Dairy Research Centers: A Quiet But Powerful Checkoff Tool

Tom Gallagher Chief Executive Officer, Dairy Management Inc.

Tom Gallagher
Tom Gallagher is Chief Executive Officer of Dairy Management Inc.

There are so many things your dairy farmer promotion checkoff does for you that you might not know about. Here’s just one.

Remember the days when it made more sense to throw whey on your fields, rather than to get paid for it as an ingredient in other foods? That waste still was happening into the 1980s, when the national dairy promotion checkoff began, and that started to change. This marked a shift for the better for dairy farm families across the country.

And we have the farmer-founded, farmer-funded National Dairy Foods Research Centers to thank for it.

For a long time, whey represented more waste than value. Even though whey is packed with protein, manufacturers shied away from its often sour taste. But dairy scientists at your university-based research centers figured out ways to make it a profitable ingredient that has greatly enhanced milk’s value, as the consumption of whey as an ingredient has more than doubled over the last 20 years. That’s your dairy checkoff paying dividends.

This is but one example of the work conducted every day through the National Dairy Foods Research Center program, which receives significant support from dairy farmers through your national and local dairy checkoff. There are six regionally-based centers affiliated with a network of universities, and they are celebrating their 30-year anniversary this year.

There is much to celebrate about the work your research centers have produced over these last three decades, but the best part is that there is much more to come. Scientists at these centers – and your checkoff staff here at Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) that manage and guide their mission – work to find ways to build even more demand for dairy, here and around the world. One hundred-plus people with globally-recognized expertise work to create and enhance dairy innovation, while building and reinforcing important consumer confidence in dairy.

DMI Dairy Center Map
The dairy food research facilities supported by DMI are located across the U.S.

Each research center has its own strengths and proficiencies. Some feature expertise in food safety while another may be the go-to source for cheese production, and yet another might focus on ingredients. All of them have the facilities and technical experts needed to help the industry introduce new or improved products into the marketplace.

The centers also have been a valuable resource to numerous large and influential companies across the food industry, including some that are partners with the checkoff in growing dairy sales. These companies also provide financial support to the centers and some work with them on individual projects.

For example, McDonald’s leverages the Southeast Dairy Center’s sensory capabilities in evaluating its product offerings. Another company may approach a center about crystals that are forming during the cheese-making process. Our scientists can explain what causes it and how to prevent it.

Keeping cheese tasty, functional – and safe

Did you know that the U.S. produces 1.4 billion-plus pounds of artisan cheese every year? That’s great, but much of it is produced by people who are passionate about cheese but not necessarily well-versed in the science of cheese making. The solution? The experts at your dairy research centers provide 17 artisan/specialty/farmstead cheese “short courses” and training to hundreds of attendees each year. This helps assure food safety, key to keeping dairy consumption at healthy levels.

But, there is much more to the cheese story. Work done through the research centers has helped double the consumption of natural cheeses over the last 20 years. The centers have developed technology to create unique and value-added cheeses that have distinct flavors, textures, lower sodium and attributes desired by consumers. These advancements have spurred new and diverse offerings that are meeting consumer demand.

The research expands well beyond cheese. We’ve combined our efforts with industry innovation to help processors develop capabilities to improve quality and functionality of ingredients to be competitive in international markets and continue to grow the $4 billion export market. We’ve also been engaged in various innovation efforts that support the rebirth of fluid milk and growth of dairy beverages, Greek yogurt and other cultured dairy products.

Cultivating future leaders

DMI Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research
Here’s a scene in the Wisconsin research center located in Madison.

While these centers are producing solutions to help the industry today, we’re also producing much of the dairy industry’s workforce and leaders of tomorrow. These research centers have some of the most gifted students you will ever meet and they are intent on furthering their careers in the dairy industry.

Just recently, Cornell University, one of the six dairy research centers, became a highly-charged setting when checkoff farmer leaders sat with university leaders, students and dairy processors for an exchange of ideas around how to bring science and research to life in dairy’s future success. Graduate students shared firsthand their work on food safety issues, on-farm practices, product innovation, future workforce development and how students can become dairy advocates.

These farmer leaders will visit other dairy research centers to gain perspective, and have asked national and local staff to identify opportunities to better:

  • Connect with current training and education efforts
  • Develop a single university strategy
  • Leverage students as natural advocates, engaging them in the farmer-led, industry-wide Undeniably Dairy and amplification initiatives

The checkoff has made a real difference for dairy farmers through the research centers over these last 30 years. Let’s see what successes we can provide in the future.

Questions? Comments? Contact us at TalkToTheCheckoff@dairy.org.

Tom Gallagher is Chief Executive Officer of Dairy Management Inc.™, the domestic and international planning and management organization that works to increase sales of and demand for dairy products and ingredients on behalf of America’s dairy farmers and dairy importers. He is also chief executive officer of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy®, which was established by dairy farmer checkoff leaders to bring together the dairy industry to work together pre-competitively to address barriers and opportunities to foster innovation and increase sales. For more information on the dairy checkoff, visit www.dairy.org.