The McKeen family at Silver Maple Farms in Albion had no idea they were under such scrutiny, and while that may seem like a lead in to some Jason Bourne-like plot, it was really an honor for the McKeens.
Dennis McKeen, who owns Silver Maple Farms with his mother Jean, received the Master Breeder award from the New England Jersey Breeders when he and his wife Becky attended the group’s annual banquet earlier this month at the Northeast Jersey Classic and Breeders Sale in Vermont. The rest of the family knew ahead of time that he had won the award, but they had to keep it a secret from Dennis.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “I had heard of the award, and I have always respected the guys who have won it in past years. They’ve been watching our herd more closely than I thought.”
Several people have been watching the Jerseys that come out of Silver Maple Farms. That is evident by the recent contracts the family has secured with artificial insemination (AI) companies. Those companies want bulls from the McKeens’ cows to use as breeding sires to inseminate Jerseys on other dairy farms.
Dennis’ father David was the one who was originally drawn to the Jersey breed. “Dad showed Jerseys years ago,” Dennis said. The family had a farm in Harrison, but because of the encroaching sprawl from Portland, it was difficult to find enough land to farm to support a growing family (Dennis is one of six children). They sold their Jerseys and bought the farm in Albion, which came with a herd of Holsteins. But it didn’t take long for David to miss his Jerseys, and by the late 70s he started adding them into the herd. He passed away in 1980, but the family has continued to increase the number of Jerseys. Silver Maple Farms milks about 225 cows, and it is currently split pretty evenly between the Holsteins and Jerseys with 20 Jersey/Holstein crosses.
Five years ago, the McKeens’ sons wanted to build on the Jerseys and really focus on quality and production. At the same time, genomics were starting to crop up on dairy farms – breeders were able to look at DNA to highlight desirable traits. The McKeens were some of the first to use genomics in their herd. “That’s when we started getting a lot of (outside) interest in our cows,” Dennis said. “I like the challenge of getting as good of a Jersey as you possibly can.”
Holsteins are known to produce A LOT of milk. The much smaller Jersey is also a good producer but historically hasn’t put out the quantity the Holsteins do. They are more known for the butterfat and protein content of their milk. The combination of the two breeds gives the McKeens a full bulk tank of milk with enviable butterfat and protein percentages (4.2 butterfat and 3.3 protein). With the help of innovations like genomics, the smaller Jersey is catching up to the Holstein milking machines. “Jersey cows are more productive than people think they are,” Dennis said. “We now have Jerseys that are milking more than 100 pounds a day.”
He sees the farm adding more Jerseys and said the breed is the fastest growing in dairy farming, which is one reason that breeding bulls are in such high demand and AI companies are looking to the McKeens. “We offer a little more diversity of bulls,” Becky said. “Up until now a lot came from the same families.”
Originally it was their oldest son Ryan who took on the responsibility of breeding the cattle with his father. As Dennis is the only one of Jean and David’s children who stayed on the farm, he and Becky have relied on their children to help with the farm work.
“Nobody works for you like family,” Becky said. “When you’re totally invested, you put your heart and soul into it. My sons have been working like men since they were boys.”
The McKeens have three sons – Ryan, 25, Kyle, 23, and Tyler, 22, – and one daughter Lynsey, 18. All were home schooled and school work was scheduled around farm work.
“There’s a niche for everybody and everybody has their niche,” Becky said. “Kyle loves the outdoors and wants to be on a tractor every day. Tyler will do anything. He’s not fussy. And Lynsey’s a really good milker and helps with the calves. Everyone does their part; that’s what makes it work.”
Ryan had planned to continue working on the farm but felt called to attend bible school in Pennsylvania. When he left, Tyler stepped in to take his place in the breeding program beside Dennis. The McKeens also hire their nephew Seth Powers and Becky’s brother Jim part-time. “As part-time as a farmer can be,” Becky laughed.
When Dennis’ father passed away, his mother Jean took a bookkeeping course and has been in charge of the finances ever since. “She runs a pretty tight ship,” Dennis said, “which we are thankful for.”
“I don’t think a penny leaves this farm without her knowing, which is good,” Becky added.”It’s nice to have some money left at the end of the year.”
The McKeens milk twice a day – 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. Becky said that by doing it early, most day to day farm work is finished up by 5:30 or 6 p.m., which is important since the boys’ have families of their own and want that time at home, and the family as a whole is active in the church and likes to attend evening activities.
The following recipe for McKeen Macaroni and Cheese comes from daughter Lynsey and is a favorite at Silver Maple Farms.