Story and Photography By Kelly Yandell
Waco, like many growing Texas cities, is ever expanding into the countryside. But just west of Waco, away from the bustle, in the small town of McGregor, sits a still-bucolic, beautiful parcel of land dotted with grazing cows and owned by some of the nicest people you’d ever care to meet. Mill-King Market & Creamery is one of a growing number of Texas dairy farms on the road to abandoning the conventional route to marketing milk.
Along with his parents, wife and sister, Craig Miller operates this third-generation Texas dairy farm with a lot of hard physical work, as well as great attention to detail.
“We are shrinking, not expanding like a conventional dairy has to do to survive,” says Craig. He’d love to see the dairy at 60 cows, which would allow his parents to slow down a little. “Seven days a week for twenty years is just too much.” To that end, the Millers have developed a select herd of animals that produce premium milk with the highest milk fat and protein content. They still have a conventional herd, but are in the process of slowly reducing it in favor of having a smaller, exceptional herd. The conventional herd still produces milk, which is sold through a co-op, but the premium milk is reserved as a house brand, and is being marketed through select retailers. The premium milk is also used to make the several in-house varieties of Mill-King cheeses.
The Millers know where their premium milk ends up because it is processed on the farm. Mill-King sells some raw milk at the farm store, and markets low-temperature pasteurized milk at farmers markets, as well. They are working to increase their distribution without sacrificing the quality of their products. Along with their cheeses, they also sell beef and eggs.
“We control one hundred percent of the process,” Craig says. When asked about the rarity of a start-to-finish, independent dairy where a consumer could actually document the exact origin of their glass of milk, he says they’ve been moving to keep tabs on, better control of, and make available that high-quality glass of milk for 30 years. Mill-King also closely manages their breeding program—working to preserve and enhance the traits of their best cows. “Right now, our Holsteins are producing milk of 4.5 percent butterfat—richer than your average Jersey.”
Charlotte Miller, affectionately known as “Shorty,” is the matriarch of the family. Craig boasts that she takes care of the baby calves until they’re six weeks of age—teaching them how to drink out of a bucket and doctoring them. “It is the hardest job on the dairy,” he says. She can also be found in the cheese-production room where she packages milk and prepares for the next round of cheesemaking.
Billy Miller, Craig’s father, oversees the herd’s feed intake, the health of the herd and personnel issues. Craig’s wife, Rhianna, manages cheese production and handles the accounting and scheduling. And, Casie Velin, Craig’s sister, helps out at the farmers markets and whenever the dairy needs a spare hand. Craig not only manages the reproductive and genetic health of the Mill-King herd, but also consults with other dairies on genetic and reproductive issues. The entire family lives on, or around, the dairy.
Although Mill-King has not sought organic certification—an expensive and lengthy process—they have chosen to reduce their presence in the conventional-milk chain of commerce, where all of the milks from various dairies, regardless of quality, are combined. Craig says that in the conventional system, a dairy is not rewarded for producing a premium product. “If I’m producing a premium product, I still get paid the same.” Nor does he believe that a certified-organic label necessarily guarantees a better product.
The Millers have chosen to pursue the independent route in order to have complete control over the premium milk-production process—from breeding to bottling. When asked what makes Mill-King different from an average conventional dairy, Craig responds that it has a lot to do with how they take care of their cows. The cows have clean bedding and their overall cleanliness is monitored, as well. They are pasture fed, their nutrition is closely documented and the dairy runs heat-abatement systems to keep the cows comfortable in the hot months. “A defining difference,” notes Craig, “is simply the general day-to-day care of the animals that my parents give from birth on.”
A smaller herd, a full-cycle dairy, excellent animal care and quality products are the priorities of this Texas dairy. When you drink a cold glass of Mill-King milk, or nibble on their exceptional Asiago cheese, you know precisely what you are getting: day-in, day-out attention to detail. In sum, you’re getting the passion and dedication of three generations.
For more information visit mill-kingmarket.com.