Taking stock of dairy’s strong history

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Our dairy industry was built by generations of hard work, grit, determination and innovation. In the course of the daily activity on our farm, we often fail to remember how hard previous generations labored to not only make a living but to create our dairy industry.

Recently, we embarked upon an adventure that gave us a small glimpse into the history of our industry. It has allowed us a fresh perspective of what our ancestors experienced and an appreciation of some small things we take for granted. We now understand what Maya Angelou meant when she said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Cream separators were invented in Sweden in 1880 by Gustaf de Laval. De Laval devised the first mechanical cream separator that used centrifugal force to separate cream from milk. Historically, separation was done by simply waiting for the cream to rise to the top of the pan and then skimming it off or draining the milk from the bottom. This invention and the Babcock test, a method for determining the percentage of fat in whole milk or cream, is credited with changing the entire trajectory of the dairy industry.

Over a decade ago, we purchased a McCormick Deering 3-S cream separator developed by the International Harvester Company in 1940. At the time, we thought it would be a necessary addition to our collection of antique dairy equipment, as cream separators were once a staple on every dairy farm in the country. Income was generated from the sale of cream rather than fluid milk itself. The cream was first separated on each farm, loaded into cans and sold to the local creamery.

Recently, we’ve been giving more thought to the origins of our food; even as farmers, we discover how little we’ve experienced. During this time, we happened upon our old separator, which had been forgotten under a tarp in the back shed. Upon further investigation, we concluded that our separator was in pretty good shape and something should be done with it. Incredibly, it contained all the necessary stainless steel parts for actual operation. In our first column, we mentioned that we milk some Guernseys, a breed that our grandfathers milked generations ago. How interesting it would be to process Guernsey milk and separate the cream as our ancestors did almost a century ago. However, before we could undertake that adventure, our separator needed some care. Our neighbor, an experienced restorer of antique tractors, gave the separator an overhaul with new coats of original maroon-colored paint, a few new gold decals to go along with some of the originals that remained and a thorough polishing of the stainless steel parts. As in any adventure, a surprise also occurred. While rummaging through an antique store in northern Minnesota, our father, Vern Becker, found the instruction manual for our 3-S model.  

Armed with 10 gallons of fresh Guernsey milk, we were ready. Our owner’s manual instructed us on how to correctly assemble the separator. The most crucial part of the assembly was the bowl, containing 30 individual stainless steel dividing disks. When spun at a high rate, these disks separate the cream from the milk. The manual also aided us in providing careful instructions for the operation of the separator, regulation of the density of the cream, and cleaning and maintenance of the motor, clutch and gears. Slowly, we poured our milk into the supply can on top. We started the motor, opened the faucet and drained the milk into the dividing bowl. Running at 1,725 rpm, skim milk began quickly pouring out of the lower spout. After what felt like ages, the cream sluggishly began creeping out of the upper spout, markedly thicker and slower than any of us expected. The other surprise was the color difference between the extremely pearl white skim milk and the Guernsey cream’s deep golden color. As we stood there watching the separation in action, a thought occurred to us. A century ago, we would have needed to hand crank this separator at 60 rpm for all our milk every day before it was sold for processing. How much work that must have been. The labor savings that occurred when technology, such as a motor, was applied would have been incredible. The plethora of things on our dairy we use every day to accomplish mundane tasks were once life-changing innovations. The hard work of the generations before us, the smart-thinking innovators who created solutions and advances in our industry, is something we should all pause on and remember where we once were and where we are today.

    Megan Schrupp and Ellen Stenger are sisters and co-owners of both NexGen Dairy and NexGen Market in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They can be reached at Nexgendairy@gmail.com

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