Farmer Creates Niche Dairying the 'Unconventional' Way

6/7/2014 8:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

CLEAR SPRING, Md. — “Everything we do is unconventional,” said Mark Seibert, with a smile.

He and his wife, Clare, operate a profitable and seasonal grass-fed dairy, Clear Spring Creamery.

“We start calving in February and early March, and we milk up until the Friday before Christmas every year, and then we shut down until calving in the early spring,” Mark Seibert said. “We try to duplicate a natural setting for the cows and as a grass-based dairy, the vast majority of their intake comes from pasture, which they harvest themselves.”

He has 80 acres devoted to pasture, mostly orchard grass and clover. He said he tries to allocate a daily amount of pasture to feed the cows adequately and keep them content.

“We do not have any permanent paddocks and we only use electric fence, so we can easily adjust the location. It is always a little bit of a guessing game to determine the size of the pasture for each day,” he said.

Seibert’s goal is to be forage self-sufficient and feed as little hay as possible. Last summer was a struggle as things dried up toward the end of the season and he ended up having to feed hay early.

“It is a big challenge to keep the grazing going all summer. If the forage production in the pasture is not sufficient, then we supplement with hay or balage. We just planted 15 acres of Sudan grass hybrids for summer grazing in late July and August, when the cool season pastures are not that productive,” he said, adding that Sudan grass thrives in the heat. “It is quite productive and palatable as the cows like it a lot, and we have consistently gotten three good grazings off of it each year.”

Seibert said he feeds a little grain during the once-a-day milking. It’s a non-GMO ration that he said his Jerseys prefer and is a big selling point with customers.

When he started eight years ago, Clear Spring Creamery was only the second on-farm creamery in Maryland. It’s an unusual operation in many ways, from the once-a-day milking schedule, to the way he raises his replacement heifers.

“We don’t have any dry cows as all the cows come fresh in the spring, and we have a group of about 20 heifers for next year,” he said. “But I don’t raise them, their mothers do.

“We let the calf nurse. Once the calf is born, we tag them, wish them well and we let them stay on their mother. They grow real well and when they really start to get to some size, you really start to notice the drain on the cow at milking time. They come in pretty empty sometimes,” he said.

None of the farm’s milk is shipped; all of the milk is processed on-site.

“We process all our own milk and so to try to balance our production, where we would have a peak in the early summer, we let the calves on the cow to consume our excess milk. That would give us a lot of extra milk, which is more milk than we can process and sell ourselves,” he said. “As we begin to need milk, there are still some bull calves out there we will sell, and that will give us a little more milk flow. Then when I need more milk, we will wean our heifer calves and so on down the line until all are weaned by late summer. When we wean a calf, we can pick up 30 pounds of milk from that cow.”

While the overall dairy industry pushes for maximum production, Seibert has created a niche marketing his products directly to his customers through farmers markets.

“We price everything based upon our costs, plus a reasonable profit,” he said, adding that his customers pay $6 for a half-gallon of his milk.

Seibert said his original strategy was to be a seasonal grass-based dairy and sell the milk in the commodity market.

“We did that for one year and we decided that to make this business profitable, we had to tweak it somehow. The options were pretty limited to growth in scale, volume, or increase income by value-added,” he said.

Even though the farm is certified organic, the milk is not. But he saw lots of opportunities selling his products at farmers markets.

“We do not have any local sales at all. We do five farmers market per week, some in Washington, D.C., some in Virginia and some in Maryland. The people who shop at farmers markets are very receptive to our products and it is a pleasure to deal with them. They enjoy the product and they support the product and the way we farm,” he said.

The operation has grown slowly from just fluid milk at first to other products.

“We went into this very modestly and very smallscale so that we could do that without an additional mortgage. We have added to our production a little bit each year and our slogan is, All things from Dairy,’” he said.

Drinkable yogurt is his most profitable item.

