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Judy Gifford and Robert Fry, St. Brigid's Farm

Member

Judy Gifford and Robert Fry run St. Brigid's Farm, an amazing grassfed dairy operation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Following is an interview with Judy about farm life, grazing and the wonderful breed of Jersey cows. 

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, and your farm (farm history, family, type of livestock, breeds you raise, and products sold, etc… 

When Bob and I established St. Brigid’s Farm in 1996, I realized my childhood dream of owning a dairy farm and milking Jersey cows. I gladly left my position in Washington DC as a lobbyist for a dairy trade association for the long days and hard work in the barn and pastures. Bob is a bovine veterinarian and uses his skills on the farm as needed while practicing full time off the farm.

The postage-stamp-sized farm had good facilities and was affordable because of the limited acreage.  We seeded most of the land into permanent pasture, fenced the perimeter and set water lines. Shortly after we started milking cows, we decided to raise our bull calves to maximize our income and their value.  About 1/3 of our bull calves are sold as veal and the rest are sold as steers at two years of age.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, and your farm (farm history, family, type of livestock, breeds you raise, and products sold, etc… 

When Bob and I established St. Brigid’s Farm in 1996, I realized my childhood dream of owning a dairy farm and milking Jersey cows. I gladly left my position in Washington DC as a lobbyist for a dairy trade association for the long days and hard work in the barn and pastures. Bob is a bovine veterinarian and uses his skills on the farm as needed while practicing full time off the farm.

The postage-stamp-sized farm had good facilities and was affordable because of the limited acreage.  We seeded most of the land into permanent pasture, fenced the perimeter and set water lines. Shortly after we started milking cows, we decided to raise our bull calves to maximize our income and their value.  About 1/3 of our bull calves are sold as veal and the rest are sold as steers at two years of age.

For the benefit of our readers, what does your farm physically look like (landscape, buildings, barns, acreage, etc…)?

Our farm is beautiful! The house, barns and other buildings are located in the middle of the farm and are surrounded by green grass on the north, south and west sides. A secondary road is the eastern boundary.  The land is mostly flat with the exception of a 20-acre field that is a slight hill.

Have you always had grass-based/pasture-based system implemented on your farm? If not, what was the impetus for change?

Bob and I decided when we bought the farm that we wanted to graze.  The layout of the farm is ideal for pasturing cows as they do not have long distances to travel.

Describe your pasture & livestock management.

We practice managed intensive grazing and yield about 5-6 tons of grass on a dry matter basis per acre per year. Our steers start the grazing season in April and graze until the end of the year.  The cows go out once a day when the grass starts to take off and transition to twice a day a week or so later. Cows usually finish grazing around Thanksgiving.  During the winter, all animals have access to housing and stored feed to give the grass a rest.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered managing your grazing system and your livestock and how have you overcome these?

In our early years, we faced many challenges, large and small. Grazing principles can be learned but implementation must be practiced.  Stocking density is always a challenge.  Finding the balance between grazing, stockpiling and harvesting forage is definitely and art. Even after years, we are still learning. What to plant was a big question. Annual or perennial? Warm season or cool?  We recently had a weed challenge (horse nettle) that took two years to get under control.

How do you market your products? What works best?

Our milk is sold through our cooperative, Land O’ Lakes.  Veal is marketed largely to restaurants although some is sold retail.  Beef is sold to restaurants, individuals and through our Medley of Meats program which is a monthly subscription for $50 to $150.  Some Medley customers customize their orders while others like to get surprised every month.   Pick up for the Medley is on the first Saturday of the month in Chestertown which coincides with the Farmers’ Market. We recently began marketing a selection of beef at the Chester River Wine and Cheese Store. The owners are committed to buying from small, local farmers.  We have also sold beef to an aggregator.

Have you seen an increase in demand for your grass-fed products over recent years?

It is amazing that our demand and supply are in sync almost every year.  The number of beef animals varies depending on how many bull calves are born in a given year. Overall, demand has been consistent.

Have you experienced any marketing challenges?

Dealing with restaurants has been challenging.  Chefs come and go, payment can be slow, many close.

What do you feel works best for your farm?

