Cabot Farm Named Dairy Farm of the Year

by Lisa Halvorsen, Agricultural Journalist for UVM Extension

photo by Tony Kitsos
Molly Brook Farm, owned by Rhonda and Myles Goodrich, was recognized as the 2022 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. The award is presented annually by University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association in cooperation with the New England Green Pastures Program.

CABOT – Like many Vermont farms, Molly Brook Farm in Cabot can claim ownership by the same family for generations. Its current owners, Myles and Rhonda Goodrich, are the seventh generation of dairy producers on a farm established almost two centuries ago.

The farm has a distinguished history and is renowned internationally for its superior Jersey genetics. Since 2018, it has been a successful certified organic dairy with a high-producing herd that has earned a number of quality milk awards from Stonyfield Organic, where the Goodriches ship their milk.

The 565-acre hillside farm recently received another accolade, that of being named the 2022 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. The farm is the only one to have won this award twice. The first time was in 1987 when Myles’ parents, Walter and Sally Goodrich, operated the farm in partnership with Myles. Myles’ daughter Jennifer Churchill and her husband, Morgan, owners of Wonder Why Farm, also in Cabot, were the recipients of this prestigious award in 2019.

The award is presented annually to an exemplary, financially sound and efficiently managed dairy operation, representative of the best farms in Vermont by University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association, in cooperation with the New England Green Pastures Program.

Nominated farms are evaluated on a number of criteria, including herd management, pasture quality, milk production records, land stewardship and conservation practices, promotion of the dairy industry, and overall excellence in dairying. The winner is selected by a team of judges comprised of past Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year winners who interview the finalists and tour their farms to observe their operations.

“The judges felt that Molly Brook checked all of the criteria for the award with the passion it takes to continue in this business for the foreseeable future,” says UVM Extension’s Tony Kitsos, the awards program coordinator. “Their exceptionally well-managed pastures and forage inventories, super clean facilities and a dedication to continuing to produce high quality milk factored into their decision.

“They also remarked on the courage it took to make the switch from a successful, internationally known breeder of superior Jersey cow genetics to an organic dairy. The Goodriches have maintained their cow families to produce exceptional quality milk that is high in butterfat and protein. Their management strategies made them ‘just right’ to make a successful transition.”

Originally, the farm had just 12 milking Jerseys. Over the years, the family purchased neighboring farms and the farm is now able to support a milking herd of about 100 cows. The farm became known as Molly Brook Farm for Molly’s Brook, which meanders through the property.

Myles’ grandparents, Wendell and Inez (Abbott) Goodrich, sold their entire herd in 1917, buying registered Jerseys as replacements, a lineage that continues on the farm today. The Vermont Jersey Breeders Association named two annual awards after the couple, one for production and the other for fat and protein.

However, it was Walter and Sally Goodrich who put the farm on the world map in the 1980s with the sale of quality Jerseys from outstanding cow families, starting with Molly Brook Fascinator Flower. Today, descendants of this cow can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

Molly Brook Farm began the transition to an organic dairy in 2015, achieving organic certification in 2018.

“Myles and Rhonda have pivoted to make the dairy operation more relevant for their family’s needs,” says Jason Johnson, farm relationship manager with Stonyfield Organic, who nominated the farm for the award. “They purchased his parents’ portion of the partnership in 2013 and set forth the farm’s organic transition, and to make it environmentally and economically sustainable.”

The switch to an organic dairy was a significant move, and not an easy one, according to Rhonda. The corn ground was a three-year transition, with the cows on organic feed for one year. The decision to end a 99-year relationship with Cabot Creamery also was difficult as Molly Brook Farm not only was a founding farm but had strong ties with the creamery.

“Organic grain was expensive, and it cost us more to produce milk than we were paid,” she says. “We ended up transitioning the cows six months before the land was certified organic, which saved us money but complicated our organic transition as we had to fence out the corn strips with a 50-foot buffer on each side above the barn where the cows were pastured.”

Myles notes that “we took them off corn silage. They were used to that. Even the grain was not the same, so some transitioned cows had reproductive issues.”

However, the farmers both agree that the decision was the right one for the farm.

“We treat our farm as a business,” Rhonda says, “and we knew that we needed to rethink how we did things to plan for the future. For us, pesticides and herbicides in the ground did not make sense, especially with grandkids on the farm. We are now farming similar to how Myles’ grandfather did 100 years ago.

“We look at the return on our investment with every step we take,” she continues. “If you manage your farm out of your checkbook, by the time the checkbook has no money, you’ve missed nine months to a year when you could have made changes.”

The couple worked with Bruce Howlett, a now-retired soil conservationist with their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) office, to transition from conventional to organic dairying. The NCRS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program provided both technical and financial assistance to help them convert 53 acres of corn ground to perennial grass and clover for hay and pasture, put in a new watering system and install perimeter fencing for rotational grazing on their 100-plus acres of pasture and to keep the animals out of Molly’s Brook.

They received additional technical assistance through the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program, including monthly on-farm meetings with advisors to discuss and plan their organic transition. They met regularly with Kyle Thygesen from Stonyfield and Sarah Flack, a Vermont organic dairy consultant, during the planning process.

