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Enthusiasm drives successful Guernsey farm

Headed out the farm lane for pictures at the sign, father and son calmly lead two members of the herd, Pine Grove YB Ice Cream and Pine Grove YB Mint. Guernseys are the centerpiece of the Dogwood Lane Farm operation.

By DIETER KRIEG
Farmshine Editor

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- Drive down, across or up the Delmarva Peninsula and you'll be in flat, fertile farmland that stretches to the horizon in all directions. Occasionally, there's some woodland in the distance. Or you might see the tell-tale evidence of a town coming up: a water tower or maybe a grain elevator. Agriculture is king on the Peninsula.

A drive down most any road will sooner or later also take you past a former dairy farm. The barns and silos are still there, but the cows left years ago. The Peninsula isn't known as dairy country.

To survive here as a dairy farmer, determination takes on new meaning and you might even get lonely if you're looking for a friend who likes and knows cows. They're few and far between.

For whatever reasons, there are currently only 16 dairy farms left in all of Kent County, Maryland. The Guernsey farm owned by the Myers Family is the only dairy farm left on Worton Point, which was once known for having the highest concentration of cows in the county.

Yes, you read right (above). Guernsey farm. The Myers Family is pleased and proud to have over 150 of them, counting young stock. No Holsteins. No Brown Swiss. No Jerseys. And no chickens either. Just Guernseys.

Guernsey pride runs high and deep here at Dogwood Lane Farm. High for quality and passion for the breed. Deep as in more than 80 years of Guernsey history. Located on one of the many jagged mini-peninsulas that frame the Eastern Shore, and just three miles from the Chesapeake Bay, Dogwood Lane Farm has been in the Myers Family since the late 1920's when John Christian Myers entered a long-term rental agreement with the owner. In 1951, he got tired of renting, and with his son, John Henry, Sr., showing interest, an agreement was reached to buy the farm. Thirty years ago the property became the first farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to be accepted for preservation.

Nevertheless, sustaining it all doesn't come easy. But it is achievable, beginning with an attitude that respects both the past and future of what's there … including the Guernseys. Especially the Guernseys.

Asked what keeps him going in an era that challenges the sustainability of dairying on any scale, especially in an environmentally sensitive area like the Chesapeake Bay watershed, John Myers needs no time to think about what he'll say:

"I enjoy working with the Guernseys," he says instantly. For laughs, he adds: "It's hard-headedness."

Serious again, he continues: "It’s seeing a new life being born healthy and doing well. And seeing my sons come home with a prize after having shown their animals. And I guess this is like being a shepherd for God," he added modestly. "We're taking care of His animals."

While the entire family is involved with the Guernseys, the fact remains that they have enough of them to share … which in itself is another source of satisfaction. "We lease calves to kids around here and across the Bay, as far west as Frederick,"John explained. "It's a win-win situation," his wife, Kathy, pointed out. "The kids get an animal to show for the summer and we get a nice, tame, halter-broken animal back."

Seeing the 4-H'ers take an interest in showing Guernseys is a reward in itself and the Myers' are happy to be a part of the program as they perpetually try to give the breed a good reputation.

Guernseys can hold their own, everyone here at Dogwood Lane Farm asserts. The reason they have held on to them isn't just because they've been there; it's also because they've shown better returns on investments. It was a small experiment, many years ago, conducted by John's father, John Henry, Sr. A local Holstein breeder had convinced him to bring five good Holsteins into the herd … and they did well. However, when John Henry put a pencil to everything, he concluded Guernseys were better. The Holsteins gave more milk, but they also cost more to feed and care for, John Henry Sr. learned. Nevertheless, the Holsteins stayed in the herd for several years but as each one left, she was never replaced. Not by another Holstein, anyway.

But the Guernsey breed does have its problems, John acknowledged. First and foremost among them, as far as he’s concerned, is a shortage of heifers. Another is poor conception rates and a third is low prices for bull calves and cull cows.

The Myers Family addresses the poor conception rates with bulls of their own. Natural service is unquestionably superior they say, adding, however, that they also use A.I. The bulls they raise are out of their best cows and they’re used so long as they don’t show an attitude problem. As soon as they do, they’re on the truck and a younger bull takes his place.

“When we buy genetics, we try to be careful with our semen selections,” Kathy interjected, adding that they are trained in A.I. “We want to know what they (bulls) can do.” What they look for most of all are components, longevity and type. The entire family likes to show. To increase the odds of having heifer calves in March, they use sexed semen.

