Connecting the past, forging the future

Award-winning quality defines King’s Ransom Farm. How their breeding goals and King Brothers Dairy processing venture build on the legacy of five generations farming in New York

BACON HILL, N.Y. — Driving into King’s Ransom Farm, it is the iconic crown-topped milk bottle logo above the entrance that greets visitors.

“Drink like a King” the sign beckons. After all, this is the home of the chocolate milk judged #1 in New York State. (Deservedly so, I might add after having some).

Inside the King Brothers Dairy store is a feast for the senses: Bright coolers filled with milk and dairy products, freezers with scrumptious flavors of packaged ice cream, their signature ice cream pies and ice cream cakes, not to mention the full-service dip and sundae counter.

Along the back wall, a window looks into the stainless-steel labyrinth of processing equipment in the facility that backs up to the milking parlor. A perpendicular wall brings history into view with a muraled photo of William King and his siblings selling milk from the back of a pickup truck. That was the former King Brothers Colebrook Dairy, bottling and delivering milk from 1932 to the early 1960s from this Saratoga County, New York farm in the hamlet of Bacon Hill near Schuylerville.

Farming goes back five generations, and a revival of their grandfather’s milk business has been underway here since 2016. That’s when brothers Jeff and Jan King started doing home delivery of milk from coolers in the back of their own pickup trucks. 

Talking and thinking about this venture began 10 years earlier. They started out working with a local processor to bottle their milk while they built a customer base and their own processing facility after gutting the farm’s first 1972 freestall barn.

Today, several trucks deliver milk to 500 homes and a growing number of stores, supermarkets and restaurants. 

The on-farm retail store was opened in 2019, and an addition to the processing facility was completed last year for larger tanks and more cooler space. They bottle half-gallons in glass and a full array of sizes in flavor-preserving plastic.

In fact, in addition to having the grand champion chocolate milk of the 2022 New York State Fair, their white milk earned the blue ribbon in the small batch category.

What is really rewarding, however, is the response from customers.

“When people try our milk the first time and message or text us to say it’s the best they’ve ever had… when we get that kind of response from people truly enjoying what our incredible team works for, there’s not anything better than that,” says Jeff. “Bringing this back was a dream of our dad’s.”

The best thing, the brothers agree, is that their father, Edgar, was able to see it come to fruition before he passed away in February of 2021.

“Dad loved being here in the store talking to people, telling our story. He would greet people and give them a tour. He loved to promote milk,” says Jeff. 

Edgar King came back to the family farm from Cornell when his father was milking 40 Guernsey cows. He and Carolyn purchased the farm in 1963 and grew it to 120 cows. 

Today, 1000 registered Holsteins are milked at King’s Ransom Farm.

Ranking fourth in 2021 for herds with the most Excellent cows, there are 120 EX. They produce a rolling herd average of 30,000 pounds, with the lower end of the herd carrying donor pregnancies.

Among the many bulls bred for A.I. are recently popular sires like Dynasty, Cadillac, Dropbox (A2A2 and was #1 GTPI for bulls that are +3 on type and udder), and his newly released brother Dreamy (+2770 GTPI, +3.59 PTAT, +3.24 UDC, +485 milk, and +1.40 FLC).

The King brothers have been dairying together since they were in college. They came home in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They grew up in it and developed their own vision to take what their father and uncles and others have done as strong Holstein breeders and to build on that.

“When we wanted to get into it, we had some animals that were right on the cusp,” Jeff says, recalling a neighbor who told him to ‘listen to your gut.’

Two main impact cows are the 95-point Kings-Ransom Mogul sisters — Cleavage and Cleo . Last year, they gained ownership interest in the S-S-I Doc Have Not 8784, which opens new and exciting doors for the robust genomics business that has already been established with sales of Kings-Ransom genetics to 20 countries.

Daughters of Cleo and Cleavage at 2022 World Dairy Expo: 4-yr-old Kings-Ransom Doc Clever EX92 (left) and aged cow Kings-Ransom Monterey Cans EX94 97MS (right)

Social media has been a great communications tool across the miles. Recently, for example, a breeder from Japan posted the achievement of his grand champion cow he had purchased as an embryo going back to Cleavage.

“That to me is pretty cool,” says Jeff. “Developing genetics that work for other people around the world, it has been amazing to see how Cleo and Cleavage are known around the world. It’s always our hope that they will go on to produce offspring that perform for others too.”

Jan’s son Nate exhibited the reserve intermediate champion of the 2022 World Dairy Expo International Junior Show with bred-and-owned Kings-Ransom CR Dazzling (above). She went on to be named 2022 Junior All-American Jr. 3-year-old. Dazzling comes from a third foundational impact cow Kings-Ransom Dorcy Dextra-ET EX94 2E DOM (below).

Dextra goes back to embryos purchased from Pen-Col Farm in the early 1990s. She was a 2018 nominee for Holstein International’s Global Cow of the year and has sent more than 15 sons to A.I.