“They have taken advantage of dairy improvement grants to upgrade their milking facilities, milk room and housing systems and used Stonyfield TA funds to establish bees as pollinators on the farm,” Johnson says. “They are master grazers and joined Stonyfield’s Dairy Grazing Apprentice program, hoping to share their love of Jerseys, dairy and land with the next generation.”

They received a grant from the Vermont Working Lands Program that helped defray the organic transition costs. The Vermont Housing Conservation Board Viability Program awarded the farm a $40,000 matching grant to update the milkhouse. UVM Extension provided Molly Brook with technical assistance to develop their nutrient management plan, water quality and rotational grazing best practices.

“One of the first decisions we made when we transitioned to organic was to downsize the herd from 120 milking cows to 70,” Myles says, a move that has allowed them to manage the operation more efficiently. Fewer animals have meant less manure to handle and less stress on the facilities and land.

The farmers milk on a twice-daily schedule in a step-up, walk-through milking parlor, capable of handling 45 cows an hour. Their rolling herd average is 14,939 pounds with 5 percent butterfat and 3.8 percent protein.

They raise all their own replacement stock, breeding their heifers to produce their first calf at around 21 months of age. They strive for a calving interval of 12 months. They breed year-round although prefer not to breed their animals to calve in January over concern for the cow. They work with a sire analyst to match the strengths of the bulls with each individual cow, breeding for good feet and legs and for A2A2 genetic selection.

“Our registered Jerseys are appraised every nine months by the American Jersey Cattle Association,” Rhonda explains, “so they see our cows in different stages of lactation.”

Calves are raised outside in hutches in the summer and raised inside the barn in winter in a well-ventilated area in group pens. Rhonda takes care of the calves and has a low mortality rate thanks to close attention to detail.

“The calves get colostrum for three or four feedings, hand-fed by bottle until they are able to suckle,” she says. “They are on milk for at least two months and sometimes three months depending on the needs of the calf.  Calves are fed all the milk and fresh water they want. We give them organic grain as free choice right away, then hay as they start to wean.”

“We feed them good quality milk from a high-producing cow with high butterfat and protein,” Myles adds.

The milking herd is housed in a light-filled 60-ft. x 160-ft. free-stall coverall barn and turned out to pasture between milking in the warmer months. Calves and cows drying off are housed in an 1835 barn, one of the original structures on the farm.

Cow comfort is a top priority, with kiln-dried sawdust for bedding on top of pasture mats, cow brushes for self-grooming, and fans for good ventilation. Spring-fed cow waterers are cleaned every few days.

“The cows work hard for us,” Rhonda stresses. “It’s our job to take care of them. We treat them well. We know every cow by name. Each cow has its own personality.”

Pasturing their animals has helped reduce their carbon footprint as they typically get four crops of hay each summer, which equates to 16 tractor trips over the 100+ acres used for pasture. They grow perennial grass on cropland and are able to produce their own haylage and round bales, which they supplement with organic grain from Morrison’s Custom Feeds Inc. in Barnet.

They average 575 round bales and more than 600 tons of haylage during the cropping season. They also purchase 400 organic second-cut small square bales from Peter Everts, a hay grower in Barnet, to feed their young stock.

The Goodriches have conserved all their land through the Vermont Land Trust. They are working with Luke Hardt, a Hardwick forester, to harvest timber and manage their 335 acres of woodlands, which includes a 1,600-tap sugarbush that Myles’ brother, Glenn Goodrich, oversees. They also are participating in Stonyfield’s OpenTEAM pilot project to monitor carbon sequestration to help mitigate climate change and improve soil health on their farm.

Their commitment to being good farmers extends to their community and beyond. They help promote the dairy industry by hosting farm tours and have collaborated with the Cabot School for on-farm work experiences for middle school students. They are active participants in many of Stonyfield’s promotional activities.

On Valentine’s Day 2021, Frosty, one of their Jerseys, was selected for Stonyfield’s “Date with a Cow.” The program allowed people to book a 15-minute virtual date with a cow from one of the farms that supplies milk for the company’s yogurts. Frosty’s first “date” was with a group of New York City frontline nurses, who cherished their time with the three-year-old cow.

In addition, Flowerchild, daughter of Molly Brook Fascinator Flower, has a blog on Stonyfield’s Have a Cow website to share stories of her life on the farm. She was born in 2017 from an embryo frozen in liquid nitrogen on the farm for more than 20 years.

“Their willingness to open up their farm to school groups and pasture walks to educate the local community to the benefits of farming make them excellent ambassadors for the dairy industry,” Kitsos notes.

Johnson agrees, adding, “They have blended old with new beautifully as they provide their cattle with topnotch cow comfort while preserving the historical significance of the farm. They have hosted customers, food bloggers and the general public. Anybody is welcome at the farm.”

Asked why their farming operation has endured for generations, Rhonda believes, “What’s been consistent through the generations is love for the cows and the land that has been hard earned. That’s what binds us, generation after generation. We are all in, in every aspect of this. We are always learning, using all resources available to us.”

“We do something before we have to,” Myles says, “and are always thinking about how to do it better. We are all about continuous improvement.”

The family will be honored at an awards banquet at Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass., in September, along with the Green Pastures Program winners from the other New England states. Other finalists for this year’s award were Mike and Denna Benjamin, Franklin, and Skyline Holsteins, Derby.