Jeromesville, Ohio — From the time he was a child, Paul Keener liked cows and could usually be found out in the field with the cows and the dog, according to his mother, Deanna.
That passion for cows continues today as Keener and his wife, Olivia, own and operate Rosedale Farm, a business they literally built from the ground up.
The Keeners hosted the 2017 Dairy Twilight Tour sponsored by the Ashland-Wayne County Dairy Service Unit July 18, and shared their secrets to having one of the top herds in the state with close to 1,500 fellow farmers and friends from the community and agricultural industry.
Related: Keener enters dairy industry by designing, building own farm
Growing up, Paul showed Brown Swiss and participated in dairy judging through 4-H and FFA and later in college. He decided to attend Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, followed by a year at the main campus in Columbus, where he received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural business, with a minor in animal science.
Keener did an internship out in California and when he returned home, he loved cows even more and decided to pursue his dream of becoming a dairy farmer.
“Ohio State and ATI gave me the base for what I need, but you have to be driven,” Keener said. “You have to keep learning.”
In the fall of 2011, he purchased land in Ashland County and started building the facilities he needed for his dairy operation. By May of 2012, he was ready for the first group of 200 cows.
“We added our fresh cow and dry cow facilities in the fall of 2013, and by that time, we were milking 300 cows,” he said. “We built our third barn in the summer/fall of 2015 and made the jump to milking 600 cows.”
Around the farm
The Keeners have 500 stalls for the milking herd and 80 stalls for dry cows. They also have a calving pen and sick pen. Stalls are bedded with reclaimed sand. Keener said one unique aspect of the farm is the fact that they have four sand lanes and a flush system to move the manure from the barn where the solids are separated into a lagoon and the sand is recycled and reused.
Keener said his sand lanes are 12 feet wide with a quarter-inch slope to help separate liquids and solids. He buys about two loads of sand a month from a local supplier, because he estimates he loses about 5 percent of the sand into the lagoon.
Keener added he likes a little coarser sand because it is more consistent. The barn is well ventilated with fans and sprinklers to keep the cows cool and comfortable.
Today, Keener and a crew of eight employees manage 580 cows averaging 94 pounds of milk per day with 3.7 fat and 3.2 protein tests on a 3-times schedule in a double-10 parallel parlor.
They have an additional 70 dry cows and about 500 head of young stock. Calves are raised in hutches and once they are weaned they move to group housing or super hutches before they are moved to a heifer grower.
From there, they are moved to a background facility and raised to breeding age. The animals return to the farm about a month before calving. Because he ships his milk to Brewster Cheese, he pays close attention to the components produced by the herd.
His somatic cell count is in the 250,000 range. The somatic cell count is just one of the health traits that Keener looks at when selecting bulls for the herd.
“Our favorite cows in the herd are the ones that milk, breed back, and don’t cause problems. We want our cows to last and make money,” he said. “We look at net merit, cheese merit and the pounds of fat and protein we can ship down the road.”
Keener said he installed M Tech Teat Brush Cleaners, which helps with milk quality.
“They take away some of the management challenges,” he said. “They can break down, but the company is very good about customer support.”
He said the cost of the units is based on a per cow, per month rate. Another management practice that Keener has implemented is a foot bath to help control hairy warts in the herd.
He said he got the problem with a group of cows he purchased during an expansion stage.
“Flushing the barn helps control the problem,” he said. “The feet are washed and they have time to dry and that along with the foot bath helps.”
The Keeners farm 350 acres with a corn and rye rotation, chopping the rye for early forage, followed by corn silage and purchase high quality hay or baleage to round out the ration of grain and corn silage
Keener said that cow comfort and quality feed are the keys to top production. He tries to keep high quality feed and forage in front of the cows at all times, as well plenty of clean, fresh water.
“We try to do everything we can to keep the cows cool and comfortable and take the stress away from the cows,” Keener said.
A good labor force is critical, according to Keener.
“Without these guys, the cows aren’t going to get milked,” he said.
A majority of Keener’s labor force is Hispanic and he works through Agri-Placement Services to find good employees.
“They screen and train the employees and help take care of any issues we might have,” he said.
Keener said most of the equipment on the farm is older, so a good equipment repair person is valuable to the operation. Another aspect that makes the operation unique is the fact that Keeners started the farm from scratch.
Even though both Paul and Olivia come from farm backgrounds, their farm was not passed down from family members. Olivia said that Paul’s father, Bruce, and grandfather, John, were both in the dairy business, and Keener’s family played a major role in establishing the Brown Swiss breed in Ohio.
In addition to milking cows, Bruce also drove a feed truck and ultimately Bruce and Deanna started a trucking business and feed mill: Commodity Blenders, Inc., in West Salem, Ohio.
Olivia’s parents, Mark and Michelle Houts, live in Celina, Ohio, where Mark is a grain farmer and Michelle is an author of children’s books. And while neither set of parents have direct involvement with the farming operation, they enjoy the farm and the adventures of grandson, Jack, who was born in October 2016.
Paul said getting started in farming is challenging, but it can be done, especially if young farmers keep things simple.
“You need to have a good banker, to help you get the financing to do what needs to be done,” he said. “You have to prove yourself before people are willing to help you.”
And they need to know their costs of production and what areas make up their biggest areas of expenses. He said the biggest challenges facing agriculture in the future will be immigration laws, milk price volatility, milk marketing, and consumer perception of the industry.