“We sell a variety of sizes of yogurt in half-pint, pint and 12-ounce containers. All of the yogurt is made with whole milk, and we sell cream, butter and ice cream,” he said, adding that last year was the first year for ice cream. “We used dry ice which we had to buy during the week and that added a lot of costs to the product as the dry ice starts to vaporize immediately. It was difficult to keep it until Sunday afternoon, so we finally put a freezer on the truck and run it off a generator at the market. Logistically, it is kind of difficult and our reaction to it is mixed at this point.”

Since all the milk products go straight to market, the bulk tank only sees milk when production exceeds the daily demand.

“We modified our milk line to push it straight to the pasteurizer,” he said. “We bottle each day and put the product directly in the coolers to send to market. The bulk tank fills up mostly on weekends. At this time of year, we have more milk than we need because we are limited each day in what we can pasteurize and sell at a market. It’s a kind of balancing act to get it in a bottle, get it to the right market and get it sold.”

Seibert was born and raised on the Clear Spring farm, but he has been farming full time for only eight years.

“My wife and I bought this farm from my mother’s estate and once we owned it, we realized we had to make income on this asset to make it worthwhile,” he said. “We asked ourselves what kind of enterprise can be on this farm and make a viable and profitable return on the land and our ownership. What we have today developed from that idea.”

Jerseys are the base breed, but he also has Holsteins, Ayrshires and a few belted cows.

“Prior to milking, we had been buying heifer calves and raising them up to springers. The ones that were available to us were Jerseys and so that is what we were accustomed to,” he said. “Our herd started from the calves we had been raising to sell. Eventually, we had enough that we thought we could milk them ourselves and that is what we ended up doing with the last group of heifers we raised.”

All of the buildings on the property were designed with seasonal dairying in mind, he said. There were no buildings when he and his wife started; everything was built from scratch.<\n>“All the heifers we raised each year were bred for spring and when we built this facility, it just made logical sense that that is the way we would operate,” he said. “We don’t have barns to house them in the winter and we do not have a winterized milking parlor. It is covered with a plastic covered greenhouse package that they install for calf barns a lot. It works well and the plastic is a cleanable surface.”

Just behind the milking parlor and creamery building stands a large solar array.

“The only time we participated in any way with grant funding was our solar project, which now provides 75 percent of our farm and creamery electrical needs. We have a 21-kilowatt system with 96 solar panels mounted on our poles. It has been a very good investment,” he said. The solar panels were installed three years ago with a five-year payback on the initial investment. The panels have a 25-year life span. “The panels are oriented due south and it has been trouble free since we installed it. We looked at wind power but we felt we would get a better return on solar. Long term, we would like to be an energy producer.”

Even though he’s happy with his farm, he admits that his type of operation is not for everyone.

“Our milk production is significantly lower than the average dairy farm. We milk once a day, we let the calves on them and we don’t feed for maximum production,” he said. “When you milk them and a calf has drained one-quarter, the milker will tend to shut off, so I have to plug the dry quarters to keep the milker going. You have to be pretty thorough when you finish milking because it will be a whole day until you milk her again.”

While he runs the day-to-day farm operations, he said his wife, Clare, is the planner.

“My wife is the person who plans everything that we do. She manages all the logistics of the creamery, what needs to be made, how much is to be made, what market receives what portion of the product,” he said. “It is a big job and she never did any farm work until we moved here.”

Mark Seibert said he loves selling direct to customers.

“The people who shop at farmers markets are very receptive to our products and it is a pleasure to deal with them. They enjoy the product and they support the product,” he said.

“My take-home message is that there are a lot of people out there in a variety of types of agriculture whether it is dairy, vegetables or fruit at farmers markets, who have done quite well,” he said. “If you can produce a product that the consumer is really looking for and get it to them at a good price, there is a lot of opportunity in farming. You have to be interested in it and you have to be dedicated to it, but you can do it.”

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

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