time alone: All of it is tested and segregated. A low-sugar bale must have less than 10 percent sugar content. Core samples are taken from each cutting and field of hay and tested using near-infrared analysis. Wet chemistry testing can also be done at a customer’s request.
The boys harvest 10,000 total small bales, with approximately 5,000 from the first cutting, most of which are low-sugar. The second cutting tends to be too rich. Though most bales are borderline, they don’t make the cut. They also produce 300 big square bales a year.
A couple of years ago, Kevin needed a piece of equipment to advance the brothers’ efforts, so he bought a 21-foot rotary hay rake. After looking at several, he went with a Vicon, which he’s since traded in for a Claas. “I’m not sure what [the salesmen] thought when they came out here and saw how young he was,” Don said.
Josh owns a sprayer and hay tedder, and Tyler owns a Discbine. “It’s been a good way for them to be part of this, and it’s given them responsibility,” Pam said.
Don and Pam own the hay balers and tractors. The boys rent the tractors and balers when they need them, but then charge Conebella a custom rate to harvest the hay. “They keep track of the time they spend, and they charge us,” Don explained.
With the boys’ input, the farm now grows rye as a cover crop in the fall. The alfalfa yields have never been better, and as for the cheese – well, the Ayrshires take care of that.