The Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum Teaches How Milk Goes From Farm to Table

Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum

Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

One of the first things Alex Ives noticed when the Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum opened for tours in the spring of 2018 was that kids were all but ignoring one of the child-friendly displays. So Ives, dairy education coordinator at the North Carolina State Dairy Farm in Raleigh where the museum is located, gathered his team to address the issue.

The result? A newly revamped cow exhibit that invites little ones to grab the hockey puck-size “feed,” place it in the bovine’s mouth and move it through the animal’s digestive tract. Audio markers describe what’s happening to the cow’s “dinner” every step of the way. When it gets to the rumen – the first stomach – the cow burps it back up and chews her cud before it heads back into her gut.

“The kids are going to go crazy,” Ives says, referring to the sound that comes from the cow’s mouth. Ditto for the part when the grass arrives at the intestines and the nutrients are absorbed, with some going to her udders.

“It’s going to come out the back end and we’re going to have another noise for that,” the admittedly mischievous Ives says.

Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum

Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum features interactive exhibits, including a cow that children can “milk.” Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

Beginnings of the Bovine Museum

The Randleigh museum pays tribute to William Rand Kenan Jr., who graduated from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in 1894 and went on to help discover acetylene, a bright-burning gas used in welding torches. But Kenan’s real passion was raising Jersey cows at his farm in upstate New York and inviting university researchers to study there.

“His herd of Jersey cows, at one point in time, was one of the best in the country,” Ives says.

When Kenan passed away in 1965, he gifted more than 60 Jerseys and an agricultural education endowment to the UNC system. Some 35 years later, the Randleigh Farms property on the N.C. State Dairy Farm sold and the money was eventually used to build a new milking parlor in 2012 and, more recently, the red-roofed, interactive museum where the old parlor once stood. “Randleigh,” incidentally, comes from Kenan’s middle name and the Scottish word for “meadow.”

ice cream

Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

The museum is designed to help both kids and adults understand where milk comes from. In one room, visitors will find vintage farm equipment, memorabilia showcasing Kenan’s award-winning cows and a display featuring a bucket of ear tags with numbers matched to photos of his original herd. In another exhibit, near the interactive cow that makes funny noises, stands a life-size fiberglass cow that children can milk (water comes out of the teats) near videos and photos that show how it’s done at the dairy. The third section of the museum depicts what happens after milk leaves the farm.

See more: How a Fifth-Generation Dairy Farmer Embraced the Local Food Movement

Cream of the Crop

Not far away, next to Lake Wheeler Road, sits the new Howling Cow Dairy Education Center and Creamery. Visitors can learn more about the dairy process and savor a scoop or two of homemade ice cream – concocted on campus – with flavors ranging from chocolate and strawberry to more exotic creations like N.C. Sweet Potato Pie and Wolf Tracks. Sales support research and education at the dairy.

Due to COVID-19, only drive-thru orders were available at the end of 2020, but Ives is hopeful the outdoor dining area and deck will open this spring, along with walking and driving tours of the dairy grounds. Students run all the facilities.

ice cream

Photo credit: Justin Kase Conder

“The creamery is another opportunity to reach people,” Ives says. “One of my mantras is ‘Come in for ice cream and leave with some ag knowledge.’”

Elsewhere on the 400-acre dairy property, guests can see more than 100 descendants of Kenan’s original Jersey herd, which make up about one-third of the total N.C. State Dairy Farm cow population. (The others are Holsteins.)

If You Go

Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum

Location: 301 Dairy Lane, Raleigh, NC 27603

Phone: (919) 513-4695

Check the website for hours and tour details, including updates due to COVID-19 guidelines.

The goal of the museum and the rest of the public sites, Ives points out, is to give folks an idea of what happens daily on a dairy farm.

“I want to make sure that you are confident and educated about where your food comes from and the safety of your food, especially dairy products, and that the animals are treated very, very well,” he says. “I try to relate it to agriculture, too, because we’re all in this together. I’m trying to dispel some myths that people have heard in the past. I’m trying to make sure I’m answering all the hard questions, and I get them almost every tour.”

He hopes the museum will impact visitors who are far removed from farm life.

“My focus is on people who have not had any ag or dairy experience,” he adds. “I want to show you what we do.”

– By Nancy Henderson

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