Celebrating 35 years of meaningful dairy research

  • 4 min read October 17, 2022
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

Happy anniversary to an old friend of dairy farmers.

Thirty-five years ago, the Dairy Foods Research Centers network was founded by farmers through our checkoff. It not only has stood the test of time, but it has proven to be one of our most valuable assets, though its significance often flies under the radar for many of my farmer peers.

The network features some of the best and brightest dairy-focused minds in more than 20 universities that comprise the network’s six regionally based centers.

Their daily – or dairy – mission is to provide innovative, science-backed solutions related to consumer demand and business needs and trends. In short, they solve problems and offer innovations for the companies that turn our milk into a finished product. They have farmers’ backs and stay busy 365 days of the year working toward building a better future for us.

It’s likely in their nature to not stop to tout their successes, but I’ll be happy to do so as there is no better time than an anniversary to pause and appreciate all that they have done.

The beauty of the network is its diversity in terms of expertise and geography. The network’s six centers include:

Each center functions individually and their research is done to avoid duplication. Instead, it’s a system of complementary, non-competitive expertise and the group has become tightknit over the years thanks to unifying guidance and oversight from Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

While farmers may not be completely familiar with the network, it is no stranger to the broader dairy industry. In fact, more than 400 dairy industry companies have come to the network seeking research-based solutions related to processing, food quality and safety, ingredients and other areas.

One of its early successes that gained attention was the network’s efforts to take whey – once a discarded byproduct that was fed to pigs or spread on fields – and convert it into the global $10 billion industry that whey protein has become.

But that is just one of many highlight moments.

The explosion of artisanal and specialty cheese has its roots in the network, particularly the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. There was a time in the 1980s when these cheeses accounted for about 3 percent or less of national production. However, today the U.S. is producing 1.8 billion pounds of these products each year, accounting for more than 13 percent of production.

Along the way, these cheesemakers have made their mark on the world stage. Roth® Grand Cru® Surchoix, made by Emmi Roth USA, was named overall champion of the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest. Three years later, a blue cheese from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery became the first American-made product to earn the highest honor at the World Cheese Awards.

Cheesemakers of all sizes, from the small operations to Saputo, Foremost, Hilmar, Grande, Bel Brands, Lactalis, Glanbia, Sargento, Great Lakes Cheese and others have come to the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research for research-based assistance and solutions. It should also be noted that many farmers who have taken the value-added path of making cheese at their dairies have relied on these researchers’ expertise.

As sustainability continues its ever-growing focus with consumers and companies, the research network also has provided solutions to continue dairy’s decades-long commitment of caring for our environment and resources.

The food science team at Cornell University, which is part of the Northeast Dairy Foods Research Center, created Norwhey Nordic Seltzers. The beverage is a whey-based sparkling tonic filled with electrolytes and vitamins.

The network also has benefitted our valuable exports market by assisting the checkoff-founded U.S. Dairy Export Council and companies that sell their products overseas. Scientists perform research on technical aspects, such as extended shelf life and improved functionality of powdered milk, so U.S. products maintain their appeal and quality once they reach their international destination.

One other unseen network benefit is the fact it generates the workforce of tomorrow. Students engaged at these universities are getting a full immersion into our industry and it opens the possibility of them considering working in dairy upon graduation. These are talented food science majors who usually are in high demand and many companies are in pursuit of them.

So, happy anniversary to a team of researchers who have provided us with many pivotal accomplishments these past 35 years.

And just know they are working at this very moment to bring even more our way.