Beyond the Barn: Adding Value to the Milk Check at the Center for Dairy Research
“Our goal is to ultimately help the dairy farmer,” said Dean Sommer, CDR cheese and food technologist.
CDR focuses on research, training, outreach and product development in many areas of dairy processing. It is located in Babcock Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and receives about 60 percent of its funding from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) and the national check-off program. In addition, investments from dairy processors and industry partners, as well as a small amount of state funding, help support the center’s work.
To explain the CDR’s work, Sommer likened milk to crude oil. Crude oil has value on its own. However, when it’s fractionated into jet fuel, gasoline, kerosene, etc., the sum value of all those components far exceeds the original value of the crude oil.
The same goes with milk. Fluid milk on its own has value. But, when it’s divided into cheese, whey proteins, lactose, etc., the value of those products can be much higher than fluid milk. The center’s role is to develop effective strategies to produce and use those products.
Sommer said CDR’s team of about 40 employees come to work every day ultimately looking for opportunities to increase the value of the farmer’s milk check. And they’ve seen many successes along the way.
First, the dairy industry has seen significant growth in specialty cheeses, which return a higher value than commodity cheese like cheddar and mozzarella. When Sommer worked in industry in the 80s, specialty cheese accounted for about 2 percent of the market. It accounted for 23 percent of the market in 2014. Sommer said diversifying the number of cheeses produced adds “more stability in the industry.”
Related to specialty cheese production is the Master Cheesemaker program, which is unique to Wisconsin and administered through CDR and WMMB. To participate, cheesemakers must work in a Wisconsin plant and hold a state cheesemaker’s license for a minimum of 10 years. The rigorous course lasts approximately three years, but ultimately helps lead Wisconsin cheesemakers to top recognition in the international arena. About 60 individuals have become Master Cheesemakers since the program’s inception in 1994.
Sommer said another big accomplishment is the development of whey processing and use. For producers shipping to cheese plants, 10 to 20 percent of their paychecks come from the value of whey components. CDR has been a leader in developing products like sports drinks fortified with whey for higher protein – a niche market that’s growing quickly.
Go back just a few years in time and you’re not likely to find Greek yogurt in most dairy cases. That’s certainly not the case today. Sommer said CDR has immense interest in the development of “soft dairy products,” such as Greek yogurt, cream cheese and European-style soft cheeses. That matches the increased consumer demand for such products.
Not to be overlooked, according to Sommer, is an even bigger focus on quality and safety programs and dairy processing plants. One member of the CDR team is dedicated to helping processors develop and build their programs to meet and exceed regulations.
“Quality and safety programs are so important to the image of dairy products,” Sommer said, especially in light of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Sommer said he’s excited as he looks to the future of the dairy industry and the ways CDR will continue to work for dairy farmers. With a $34-million renovation to Babcock Hall in the works, CDR will have even more tools to add value to milk, both locally and globally. He said he and his team are grateful to dairy producers for putting their trust and their investment into center.
He said, “More than anything, I want farmers to know how thankful we are for their support.”
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