Risk brings reward

5/17/2014 7:00 AM

Young dairyman turning passion into production

Jessica Rose Spangler


TYRONE, Pa. — “I was always a cow guy,” Ryan Clark, 29, said looking back at his youth.

Despite growing up on a grain operation with parents who worked off the farm, Clark knew his future was with dairy. He purchased his first two Holsteins when he was 8, but quickly began developing a fondness for Jerseys, purchasing one for himself at age 12.

“By the time I was 18, I had two Holsteins and eight Jerseys,” he recalled.

Today, Clark has around 200 milking Jerseys and 160 replacements on the farm he and his wife, Jennifer, rent east of Tyrone, Pa.

Clark has figured out his “sweet spot” — the level of production he feels generates the most net profit after five years of farming.

Clark’s Windy Lane Jerseys hits their “sweet spot” when cows are producing 62-65 pounds per day with high components.

He earns bonuses for fat and protien content, BST-free, quality, and volume shipped. Adding all these per hundredweight bonuses together, Ryan Clark says his milk price is rarely below $30 per hundredweight, sometimes as high as $32 or $34.

The milk is shipped to Dairylea, which is now part of Dairy Farmers of America.

Knowing they wanted to be in the dairy industry after graduating from Penn State in 2007, Ryan and Jen Clark obtained off-farm employment while growing their herd at the rented farm. Ryan worked for Cargill until 2009 and Jen is still with Dow AgroSciences. Within one year of graduation, all of their school loans were paid off.

In 2007, they started with 20 Jerseys while Ryan Clark was balancing dairy farming and Cargill.

The pair put together a comprehensive, realistic and conservative financial plan that showed projections that were appealing to lenders despite a declining milk market.

AgChoice Farm Credit “took a chance on us despite the risk,” Ryan Clark said, adding that his parents initially co-signed his loan until Clark was profitable enough to remove their names from the paperwork.

“There are more programs now to help young people get in” the dairy industry, he said. “How are you supposed to get credit if no one will give you a loan?”

With this initial loan, Clark was able to purchase 50 Jerseys from three fellow breeders, all of whom wanted Clark to succeeded and were therefore willing to sell some of their better animals.

Those genetics have allowed the herd to now contain 12 classified excellent cows and multiple very goods, including two 2-year-olds at 88 and 87 points.

“We got good genetics from good herds and good friends,” Jen Clark said.

A senior 2-year-old cow — Irishtown Blackstone Button — the Clarks purchased from Irishtown Acres Jerseys, the Paxton family from Grove City, Pa., currently has the highest lactation average in her age group within Pennsylvania. Her 2013 lactation record was 23,851 pounds of milk, 1,366 pounds of fat, 947 pounds of protein, and a cheese yield of $4,240.11.

The Clark’s homebred junior 3-year old, Windy Lane Abe Carma, ranks second within Pennsylvania with a 2013 lactation record of 22,775 pounds of milk, 1,342 pounds of fat, 963 pounds of protein, and a cheese yield of $4,232.80.

Nationally, Windy Lane Jerseys is seventh for protein production among all Jersey herds. Among breeders of their same herdsize, Windy Lane is second for protein, sixth for milk and seventh for fat. Their 2013 lactation average on 120 cows was 22,049 pounds of milk, 1,069 pounds of fat and 851 pounds of protein.

Additionally, the farm had nine cows earn American Jersey Cattle Association Hall of Fame recognition in 2013.

The AJCA named the Clarks 2014 National Outstanding Young Jersey Breeders. Ryan Clark also won the 2013 Graduate Production Award from the National Dairy Shrine.

After the loan from AgChoice allowed the Clarks to make that initial purchase of 50 cows, Ryan continued to work with Cargill and milk his 70-cow herd.

Once the farm grew to 100 cows, Ryan Clark made the switch to full-time dairy farmer in 2009.

Being renters, the Clarks quickly learned that “it has to work for both parties,” Jen Clark said, adding that having good landlords is essential.

Initially, Ryan Clark was doing all the work alone because reliable help was hard to find. They were averaging a 10 percent cull rate, selling around 25 cows per year. Between not having the facilities or help, the best decision for the Clarks was to sell cows, Jen Clark said.

“We had to sell cows to manage,” Ryan Clark said. “It just got to a point where we had to either hire or build a barn with robots.”

But the Clarks knew they couldn’t keep selling cows when their ultimate goal is to milk 400 Jerseys — which they hope will continue to rank nationally for production.

So they decided to hire two Hispanic employees, which has turned out to be the best decision for their growing operation.

Once the hired help was in place and Ryan Clark saw growth coming to the dairy industry in 2010, he approached his landlord about building a new barn. The landlord agreed, but the Clarks had to sign a 10-year lease in return. This new freestall barn now houses dry cows and a 2-year-old milking group.

“The best thing (AgChoice) Farm Credit did was make us borrow enough money to cover replacements for up to two years. That allowed us to buy cows to replace those we lost,” Ryan Clark said.

To help ease the growing pains — both financially and logistically — sexed semen is used extensively. In 2013, they had so many spare replacements that they sold 44 heifers after selling 30 in 2012.

“People call all the time looking for 4-H calves,” Jen Clark added.

They would like to keep those replacements, but with a lack of facilities, selling replacements is generating a some extra income to help boost them toward farm ownership in the future.

“Within three years we’re looking to move,” Ryan Clark said. “It’s nothing negative about this place, but we don’t want to be here forever.” The Clarks will outgrow their facilities and landbase with their current herd growth.

Ryan and Jen Clark know that becoming farm owners can be a risky endeavor. But with their superior production and close working relationship with lenders, it’s not an impossible endeavor.

“We take risk,” Ryan Clark said. “But we try not to overextend ourselves.”<\c> LS20140517_ClarkJerseys1

Photos by Jessica Rose Spangler

From left, Ryan, Leanne, Jen and Kylee Clark.


Leanne Clark makes daily trips to the barn to help her dad.


Calves and young heifers are raised in portable calf condos, chosen because they can be moved to a new farm in the future.


Once heifers are confirmed pregnant, they are sent to a custom heifer raiser. They’ll return to Windy Lane Jerseys to calve and enter the milking herd.

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