Dairy Cows

Cows feed in one of the barns owned by Statz Brothers Farms in Sun Prairie.

AMBER ARNOLD -- State Journal

Business has been busier than usual in recent weeks for Titletown Cheese.

The De Pere-based wholesaler and distributor was working the phones to find buyers for an abundant supply of assorted Wisconsin-made cheese. The additional cheese was coming from Wisconsin processors who took on extra milk supplied by dairy farmers dropped by Greenwood-based milk processor Grassland Dairy Products Inc., after it lost many of its Canadian customers.

Jerry Haines, president of Titletown Cheese, said after learning some of the processors he worked with would be making more cheese, he knew more calls would come.

“I’m the middle person who helps regulate inventory throughout the state,” said Haines, who works with 40 cheese manufacturers, including 32 in Wisconsin. “When people run extra milk or cheese, they call me to redistribute it throughout the country.”

Haines’ efforts were assisted by a $2 million line of credit he received throught the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. The additional money allowed his firm to acquire more cheese and distribute it around the country. He said the funds came quickly.

“The program was very helpful,” he said. “The product was coming so fast, I was glad we were able to help out.”

A spokesman for WHEDA said Haines’ company was the only business to apply under the program.

A look back

In early April, 67 dairy farmers were informed by Grassland Dairy Products Inc. that it would stop taking their milk after April 30 because it had lost its Canadian customers for ultra-filtered milk, a high-protein ingredient used in cheese production. That left more than 1 million pounds — roughly 100,000 gallons of milk — being produced daily with no place to go.

State government officials, dairy farmers and industry groups rallied and found processors around the state to absorb the excess milk. Nine of the affected farms was from Minnesota and all found a processor.

By May 1, 56 of the 58 affected Wisconsin dairy farms had secured new processors. About the two that didn’t, Dan Smith, administrator for agricultural development with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said one decided to leave the business and sold his 50 cows, while the other, who has 12 cows, remained undecided about her future.

Smith said the next step is for the dairy farmers to establish long-term deals with their new processors.

“The processors have expressed a desire to keep the farmers they have picked up,” Smith said. “The farmers will be discussing options with processing field men over the next few months, (so) communication between processors and farmers as we move into summer will be critical to developing permanent agreements.”

Before the dairy crisis hit, some processors across the state were working on facility upgrades, but were not ready to absorb the extra milk that suddenly became available, Smith said. There still is a lot of milk available across the state, but assorted dairy products are moving out of storage and selling at a good rate.

“A few Wisconsin dairy plants are conducting modernization and expansion projects, so once they come on line, that will help too,” Smith said. This means as more milk is processed, new product made can be moved to storage facilities that are being cleared.

Product development

Smith said new product development also is happening rapidly and the state’s dairy industry is responding.

“Consumers have voiced a preference for grass-based dairy products and organic products,” Smith said.

There also is a growing global demand for dairy protein and for byproducts such as whey, he said.

Items including yogurt dairy drinks, dairy-based energy drinks and snacks are growing in popularity, he said.

UW-Platteville is responding to shifting consumer food choices, too. The university just launched a new dairy science major, focused on agribusiness, calf and heifer production, dairy product analysis and processing.

UW-Platteville associate professor Tara Montgomery, who oversees the dairy science program, said her students have made yogurt, ice cream, butter and cheese. They also do taste testing of milk and alternative milk products.

A specialty ice cream, Dairyman’s Classic Cheesecake, developed by students for visiting members of the UW Board of Regents, was well received, Montgomery said.

“We are trying to help consumers think outside the box when it comes to dairy products so that we maintain a high demand for milk and other dairy products,” she said.

“We are trying to help consumers think outside the box when it comes to dairy products so that we maintain a high demand for milk and other dairy products.” Tara Montgomery, UW-Platteville associate professor

Larry Avila is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.