Over decades of comparisons, the Myers observed not only superior conception through natural service, but also better conception rates for A.I. 30 years ago, compared to today. “They’re collecting the young sires too soon,” John remarked.

“Summers are rough here,” the third generation dairyman continued, noting that 95-degree temperatures aren’t unusual even in May. That in itself is a big strike against fertility. Further, the hot and humid weather puts a damper on any ET work. “We save that for the cooler months,” John pointed out.

Prudent management of breeding, ET, calf raising and heifer programs and an emphasis on cow comfort and longevity has allowed the Myers to usually have heifers to sell. Compared to the breed as a whole, that’s not the norm, which is what keeps calf and heifer prices comparatively high. There simply aren’t enough heifers to meet the demand, John noted.

The family appreciates both ends of merchandising and credits numerous breeders for the quality of the herd they enjoy today. Among the better-known prefixes from the surrounding area that can be found in Dogwood Lane Farm pedigrees are Cedar-Fringed, Goose-Hill and Chestnut Farms.

Prior to rent prices skyrocketing on the Peninsula in recent years, the Myers milked as many as 100 cows and kept that many heifers. But renting the land to produce the feed has become prohibitively expensive, so the cattle numbers fell. The family owns 270 acres on two farms and rents several small parcels. “In all we have 350 acres of tillable ground, including two pastures of 15 and 25 acres” John commented. “We raise all of our own barley, corn, soybeans and maybe oats, if possible. “We do buy protein concentrate and minerals. Our spring feed is wheat and crimson clover, which we chop; it’s followed with no-till corn.” Most recent DHIA figures show the herd averaging 53.6 pounds of energy-corrected milk. Actual component tests are 4.5%F and 3.4%P.

“I enjoy working with the Guernseys,” John continued. “They provide more of a steady income, they’re good pasture animals, they can take the heat better and they’re docile.”

John took his first serious step into the dairy business while still in high school when he purchased his grandfather's portion of the herd. Ownership sparked even more interest in the young man and it wasn’t long before the Guernsey fieldman paid him a visit. "He sketched all the animals for me and helped in piecing together any information we could put our hands on. The fact is, the herd had started as purebreds but the paperwork had been neglected for several decades,” John recalled.

The ambitious young Guernsey enthusiast wanted to get everything back on track. "It took about 10 years to complete the genetic recovery program. Every one of our Guernseys is purebred and registered,” John declared happily.

Kathy, who was raised in suburban Philadelphia, takes care of the record books these days. "I always wanted to live out in the country and I'm very happy here," she affirmed. A graduate of Washington College in nearby Chestertown, Kathy is also a very accomplished artist. Well known among Guernsey breeders coast to coast, she's frequently in attendance at Guernsey shows, meetings, and conventions. Her interest, enthusiasm and involvement with Guernseys crushes the fact that she was once a city girl.

Not surprisingly, John and Kathy have already passed their passion for farm life and Guernseys to their sons, John Henry III (Henry) and Paul. Both boys have numerous animals registered in their names and enjoy showing them. Henry was in the 5th grade when he received his first 4-H calf and he went on to write a book about that special experience ... and even got it published. An artist like his mother, he also drew the illustrations for it.

Guernsey art, trophies, banners and ribbons decorate the Myers’ home, leaving no doubt how dear the fawn-colored bovines are to them.

The enthusiasm is the engine that drives their modest operation.

The approximately 80 cows that are milked twice a day have access to 25 acres of pasture for most every day of the year, restricted only by severe weather or soft ground. An open, liberally bedded pack barn adjacent to the milking barn serves as their indoor resting place. A second bedded pack area is exclusively for bred heifers and dry cows.

Milking takes place in the original barn which was built in the 1920s. It has been updated several times, most recently in 2001. There are no conventional stalls, just 29 headlocks. No barn cleaner either; but there is a pipeline to deliver the milk from five milkers to the tank.

“This is a functional, working farm, not a hobby,” Kathy affirmed. For fun, there are always the shows. Participating in local shows is a summer routine. then comes the Maryland State Fair and if the animals do well there, then the’re off to places like Harrisburg, Louisville and Madison.

The boys are especially proud of their Guernseys. Last year, Paul won second place in the Guernsey Gold Production Contest with Craig Moor Adackas Bewitch with a record of 24,928M 1041F 837P.

It’s easy to see that the variety of activities and involvement by all members of the family gives Dogwood Lane Guernseys a promising future.