Clay-Farm earns honor
By: JESSICA ROSE SPANGLER Special to the Review, Staff Writer
Having a farm that isn’t only appealing to the public, but clean from the inside out. Producing quality dairy products from clean, comfortable, beautiful Holstein cows. Keeping the small family farm the way it has been since 1960.
Is that too much to ask for? According to Robert and Ruthie Fox, it most certainly is not. The couple owns and operates Clay-Farm, located just off Route 322 in Clay.
Clay-Farm was recently honored as a Pennsylvania Dairy of Distinction, a notification that the couple is honored to receive.
"Established in 1983, the Northeast Dairy Farm Beautification Program recognizes the hard work and dedication of dairy owner/operators who have attractive, well-kept farms and promote a good dairy industry image. All active dairy farms in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont are eligible to apply for the Dairy of Distinction award. Winning farms receive the special Dairy of Distinction road-side sign for their farmstead," reads dairyofdistinction.org.
The 70 Holsteins they milk inside their tie-stall barn produce quality dairy products in a clean, comfortable, healthy environment, a tradition that Robert’s grandfather started in 1960.
"We want to help increase consumer confidence in the milk products," Robert said. "Our desire is to promote our products. We want to stay in business, but it’s frustrating that the consumer isn’t buying more with all the promotion the industry does. We’re always working to keep our somatic cell count (SCC) down by improving the way we manage our cows."
According to Dr. Geoffrey Westfall, doctor of veterinary medicine: "From cows to consumer choices, high somatic cell counts (SCCs) negatively affect every segment of the dairy industry. Statistics show that mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland that leads to high SCCs, costs the U.S. dairy industry more than $2 billion every year. That’s preventable profit loss, and it doesn’t stop there. Producers can expect about a 5 percent reduction in milk yield … plus the milk won’t qualify for higher milk quality premiums (from the milk processor).
"Then there are the costs for the distribution and consumer markets. Pasteurized and properly refrigerated milk has a shelf life of approximately three weeks. … A study by Dr. Dave Barbano and a team of Cornell University researchers shows pasteurized milk shelf life can be extended significantly by lowering SCC in milk. … Lowering SCCs is not only better for cows and their owners, it’s just plain smart business for the entire industry."
Fox noted that an advantage to having high quality milk with a SCC lower than 150,000 cells per milliliter of milk is that he gets a premium on his milk check from Swiss Premium, Lebanon. He admits that staying below that level can be challenging at times, but they usually are able to achieve it.
The United States dairy industry has an average SCC of 750,000 cells per milliliter of milk.
At Clay-Farm, cows are kept cool and comfy inside the barn thanks to tunnel ventilation and a high pressure misting system that is set to turn on when the temperature hits 80 degrees. Cows rest on rubber mats that are bedded with sawdust. Milking animals also go outside once a day for exercise.
The milking animals are not the only ones treated with care at Clay-Farm. Calves are started in individual pens in a greenhouse where they are fed whole milk for eight weeks.
"We don’t use a pasteurizer. We used to use milk replacer, but Paul Horning (of Turnpike View Holsteins, Stevens, Pa.) convinced us to go to the whole milk. There’s just too much variation in the milk replacer you buy. We see better health in our calves now," Robert said.
The greenhouse is fitted with multiple fans to help achieve optimum calf comfort. Robert also noted that, over the years, he’s learned that the calves need good ventilation most of all, and that’s why he leaves the sides on the house up year round. He will use calf jackets in the winter if needed.
Do to their limited land base, Fox only has the space to raise about 70 percent of the heifers born on the farm. The majority of the remaining 30 percent are sold through private sales to other farmers.
After weaning calves from milk, they are moved into small group pens, also in the greenhouse, until about 4 months old. After that, depending on the time of year, heifers are either moved to another heifer barn or out to pasture. Robert tires to keep animals on pasture from March or April through November, but it all depends on the weather and pasture conditions.
Once in the tie-stall, animals are "bred for type (or nice looking animals) and fed for production. … I became interested in quality, high type animals through my (Ephrata) high school (Cloister) FFA teacher, Mr. (Lew) Ayers. FFA was the highlight of my school years. We went to Penn State for dairy judging and my team made it to Madison. The team was third and I was high individual" in 1979 at the national dairy judging competition, Robert said.
That passion for quality Holsteins continues today thanks in part to the support Robert receives from his wife, father and children. His father, 75-year-old Richard, "still helps on the farm a little. He mixes one batch of feed in the mornings, pushes a broom around a little, does a little field work. But I value the moral support the most. We talk things out. I value his experience," Robert said.
"I couldn’t do it without Ruthie," he continued.
"I milk twice a day, seven days a week. I really didn’t know anything, but we’ve been married 31 years now. It’s a good life, but hard work," Ruthie added.
In addition to her milking duties, Ruthie takes a large role in the farm beautification. From Route 322, Clay-Farm seems quite picturesque — bright red barns, white farmhouses, heifers grazing in green pastures, lush green corn fields. Get a little closer and you’ll see a neatly paved drive lined with flowers, evergreens and even a few fruit trees. Ruthie said that she takes great pride in keeping things clean and presentable.
The couple’s three children and their spouses currently do not work on the farm full-time. Middle son Corey, 24, helps out part-time in addition to his off-farm full-time job.
"But (Corey) hopes to eventually take over," Robert said. "I would like to see the farm passed on to the next generation, give someone else the chance to farm, even though it’s challenging to remain profitable as a small farm." More FARM, page A6