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Stability strategy

Long Hollow Dairy provides Millican family steady living in a challenging industry
Story and photos by Glen Liford 5/26/2017

 

Brothers Kim, left, and Alex Millican, right, learned about farming from their dad, T.J. Millican, who started the family’s Long Hollow Dairy in Chickamauga, Georgia in 1958. The dairy, now managed by Alex and his daughter, Rachel Cabe, center, is only one of the diverse group of agricultural pursuits shared by the family that is still guided by their elder Millican’s careful management style and desire for stability.
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When T.J. Millican decided to get in the dairy business in 1958, it was primarily because he sought stability. He had been laid off several times from his full-time job with Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga, one of the larger employers in the area at the time, and finally the young farmer had had enough.

“He still farmed even though he worked up there,” recalls Kim, T.J.’s oldest son. “He worked second shift [at the factory]. We would all work together during the day [on the farm] until he went to work. He just got tired of being laid off.”

Dairying was a popular way to make a living back then, says Kim, and there were several dairies located in the wide valley near Chickamauga, Georgia, known to locals as “The Cove.”

“This one valley had a bunch of dairies,” he says. “Dad just wanted to give it a try. I had an uncle just down the road who wanted to retire, and we moved the equipment in and started milking.”

Named after the winding hollow that runs along the backside of the family farm, the Millicans’ Long Hollow Dairy encompasses more than 540 acres and has contributed to the family’s livelihood for almost 60 years.

In the early days, the family had a milking herd of some 30 to 40 Jersey cattle. They intentionally kept the dairy small so they could do all the work themselves. T.J. built the milk barn himself. It featured two stalls on each side and two milk machines that would be switched back and forth. The original barn still serves the dairy, though the original setup has been modified into a double-6, herringbone design.

T.J. didn’t restrict himself to “just” dairying even during the farm’s heyday. He continued to build homes and ran a sawmill among other ventures.

While T.J.’s interest in dairying was strong, only one of his sons, Alex, inherited the passion for dairying. His two daughters chose careers in education.

“I milked cows all during my teenage years,” says Kim, who now serves as a director for Southeastern Farmers Cooperative in Cleveland. “I learned to dislike it. My friends were playing ball, and I was milking cows. It just wears you down.”

He left the dairy behind for a “corporate career,” eventually owning his own business for some 20 years. Seven years ago, he had the opportunity to sell the business and planned to retire.

“I came home intending to not do a lot of anything,” says Kim. “My two sons put me to work. They saw free labor and jumped right on it.”

Alex, on the other hand, found his niche as a dairyman. He has been managing the family dairy full-time for 38 years, running the operation for a while with Kim’s son, Kimelan, and now with his daughter, Rachel Cabe.

“I guess I didn’t have the sense enough to leave,” Alex jokes.

The current herd is around 95 Holsteins, with a couple of full Jerseys and several cross breeds thrown in for good measure. Production is averaging about 70 pounds of milk per head per day on corn silage, fescue hay, ryegrass, and a custom blended Co-op feed purchased from Southeastern Farmers Cooperative.

Today, the venture that the elder T.J. Millican started is one of three surviving dairy operation in Walker County. And while there have been many peaks and valleys over the years, the endeavor has provided for the family the much-sought-after stability for which T.J. hoped, even as the dairy industry has proved volatile for many operations of similar size.

“Dad raised a large family, and he did it right here out of this dairy,” says Kim proudly.

“Our biggest challenge over the years has always been making a profit,” says Alex. “It’s a tough business.”

The dairy is only one of a diverse group of agricultural pursuits that Kim and Alex oversee. While Alex and Rachel manage the dairy, Kim, Kimelan, and Kim’s other son, Kelly, focus on a grain operation that includes more than 3,000 acres. Kim and Kimelan’s son, Lee, take the lead with the beef cattle. Rachel’s husband, Matt, pitches in at the dairy when he isn’t working at his off-the-farm job. The family also has a trucking business, where Lee serves as the driver. Sarah, Alex and Kim’s mother, 92, still lives in the family’s homeplace, and the brothers refer to her as the operation’s boss. Rachel and Matt, also have a son, Jake, 11, who Alex hopes to involve in the dairy someday.

“We stay pretty busy,” says Kim. “We rock and roll, leaving out before daylight.”

While it might appear that this diversification was an intentional strategy, both Kim and Alex stress that the different agricultural pursuits are kept separate, with each unit standing or falling on its own merits.

“We sometimes share equipment, and we pitch in when we are needed,” says Alex. “The dairy does all right because we don’t use hired labor.”

“It all works together,” agrees Kim.

Cooperatives play a pivotal role in the family’s operation. The Millicans sell their milk through Dairy Farmers of America. And, they rely on Southeastern Farmers Cooperative Manager Mike Troyer and his crew in Cleveland, Tenn., and the Co-op’s branch store in Lafayette, Ga., for feed and nearly all other farm supplies.

“Mike does a great job keeping us supplied with all our seed and fertilizer, and the Co-op does a lot of our spraying,” says Kim. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. It can be a bit of a juggling act to get everything here on time. It has to be coordinated, and Mike is good at that. The Co-op is vital to our success.”

The family has maintained the dairy in spite of the temptation to try to grow larger and make improvements that could have been costly and their benefits questionable.

“There are economies of scale,” says Kim. “It’s tempting to make a lot of changes and get bigger. But is it the wise thing to do? We see dairies going out all the time. How long can you survive? How much money is there to be made in the dairy business no matter how good of a job you do? It goes back to the market, supply and demand. I don’t know.”

“We try to do everything we can to get a better cow, better feed, better crops, and ship a good product for a lower price,” says Alex.

“I made the statement that dairying is not my favorite thing if I had to do it every day,” says Kim. “But I’m glad we’re in it. We’ve talked about shutting it down, but it’s just in your blood when you have been doing it for so long.”

Looking back on the farm, Kim says it is easy to play the “what if” game. But when he’s tempted to succumb to those thoughts, Kim says he remembers an old farmer from his youth who gave him some sage advice that has stuck with him.

“He said, ‘In farming, what you have to do is drop the plow in the ground and don’t ever look back,’” says Kim. “It’s easy to make the mistake of always looking back. Can we afford to do this or should we do that? You end up making the wrong decisions if you look back too much. You need to look ahead and say, ‘We are going to be in this business for the long haul and just get on with it.’”

 
 
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