SHARPSVILLE, Pa. — Although every dairy farm is unique, some may consider Ealy’s Highland Farm in Mercer County, Pa., to be even more out of the ordinary.
Until about four years ago, Dan and Sherry Ealy were milking Holsteins. Today, their 88-cow herd consists of about 25 percent pure Guernseys, with the rest of the cows either a cross of Guernsey and Holstein, or grade Holsteins.
Confused? You’re not the only one.
“A lot of people think we’re crazy,” admitted Sherry Ealy.
“But the more we go along with this idea, the more confirmation we get — like this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”
To understand their decision to transition to another breed, the couple said it’s important to note that they both grew up with Guernseys.
Sherry’s mother and stepfather milked Guernsey cows, and Sherry can still remember showing the grand champion Guernsey at the Mercer County Roundup.
The Highland Farm, which has been in Dan’s family since 1898, was home to Guernsey cattle, too.
Harold, Dan’s father, decided to transition to Holsteins when he wanted to expand the herd with Dan’s sister and brother-in-law in 1991.
Part of the reason for the switch back then, said Harold, was because Guernseys were hard to find in the area and Holsteins were more readily available.
Dan returned to the farm after he graduated college in 1996, and Sherry became an essential part of the operation when they married in 1998.
The next 10 years brought four children — Dalan, Christa, Conner and Renee — to Dan and Sherry, and a growing sense that a change was needed to the way they were dairying.
Dan and Sherry had purchased the cows and equipment from Harold in 2004 and today continue to rent the land and buildings. Although they continued to help part-time until 2005, Dan’s sister and her husband decided to move off the farm in 1999, enabling Dan, Sherry and their children to move into the farm house.
With the increasing daily challenges of being a dairy farmer, Sherry came to a life-changing realization shortly after they purchased the cows from her father-in-law.
“If you’re going to farm and you don’t love it, you better change what you’re doing,” she said.
For the Ealys, that change was going back to Guernseys.
“We just thought that there must have been a reason why God brought two Guernsey breeders together,” Sherry said.
The Ealys purchased a herd of about 40 Guernsey cows, yearlings and calves in October 2004 to begin the switch. The herd came from Bill and Janis Budner and their son George in Daisytown, Pa. Sherry said she and Dan were touched by the kindness and encouragement of the Budner family.
“They gave our kids rope and show halters and feed tubs, and they asked if they could purchase lifetime membership to the American Guernsey Association for each of the kids,” she said. “It was just so cool for them to believe in us like that.”
Although some of the animals adapted well, others didn’t, which is common in many transitions. Only three animals from that original herd of 40 remain at the Ealys today, but they were able to keep the quality genetics through some decedents.
Sherry said it was difficult to find Guernseys that were raised in a freestall operation, so the next step was crossbreeding.
“We know it’s going to take us a lot longer to get where we want to be, but it’s easier to manage our finances this way,” Sherry said.
Their goal in their breeding program is to keep the width, strength and correctness in feet and legs of the Holsteins while maximizing the dairyness of Guernseys. They hope to be 100 percent Guernsey within 10 years.
The couple believes a Guernsey milking 14,000 pounds of milk is just as profitable as a Holstein milking 20,000 pounds of milk because it takes less feed for the Guernsey to produce that amount than the Holstein.
“Right now, we’re feeding for 10 less cows than we actually have,” Dan said.
Since beginning to transition, the Ealys have noticed some improvements in the herd.
The Guernsey-Holstein crosses have a lower somatic cell count, better calving ease and a lower cull rate than the Holsteins. The purebred Guernseys seem to be more tolerant to the heat than the crosses and the Holsteins.
Commercial vs. show cow
The Ealys look forward to continue showing their Guernseys and would eventually like to market them, but they know milk production and longevity needs to be just as important as type.
“I agree with those who say there’s a bridge between commercial cows and show cows,” Sherry said.
The Ealys said selecting the genetics and deciding which bulls to mate with certain cows has been a bonding experience for them.
“I’ve learned how to read proofs and about the aAa program,” Sherry said. “It’s definitely fun for me and it’s been a marriage builder.”
“There’s something really satisfying about being the breeder of your animals,” added Dan.
Passing the torch
The Ealys hope their four children will develop a fondness for the breed in the same way that they got the Guernsey bug from their parents, and they believe a big part of that interest comes from developing connections with other Guernsey breeders.
Their oldest, 9-year-old Dalan, has been showing his 4-H calves and participating at the state Guernsey convention, and the family is looking forward to September, when they will travel to Harrisburg for the All-American Dairy Show.
The Ealys are hopeful their show days won’t stop at the All-American. Some day, they hope to take animals to the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin.
They would also love to sell animals at the Blue Halter Sale in Bedford County and other well-known Guernsey sales around the area.
And Sherry hopes that some of her children, if not all four, remain involved in the dairy industry.
“If in 20 years, we’re still milking Guernseys, one of the kids is running a processing plant, and we’re putting our grandkids through 4-H, I’d be pretty content,” she said.