From Farm to Freezer: The Story of Howling Cow Ice Cream

Take a tour of the facilities where Howling Cow ice cream gets made.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Justin Kase Conder

Summertime or anytime, we love Howling Cow ice cream. Everyone seems to have their favorite flavor—Wolf Tracks, Campfire Delight, Cookies and Cream—and it seems like no matter how much you have, you always want just one more spoonful.

Most of us know that Howling Cow is a product of N.C. State, but we wanted to trace the treat right down to its roots: on the 389-acre NC State Dairy Farm just six miles from downtown. Here, a mix of agriculture students and staffers grow crops to feed cattle and keep about 170 milking cows at any given time, that rotate between the pastures, the free stall barn and milking parlor. The farm is used as a business, research facility and education center. At this point, you can visit the on-site Randleigh Dairy Heritage Museum by appointment only (the farm is a bio-secure area, so tours are rare), but by this fall they plan to build an education center that will be open to the public to teach about dairy farming and offer tractor tours of the grounds. “People always ask to visit the farm, and we’ll finally be able to do it,” says Alex Ives, the Dairy Education Coordinator for the Dairy Enterprise System.

Click here for a photo tour of the farm and processing facility.

Day to day, the farm is bustling by dawn. Jersey and Holstein cows are milked twice a day, a process that takes less than 15 minutes to garner up to 90 pounds of milk from a single cow at a time. The raw milk flows directly from the cow through various tubes and tanks, getting cooled and tested along the way, then it’s stored until a tanker truck from N.C. State comes to pick it up sometime after midnight. It will go to the Feldmeier Dairy Processing Lab on campus and get tested one more time before being unloading. “The milk never touches human hands,” says Mike Veach, the Dairy Farm Manager.

Next comes the ice cream-making part: The milk is pasteurized and cooled, then mixed with a proprietary blend of ingredients, including granulated cane sugar, to get the base ice cream. A fruit feeder incorporates the fruit, nuts or other chunky pieces, then they swirl in things like fudge, caramel or marshmallow. The ice cream is then doled out into cups or tubs and sent to the freezer to harden. It takes about seven hours to make 500 gallons of ice cream, and the processing facility is available for research when it’s not actively packaging.

The dairy farm provides all the milk for the University as well as some State of North Carolina prisons—the fat that’s skimmed off their one percent milk is used to make the ice cream—supplies local restaurants and, as of May, Holwing Cow ice cream will be sold at 45 locations of N.C.-based grocery chain Harris Teeter. The brand was started by Gary Cartwright and Carl Hollifield in 2008 as both a business and education opportunity, and took off right along with rising interest in eating local. Students do all the branding, sales and marketing in addition to the cow-herding and processing, often winning national awards for their efforts. “The students embraced Howling Cow and ran with it,” says Hollifield. We’re sure happy they did!