Cyclone Family Known for Dairy Genetics, Butter Cows

This story starts with two dairy farming brothers and ends with a herd of 50 Iowa State University alumni– and counting.

For more than 90 years the Lyon family of Toledo, Iowa, has been milking Jerseys. For nearly 75, they’ve been attending Iowa State.

Lyon Jerseys started when brothers Robert and Earl Lyon formed a partnership in 1921. Earl’s sons, Joe (’51 dairy science) and Howard (’45 engineering), showed registered Jerseys in 4-H. Together they developed a dairy operation, as did Robert’s sons separately.

Earl’s other sons, Durward (’50 animal science) and Tom (’62 dairy science), joined agribusiness enterprises. Their cousin William Zmolek (’44 animal science, ’51 MS) also was reared in the Lyon family and spent his professional career as an extension livestock specialist at Iowa State.

Robert’s sons, Earl A. (’39 agronomy) and Russell (’41 animal science) also were 4-Hers and Iowa Staters before joining the ranks of the Lyon dairy farmers.

Joe and his son Eric (’76 dairy science) have ushered the farm into its third generation, milking more than 300 cows in partnership with Howard’s son Stuart (’75 dairy science).

Eric oversees the 1,000 head of Jersey cattle (320 are milked twice daily). Stuart supervises the 1,100 acres of cropland. They employ around 10 full- and part- time help, selling their milk to Swiss Valley Farms Cooperative.

The Lyon Jersey partners—Eric, Stuart and Joe—were recently honored with the American Jersey Cattle Association’s prestigious “Master Breeders” award.

Cardinal and Gold Bloodline

Tom marvels at the cardinal and gold running through the Lyon bloodline. He’s a well-known dairy leader credited with building and leading the world’s largest animal genetics and herd improvement cooperative—Cooperative Resources International in Shawano, Wisconsin.

“The two brothers, Robert and Earl Lyon, produced six sons. They along with their kids and grandkids have a cumulative number of about 50 Iowa State graduates,” says Tom. “Iowa State provided a world-class educational experience for a middle class family living just 60 miles from the campus. It was affordable, and has been the launching pad for members of the family to enjoy productive lives.”

A former president of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents and recipient of an honorary doctorate from UW-Madison, Tom is still a Cyclone at heart. He has been inducted into the National Cooperative Business and Wisconsin Business Hall of Fames.

Quality and Comfort

The Lyons still use some of the original buildings from the 1920s in addition to a series of expansions added over the years. Their 350 milking cows each produce 60 pounds of high test Jersey milk per day.

“A long record of breeding show winners and high production cows has given us a reputation for elite Jersey genetics. Jerseys are n exceptional demand these days for commercial dairy operations,” Eric says. “Cow comfort and milk quality are our priorities. We’ve been innovative. We’ve used sand as bedding for 40 years. Sand dries out fast, leaving less chance of bacterial infection causing mastitis.”

The Lyons also sell genetics through semen sales and natural service bulls.

Butter Cows and Accolades

In addition to Master Breeder status, the Lyon family has a line up of honors and awards.

Joe’s wife Duffy was internationally known for her work as the “Butter Cow Lady” for 46 years. Norma “Duffy” Lyon (’51 animal science) was the fourth person and first woman to sculpt the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow. Although she primarily worked with butter, in 2007 she created the beautiful bronze Jersey Jewel on display at the Iowa State Dairy Farm. She died in 2011, the same year the Iowa State Fair celebrated 100 years of the Butter Cow.

The World Dairy Expo has honored Tom, Joe and Duffy as Industry Person, Dairyman and Dairywoman of the Year, respectively. Howard and Joe followed their father Earl in being named Iowa Master Farmers. And Joe and Tom have been named Guests of Honor by the National Dairy Shrine.

Joe is an internationally recognized dairy cattle judge. His leadership in the industry includes serving as founding director of the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board and past president of the American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey Association. He was also a pioneer in a system of payment for dairy farmers based on milk’s eventual cheese yield.

Cyclone Supporters

Members of the Lyon family are strong supporters of the dairy science program at Iowa State. They offer scholarships for students, serve on advisory boards for the college and animal science department and host students on their farm for dairy judging workouts.

“We appreciate the long-standing friendship and support of the Lyon family,” says Donald Beermann, professor and chair of animal science. “Joe has been involved in boards and committees for decades. And, Eric has played an important role in the Grow Iowa Agriculture group supporting legislative priorities for animal agriculture in the state.”

Tom and his wife Barb created a scholarship for students studying agricultural cooperatives. There also is a scholarship in the College of Engineering in Howard’s name.

Durward and Joe have been inducted into Iowa State’s Animal Science Hall of Fame, and the Dairy Science Club has honored Joe, Tom and Eric.

Durward, Tom and their spouses are longtime members of Iowa State’s Order of the Knoll. Lyon Jerseys provides the cows for the Dairy Science Club’s “I Milked a Cow” fundraiser at the Iowa State Fair.

“Two things are for certain,” says Eric. “Lyon Jerseys will continue in the family into the future in one form or another. And future generations will continue to attend Iowa State University for many years to come.”