He loves the cows and the crops, and it shows

While their son and daughter have careers off the farm, Bob and Barb Keefer’s grandson Nick, loves to help. Like his Tshirt says: My Grandpa has the best toys.” He loves his Pappy’s tractors, and his cows.

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — Bob Keefer has been internally growing and shaping his 700-cow dairy since 1985 at Keefer’s Hard Earned Acres, Shippensburg, Pa. He does all the herd work himself, with the help of loyal employees and technology.

The farm was chosen by the Penn State Extension Dairy Team for a twilight dairy tour (2017) that drew 400 people and highlighted cow comfort and manure management.

“This is an outstanding farm with the added attraction of the anaerobic digester holding 700,000 gallons of manure and generating electricity for the entire dairy and home. It was a privilege to work with this dairy in putting together the Master Farmer presentation and it was a great site for the Franklin County twilight tour,” says Cassie Yost, extension educator about the Cumberland County farm operated by Keefer, a 2017 Mid-Atlantic Master Farmer.

Bob’s grandfather originally raised dairy cows, pigs and produce. While the development pressure from nearby Interstate 81 grew up around him, Bob grew his dairy from within — starting with 30 cows when he purchased the farm in 1977 — to around 700 cows through the parlor today.

At the time of the tour (July 2017), the rolling herd average was 28,129M 1116F 850P and somatic cell counts averaged 150 to 170,000.

He spends every morning in the parlor with his milking employees and doing herd work with his cows. He likes to spend his afternoons in the fields. Under his attention to detail, the herd averages continue to improve, moving up to 92 pounds/cow/day by 2018 with SCC averaging 100 to 120,000.

The parlor and milking equipment are immaculate at Hard Earned Acres. Three milkers milk over 600 cows in 6.5 hours. A second small parlor is for fresh cows, special needs.

“We try to do things right, always looking to improve,” says Bob. Comfort and quality are his top priorities, and that’s one reason in the fall of 2017, Bob adopted the practice of spraying fresh udders with Udder Comfort 2x/day for 5 days to soften and soothe fresh udders after calving.

“I was impressed. It was like a missing piece,” he explains.

“We like knowing that we are always improving to make a better product, ” his wife Barb relates. She does three or four school tours every year from pre-school to older elementary. She is proud to show them that even though the farm is home to a large herd of cattle, they are comfortable, clean and well cared for.

She says the Master Farmer induction was a nice affirmation of what Bob has dedicated himself to do every day. “We have always put an emphasis on comfort and cleanliness.”

Natural ventilation, overhead fans and intermittent sprinklers for heat abatement are just some of the creature comforts here.

They also have not bought a cow since 1985. “They are all born here and raised here. We know who every cow is and her dam and her granddam and so forth,” Bob adds, explaining that ABS does the matings, and sexed semen is used on virgin heifers “not so much for the heifer average but to help with calving ease.

“I’m really going for efficiency and keeping the animals that will move us forward to the goal of 100 pounds/cow/day and a 30,000-pound herd average,” Bob relates, crediting his team of 15 full time employees, and noting that he still likes doing much of the herd work.

With AFI milk and PC Dart, Bob has two computer systems to tap into, but admits he’s not one to “live on the computer, so every cow and calf is on my smart phone.”

He looks for two deviations (milk and activity via the pedometers) to find cows that may be sick or in heat. He also uses the information on each animal to make current and future culling decisions to “upgrade” his herd toward making 100 pounds/cow/day.

Keeping in mind his production and efficiency goals, Bob doesn’t keep offspring from dams that are not keeping up with their herd mates.

Bob Keefer with grandson Nick, pulling up cow number 138’s data on hisphone.

Take number 138 as an example. He randomly pulled her up on his smart phone because she was standing right in front of us at the feedbunk.

“This tells me she is not keeping up with her herd mates. She is making 66 pounds of milk at 134 days in milk and is verified pregnant. I’ll use this information when she calves again. When she freshens, if this doesn’t change, and she has a heifer calf, that calf will be culled,” Bob says matter-of-factly. “That’s how I am upgrading the herd to shoot for that 100-pound herd average.”

The Keefers farm 1100 acres, doing all the planting and spraying, and hiring custom operators for the harvest. They grow corn for silage and high moisture for shelling, alfalfa haylage, and double crop barley and soybeans.

He gives every cow her chance, nutritionally, to be part of the upgrade by feeding nine different rations for nine different groups. All rations are high forage TMRs with a base of 48% corn silage, along with haylage, wet brewers, cottonseed, barley, roasted soybeans, shell corn and a mineral pack.

“We also force-feed one and a half pounds of straw for their digestion,” Bob notes. “I am very pleased with this. We raise and feed all the barley straw here.”

Dry solids from the digester are used as bedding and the digester powers the farm.

He is also pleased with the anaerobic digester. Being “neighbor friendly” is something Bob has strived for, and the digester plays a role by removing the smell from field applications of manure. Bob said the digester is generating enough electricity to cover all of the electrical needs of the dairy farm and their home, with a little left over to put on the grid.

The Keefers bed their freestalls with the dry solids that are separated after the manure goes through the anaerobic digester.

Tour-goers saw great animal care, clean facilities and lots of recycling. In addition to manure methane power and bedding solids, water from the chiller is stored in tanks for recycling as cow drinking water and for the sprinklers. Plus, everything grown on the farm is used in the ration.

Asked what he enjoys about the dairy farm, Bob was quick with his answer: “I love to watch things grow — from a baby to an adult.” That goes for the cows and the crops as he divides his time daily to both.

He also loves the challenge: “Every day it is trying to beat me, and every day, I’m trying to beat it,” he says of his dairy farm.

-Sherry Bunting

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