A closer look

Pushing the industry forward

Center for Dairy Research grows the product category

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MADISON, Wis — From developing new specialty cheese recipes to finding alternative uses for whey to training the next Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, the Center for Dairy Research continuously works to grow demand for dairy products.

“Our mission is to advance the dairy industry through innovation, education and entrepreneurship,” said Dr. John Lucey, CDR director and professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If a company is looking to make a new cheese, a new beverage, or a new bar, we help them do that. More dairy sales are good for us, and it’s good for farmers.”

Since opening in 1986 on the UW-Madison campus, the CDR has pushed the industry into offering more diversified, value-added products that can garner a higher return. A recent expansion and renovation of the CDR has helped it reach a new level of capabilities in dairy innovation.

The 57,000-square-foot expansion includes 30,000 square feet of manufacturing space spread over two floors. Featuring state-of-the-art technology, the facility opened last year and also includes a training center and test kitchen. In addition, the $72 million project involved a renovation of the Babcock Dairy Plant.

Ten cheese ripening rooms were added to the center — an offering not previously found at the CDR.

“When making specialty cheese, much of the magic happens when you put it into a ripening room or cave,” Lucey said. “Our rooms cover every type of cheese you can imagine. The specialty cheese rooms are our jewel in the crown.”

Also newly installed in the CDR is a shelf-stable, aseptic  beverage line which will open later this year, allowing the CDR to create fully sterile shelf-stable dairy beverages from start to finish.

“This was a big step for us as we’ll be able to make lots of new and exciting beverages,” Lucey said. “This will expand the reach of dairy beverages, allowing us to export these products and get them into vending machines. By extending shelf life, we can also limit the amount of dairy that is wasted. There are many opportunities.”

Lucey said many cultured products are made in Wisconsin, and to better serve the companies making these products, the CDR installed yogurt fermenters. The center has four 40-gallon and four 150-gallon fermenters to make products like Greek yogurt and cream cheese.

“We’re in great shape now to make cultured products and help innovate in that space,” Lucey said.

The CDR also added a second spray dryer for producing dried dairy proteins and ingredients.

“We know a lot of dairy proteins and ingredients are dried, and we want to help those companies as well,” Lucey said. “We put in a second dryer because we wanted to be able to make unusual products like infant formula, nutritional powders, powders that go into bars, etc.”

Product development is at the heart of the work done at the CDR, which is often consulted for its cheesemaking expertise. The center’s involvement can range from developing recipes from scratch, to tweaking recipes, to training a cheesemaker how to make specialty cheese through one of the CDR’s short courses.

“The numbers for specialty cheese are very exciting,” Lucey said. “We are almost reaching 1 billion pounds of specialty cheese made in the state of Wisconsin. Almost 30% of our milk goes into this.”

Lucey said there are close to 120 cheese plants in Wisconsin making different varieties and styles of cheeses, and around 90% of Wisconsin milk processing plants make at least one specialty cheese.

“Feta was a cheese unknown in our state not that long ago,” Lucey said. “(It is the) same with blue cheese. Now, there are major producers of feta and blue cheese in Wisconsin. We help these cheesemakers with recipes, troubleshooting, training and equipment selection.”

Every year, the CDR brings in close to 1,000 people from the dairy industry, including cheesemakers, butter makers, plant operators, buyers and more to be trained on the core technical aspects of making cheese or processing milk.

“It’s important to keep a well-trained workforce in order to make high-quality, safe products,” Lucey said.

The CDR runs the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program — an advanced training course backed by a 30-year history. Experienced cheesemakers licensed for at least 10 years can apply for the rigorous program that takes about three years to complete.

“This program elevates the cream of the crop in cheesemakers,” Lucey said.

The efforts of the CDR have helped keep cheese plants open while also providing dairy farmers with more opportunities for selling their milk, Lucey said. In some cases, the plants are located closer to farmers, which decreases transportation costs.

With five licensed butter makers on staff, the CDR also offers advanced courses in how to make different kinds of butter.

On the beverage side, GoodSport and Slate milk are two major product successes to come out of the CDR in recent years. Made from milk permeate, the CDR helped develop the original recipe for GoodSport.

“Permeate is something the average customer doesn’t know about,” Lucey said. “It’s an underused product that comes out when we filter milk. Permeate contains electrolytes, minerals and salts, which was perfect for this type of drink focused on hydration.”

The CDR helped reformulate Slate — an ultra-filtered milk beverage that is packed with protein and comes in a can.

“The company turned to us for help, and we came in and gave them the piece they needed,” Lucey said. “Now, they’re doing phenomenal. The beverage launched into 1,000 stores in the past year.”

People come from all over asking for the CDR’s help, but Wisconsin companies take priority.

Another focus for the CDR is developing creative ways to add value to whey and the fractions that come out of it. Lucey said this is essential because the value of whey can negatively impact the Class III milk price.

“Everything is important in our milk — not just the fat and protein,” Lucey said. “Part of the Class III price calculation is based on the value of the fat, protein and whey that it contains. The calculation looks at parts of milk and what they are selling for as separate ingredients on marketplaces across the U.S. The whey part could be as low as 8% but may be as high as 20% of the Class III price.”

Whether making a protein powder or putting whey into a beverage or making green chemicals out of it, this will help farmers directly, Lucey said.

“When whey is cheap, it brings down the milk price, but if we could make the whey part more valuable, it will bump up the Class III price,” he said. “Getting the most value for everything in our milk is important for the long-term price. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what we’re going to do with this whey.”

A large amount of whey is generated in Wisconsin every year, Lucey said.

“We filter out proteins to sell as whey protein products, but less than 1% of solids in that whey is whey proteins,” he said. “Five percent is lactose and sugars. We’re still left with what to do with all those sugars. That’s a significant challenge for our industry right now.”

The CDR is also investigating options to use whey for making bioplastics.

“It’s a way to take these massive amounts of whey and make what we call green chemicals,” Lucey said. “This is a smart way of using every drop of milk. We just installed our own bioreactor and plan to help researchers make plastics from dairy waste. We need to see if the process really works, how efficient it is, and if it will it be profitable.”

Supporting exports is another role of the CDR.

“Exports have been a critical part of our markets and customers over the last 20 years,” Lucey said. “If we didn’t have exports, farm milk prices would go down significantly because that’s a huge market for our cheeses and powdered ingredients.”

Lucey said he and his team are constantly thinking about tweaks they can make to cheeses to fit the needs of other countries. The opportunities for growth abroad are significant, he said.

When looking at shipping to places such as Asia, a longer shelf life is critical.

“We’ve done a lot of research on extending shelf life of our cheeses so they can be sold into distant markets but still be of the expected quality,” he said. “Achieving a longer shelf life is an important tool for the U.S. industry in reaching those markets. It will result in higher milk prices for farmers.”

Lucey is excited about the future and the new possibilities provided by the CDR expansion.

“At the CDR, we look at all dairy spaces,” Lucey said. “We want to cover everything – from cheese to yogurt to milk beverages to dried ingredients. There really isn’t a sector of products we can’t make with our technology.”

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