Research Centers Rise Up with Industrywide Assist During COVID Crisis

Bill Graves Senior Vice President, Dairy Product Science Dairy Management Inc.

Bill Graves

Milk disposal was one of the more unfortunate consequence of COVID-19 for the dairy community. The country’s economic shutdown caused a bottleneck at plants as restaurants and other normally reliable channels were closed for business, forcing farmers to make a decision none of them ever want to face.

One of the ways farmers were helped (check out other examples here) quickly came from the National Dairy Foods Research Center network that dairy farmers have funded through their checkoff – nationally and locally – since 1987. The network consists of six regional centers encompassing 17 universities and more than 130 subject matter experts. It has been our industry’s backbone when it comes to providing science-based solutions and innovation for dairy companies across the country.

The Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began receiving a flood of calls from state cheesemakers as tensions and questions increased by the day. About half of the cheese produced in Wisconsin is normally used in the restaurant/food service channel, which had dried up almost overnight.

CDR provided relief to the cheesemakers with a solution that already was in its portfolio of resources. The team had been working on extended-shelf-life research for cheese that was conducted to help U.S. cheesemakers increase export opportunities.

CDR Director John Lucey created a plan to share the research with cheesemakers via a webinar but the amount of companies seeking help exceeded his expectations. More than 500 attendees from companies across the U.S. and even a few internationals virtually attended CDR’s session to learn how to produce cheese with an extended shelf life. Lucey said sharing the knowledge resulted in a lessening of the flow of lost milk in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Lucey’s team played another pivotal role when it quickly developed a virtual training program in support of a new product quality specifications for pepper jack cheese. This grader training for USDA enabled more than 1 million additional pounds of a government purchase of cheese for food banks.

 





 

History of achievements

Our network has long been delivering wins for the industry, and especially farmers, since its inception. Achievements aside, we may be having our finest moment during this COVID-19 time. We are seeing the result and value of a coordinated network of some of the country’s greatest dairy minds coming to the industry’s aid.

Collectively, the network has engaged with more than 450 U.S. dairy companies over the years, ranging from artisans to the industry’s major players. When the reality of COVID-19 hit, many had a “who do we call now?” moment and they turned to our network.

Cornell University food safety professor Martin Wiedmann also has stayed busy with the National Dairy Foods Research Center. He and a team of colleagues set virtual “office hours” where processors and others could reach out via a Zoom connection to have their questions answered. Wiedmann figures they so far have assisted as many as 2,000 people across the industry. The university also held a series of educational webinars and posted National Dairy Foods Research Center for the food industry on its website. Cornell even processed milk in its campus facility for Dairy Farmers of America that was then put into the hunger channel.

 





 

Elsewhere, Eric Bastian, who serves as director of the Western Dairy Center and has a position with the Dairy West checkoff team, said farmers in Idaho and Utah also were facing supply chain issues.

Bastian and his Dairy West teammates created the “Curds + Kindness” program. The concept involved identifying local plants that had the ability to take on additional milk or cream and package it into cheese, curds and butter. Dairy West purchased the product and distributed it to Idaho and Utah food banks. Bastian said about 1 million milk equivalent pounds were moved as a result, an effort greatly helped thanks to relationships through the Western Dairy Center.

Bastian also credits the power of unity throughout the network. When he began getting food safety questions from local processors, he directed the queries across the country to Wiedmann.

It’s hard to imagine how the dairy industry would be faring during this time had our network not been in place for so many years. It’s working because of the great relationships we have built over the many years and across the U.S. It’s working because we truly have some of the best and brightest scientists assembled for a common cause. And it’s working because our network truly exhibits camaraderie and coming together for the good of the entire industry.

In these most unprecedented and challenging times, they are shining their brightest.

To learn more about your national dairy checkoff, visit www.USDairy.com or send a request to join our Dairy Checkoff Farmer Group on Facebook. To reach us directly, send an email to TalkToTheCheckoff@dairy.org.

 





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