We really like customers who buy a whole or half of a steer which frees up storage space.  Our Medley customers are so appreciative and loyal that it is a pleasure to see them every month. And it is fun to see our farm name on menus.

What do you feel is the most challenging?

Keeping a diverse customer base is challenging. We learned a long time ago not to put all our eggs in one basket as a customer can terminate at any time.

What do you find the most rewarding?

We love being part of the local food system.  We take a lot of pride in producing a quality product that is raised with care from birth and find it very rewarding to know our beef and veal is appreciated.

What is your favorite breed and why?

I love Jerseys!  They are wonderful mothers, easy calvers, efficient converters of feed to milk and meat, have terrific personalities and are profitable.  Jersey milk is higher in components than other breeds and their beef is well marbled, tender and delicious.

What advice would you give to aspiring graziers?

Be patient and open-minded.  Good grazers are problem solvers who enjoy learning from their mistakes. It is not easy to graze well which is why so few dairy farmers are dedicated grazers. Grazing, done well, is rewarding as well as profitable.

Our farm is beautiful! The house, barns and other buildings are located in the middle of the farm and are surrounded by green grass on the north, south and west sides. A secondary road is the eastern boundary.  The land is mostly flat with the exception of a 20-acre field that is a slight hill.

Have you always had grass-based/pasture-based system implemented on your farm? If not, what was the impetus for change?

Bob and I decided when we bought the farm that we wanted to graze.  The layout of the farm is ideal for pasturing cows as they do not have long distances to travel.

Describe your pasture & livestock management.

We practice managed intensive grazing and yield about 5-6 tons of grass on a dry matter basis per acre per year. Our steers start the grazing season in April and graze until the end of the year.  The cows go out once a day when the grass starts to take off and transition to twice a day a week or so later. Cows usually finish grazing around Thanksgiving.  During the winter, all animals have access to housing and stored feed to give the grass a rest.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered managing your grazing system and your livestock and how have you overcome these?

In our early years, we faced many challenges, large and small. Grazing principles can be learned but implementation must be practiced.  Stocking density is always a challenge.  Finding the balance between grazing, stockpiling and harvesting forage is definitely and art. Even after years, we are still learning. What to plant was a big question. Annual or perennial? Warm season or cool?  We recently had a weed challenge (horse nettle) that took two years to get under control.

How do you market your products? What works best?

Our milk is sold through our cooperative, Land O’ Lakes.  Veal is marketed largely to restaurants although some is sold retail.  Beef is sold to restaurants, individuals and through our Medley of Meats program which is a monthly subscription for $50 to $150.  Some Medley customers customize their orders while others like to get surprised every month.   Pick up for the Medley is on the first Saturday of the month in Chestertown which coincides with the Farmers’ Market. We recently began marketing a selection of beef at the Chester River Wine and Cheese Store. The owners are committed to buying from small, local farmers.  We have also sold beef to an aggregator.

Have you seen an increase in demand for your grass-fed products over recent years?

It is amazing that our demand and supply are in sync almost every year.  The number of beef animals varies depending on how many bull calves are born in a given year. Overall, demand has been consistent.

Have you experienced any marketing challenges?

Dealing with restaurants has been challenging.  Chefs come and go, payment can be slow, many close.

What do you feel works best for your farm?

We really like customers who buy a whole or half of a steer which frees up storage space.  Our Medley customers are so appreciative and loyal that it is a pleasure to see them every month. And it is fun to see our farm name on menus.

What do you feel is the most challenging?

Keeping a diverse customer base is challenging. We learned a long time ago not to put all our eggs in one basket as a customer can terminate at any time.

 

What do you find the most rewarding?

We love being part of the local food system.  We take a lot of pride in producing a quality product that is raised with care from birth and find it very rewarding to know our beef and veal is appreciated.

 

What is your favorite breed and why?

I love Jerseys!  They are wonderful mothers, easy calvers, efficient converters of feed to milk and meat, have terrific personalities and are profitable.  Jersey milk is higher in components than other breeds and their beef is well marbled, tender and delicious.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring graziers?

Be patient and open-minded.  Good grazers are problem solvers who enjoy learning from their mistakes. It is not easy to graze well which is why so few dairy farmers are dedicated grazers. Grazing, done well, is rewarding as well as profitable.