The D’s have gone a long way, and King’s Ransom Casp Daze, now classified EX94 95MS at 40 days fresh, is another example. She is the dam of Dropbox, a popular Semex sire and Dreamy, the new release from Holstein Plaza Sires.

In late March, 130 Holstein breeders from Quebec braved the spring snowstorm to join the Select Sires Canada tour at the farm. The Kings host many such international tours throughout the year.

A week later, King’s Ransom had a big day at the New York Spring Show with their best three females: Kings-Ransom Doc Clever EX94, Kings-Ransom Kian Effie EX95 and Kings-Ransom Monterey Cans EX95.

Jeff says it is the best-three and produce-of-dam honors, especially over their 25 years of showing at World Dairy Expo, that are most rewarding because they show depth and continuity.

In addition to marketing genetics and embryos, the Kings sell around 300 fresh cows annually as well as genomically tested service bulls. In fact, every calf here gets genomically tested.

“We’ve used genomics for so long that we feel a comfort level with it, especially when we look at three or four full siblings and look at the numbers and see the phenotype supports that,” Jeff explains.

“Quite often they follow each other, but not always. It’s not the end-all, be-all. But when you can use old-fashioned breeder cow sense along with the ability to look at the genetic DNA, it allows us to have more information than just looking at the cow. We can put it all together and bring in that extra information for a better reference,” he says.

“Everyone loves the great ones. That’s easy,” Jan observes. “But when you look around and have cows walk in the barn with good feet and legs and udders full of milk, and to see cows that the kids enjoy showing and can do well with and can learn with and build a network of people to work with… That’s what it’s about.”

During our interview, while Jonathan and his girlfriend Emily Mikel of Mikelholm Holsteins were getting Daze ready to be photographed, Jeff snapped a quick cell phone photo of her then 21 DIM udder and posted it on facebook. A minute later, a dairyman from France popped in to post a greeting with a photo of a heifer at a show that he had purchased as an embryo. 

“We do use Udder Comfort on fresh cows, and it works tremendously on 2-year-olds,” Jeff and Jonathan observe. “We have appreciated the product for 10 years, and certainly use it at shows. There’s a real benefit there from the time we start bagging to when we milk them out afterward. It softens udders quickly, reducing pressure for better performance. We use the blue spray in the milking parlor and white lotion at shows.”

The Kings breed for differing goals: A portion of the herd for high production, functionality, udder scores, and feet and legs in combination with management and fitness traits using genomics.

“We tend to use GTPI and net merit as an initial sort with additional emphasis on udders and feet and legs,” Jeff explains. “Sires are a moving target. Every month is different.”

They also have a number of high genomic Delta Lambda’s. For that segment of the herd, they have more of a show type focus, combined with fitness traits and production, and they use sires that have crossover genetics for both.

Jeff and his oldest son Jonathan find themselves talking about genetics and breeding decisions “pretty much all day, every day,” and they are quick to credit good partners and “a lot of luck.”

Jonathan, a Cornell graduate, divides his time between herd management and people management as he is learning the business with a deep passion for cows.

Jeff takes the lead in management of the farm and is active on the cow side of the business. He loves the marketing, the embryo work, and studying pedigrees and genomics.

His wife Becky loves putting her marketing and creativity to work. She oversees the retail store and contributes on the creative side of the ice cream business. Their younger son Adam is in college, and daughter Lauren is a high school senior. They pitch in wherever they can.

Jeff’s brother Jan manages the crop end of the farm and the processing and distribution side of the dairy business. He and a full-time employee make the ice cream.

Jan’s wife Pandora Davis has her own veterinary practice and does the herd health work at King’s Ransom. Her focus is on the cows. Their children Nate and Hannah are both in school, pitching in as well.

There is a shared-CEO attitude among the family partnership. In reality, everyone gets involved in all of it — from showing to cattle care to dipping ice cream in the store.

The two businesses bring a lot of variety into daily routines, but one thing the team at King’s Ransom loves doing — together — is showing, especially the local tri-county Holstein show, one of the most competitive in the state.

“There’s a lot of good breeders and good cattle in this area, and it’s always nice to see how we measure up,” says Jeff.

It’s this competitive spirit that carries over to the processing — setting high standards for the milk and ice cream, which provides connection to the past and excitement about the future.

They visited a lot of other places in the beginning. “But we needed to try it first to know if it was something we wanted to invest in. The biggest challenge is the processing investment,” Jeff relates.

Becky recalls during one visit, they were told that getting into this is ‘a whole new beast.’

“It really is,” she acknowledges. “We had to learn a whole new business that’s different from the farm business. You have a different team of employees doing different things. You have to balance inventory and manage shelf-life. It’s a lot different from milking cows and shipping the milk down the drive.”

On the inventory, “you really have to think before planning production. It’s all-consuming to know that you have to keep marketing because all of the milk in that cooler has got to get sold,” says Jan.

