Lake Norman & Mooresville

The Mills Family Farm: A story of love, promise

Dr. Bradley Mills loves cows.

"I could talk about them all day," said Mills, driving his truck along the dirt road that divides rolling hills into pastures, home to small herds of heifers.

Mills is a doctor of veterinary medicine, specifically a food-animal veterinarian with a focus on cattle.

His wife, Nicole Mills, loves horses, and has since her grandfather took her riding when she was 7.

Nicole has a master's degree in agriculture. With Bradley's brother, Brian Mills, the three own and manage Mills Family Farm at 284 Barfield Road in Mooresville, with help from close friend Milton Tucker and a couple of neighbors.

Together they act as veterinarians, farm owners and managers, cattle buyers and producers, animal-health industry educators, meat handlers, consulting veterinarian, riding teachers, equine experts and ambassadors of farming.

The Millses are corralling their interests and accomplishments to diversify the farm. Their most recent addition, in July 2010, is Mills Meats, selling locally produced farm-raised beef to the public.

The farm had so many requests from family and friends that the Millses decided to obtain a USDA-approved meat-handlers license and make their beef available to the public. Nicole takes the orders by phone, and customers can pick up the beef at Mills Family Farm or request a local delivery.

The farm also sells to local restaurants, including Davidson's new Flatiron Kitchen & Taphouse. A lunch menu favorite at the restaurant is the Local "Mills Meats" Meatloaf. The Soda Shop in Davidson has just added Mills Farm Chili to its menu.

The Mills Family Farm has been in the family since 1935, when it was purchased by Bradley Mills' great-uncle Odus Blackwelder. There were three brothers - Odus, John and Jake Blackwelder - with three farms.

Bradley Mills grew up on the farm on M&M Farms Drive just off U.S. 21, near Shepherd Elementary School. In the 1950s and '60s, it was a dairy farm. The operation converted to beef in the 1970s, when Bradley and Brian's parents, Frank and Phyllis Blackwelder Mills, began managing the farms.

Bradley and Nicole now live in the house his grandparents, John and Mary Blackwelder, bought in 1942. The three farms are now combined, with 200 acres and more than 240 head of cattle.

Mills buys calves from local farmers when they are 8 to 10 months old, weighing 500-600 pounds. They are fed a custom food and cared for until they are 20 months old.

During that time, the cows are divided into groups of 60 or 70. Their diet consists of grass year-round and hay in the winter, supplemented with soy hulls, corn gluten and a veterinarian-designed multivitamin and mineral mix. In the winter, the herd eats about 1,000 pounds of hay and 2,600 pounds of the soy hull/corn gluten mix a day.

The diet contains no growth hormones or antibiotics, the Mills say.

Bradley Mills smiles as he refers to cows as "the ultimate recycler." The soy hull/corn gluten mix otherwise would go to a landfill because it's not digestible by humans. Soy hulls and corn gluten are byproducts of making soybean oil and corn sweetener.

Feeding the byproducts to cattle is a great way to be beneficial to the environment, said Mills.

Mills combines the daily routine of farming with on-location veterinary consulting at large cattle farms throughout 12 states in the Southeast. He travels about 40 weeks a year. He also is very involved in education and public speaking about the animal-health industry. He serves on the board of directors for the Iredell County Cattlemen's Association.

One of his consulting goals is to ensure the safety of the food supply. "We produce food. We want everything to be healthy," he said.

Curious cows amble toward the truck as Mills steps out during a break in the drive.

"We have been here for 75 years. We try to do a lot of conservation," he said. "We are always trying to protect the environment."