Bottomline, adds Jeff: “We’re proud of the product we make, but it wasn’t an easy market to break into. Milk is a low-margin product. It’s a scale thing.”

Selling milk from 50 cows in a 5-mile radius is one thing, but attracting the consumer’s attention in a dairy case full of options three hours away from the farm is another.

Setting the highest standards for milk freshness, quality and taste is a big part of the King Brothers story. “It starts with great staff, and stepping back to trust this super team,” he says of the 60 to 80 people employed across both businesses. “Everything contributes, and it’s the raw milk quality that goes into the taste of our products.”

Milk quality begins in the barn with somatic cell counts consistently around 90,000. They credit good staff, good prep routines in the milking parlor, fitness genetics, clean stalls and sand bedding, and cow comfort, including Udder Comfort for fresh 2-year-olds after calving.

The processing focus at King Brothers Dairy is milk and ice cream. They have developed 75 ice cream flavors, offering 35 to 40 at any one time. “Half are staples — with a fan following — and the other half we rotate in and out,” Becky explains.

Their number one best-seller is Cookie Monster (above left). It’s blue (like the Sesame Street character), with a white chocolate flavor base and cookie dots throughout.

Jonathan prefers Monster Mash. Jan talks about how he came up with his unique Bacon Buzz (maple-candied bacon, bourbon, and a caramel swirl, delicious). After several requests from Pandora for something in the chocolate-peanut butter line, they came up with Pandora’s Obsession, decadent chocolate with a peanut butter swirl.

Becky loves the fresh flavor of their signature Lemon Dream. (I tried this one too and loved it so much I brought some home.) It’s an authentic homemade lemon recipe that has sold so well they are looking for a way to get a co-packer on the flavoring. Right now, they do the lemon grating and squeezing themselves.

Having attended a Cornell artisan ice cream class and an ice cream school at Penn State, Becky and Jan prepared themselves. However, it’s the network of other creamery owners, sharing tips and comparing notes, that they say is vital.

They developed and make their own ice cream mix so it stands out. “It’s super creamy with more butterfat than the base mix you can buy,” Jeff confirms. In fact, the Kings spent two years developing their ice cream before selling any of it. They would make it on Tuesdays and do family tastings on Wednesdays.

Yes, on-farm dairy processing requires a lot of patience. It’s an art of trial and error. “Sometimes you try things, and it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he adds.

The Kings also had an immediate pivot to make just one year after opening their store. When the Covid pandemic hit, suddenly everything was different. The situation for the restaurants they supplied changed quickly, and they had to be conscientious of the health and safety of their customers and their employees at their own store.

What they found is people liked coming to their store during the pandemic. It was spacious. They added some other staples people could pick up with their milk. They kept everything scrupulously clean. It became a destination, something for people to do that felt safe.

“Covid increased awareness of the food supply,” Becky observes, noting that consumers appear to want to stay buying local, even as their lives get back to normal and even in the face of inflation affecting buying power.

That is the ongoing challenge for small processors.

“You are basically trying to change consumer buying habits for a staple like milk. How do you capture their attention, so they try the (higher priced) milk?” Becky notes, explaining that if consumers look just at the price, then scale is all that matters.

Their goal is to capture the attention by telling their story as much as they can, and getting involved in community events and going to stores to do tastings to give people an opportunity to taste their milk.

“That’s the breakthrough. Once they know the story and taste the milk, that’s how we earn their business,” she says.

King’s Ransom Farm has been involved in community outreach for over 20 years, hosting county events such as Sunday on the farm.

“When you can have an event and have 4000 people come out, a whole community, this helps give that exposure,” says Jeff. “People are interested. They have questions. Whether it’s at an event or on the internet, they want to know things about dairy farming that we take for granted.”

“It makes you realize we need to talk about the basics,” adds Pandora, sharing how surprising it was for her, as a veterinarian, to realize how few people know that milk does not have antibiotics in it, that it is tested. “This is what I mean by basics. Explaining that we care for the cows, the things we do for cow comfort, that cows are not milking all day long, that we take care of their health and they have all this free time to eat and lay around.”

The family observes that these misconceptions about antibiotics, farming technology, and the basic life of a dairy cow show what detractors are doing to tear down dairy.

“It’s refreshing to see consumers come to the farm. They might have heard the ugliest story. Now they get the real story, and it has a calming effect,” says Pandora.

“Once they know how hard we work at these things, people can relate to it. Even if they don’t understand everything we do, they can relate to the story of how we make the product they enjoy,” adds Jan.

The story-telling and exposure that on-farm processors provide is really a service to the industry at large. They are connecting consumers to real food and the story behind their food. While they are competing for customers in the dairy space, it’s also true that the entire dairy space would become stale and consumers would lose touch completely with the farm families behind all of that milk in that case if not for the on-farm processors and smaller brands. 

This category may be the entire dairy industry’s best defense against the surge of marketing behind the fake alternatives because they keep real food in the forefront of the consumer consciousness. That’s a win for everyone.

— By Sherry Bunting

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