Large, stainless-steel milk trucks roll into the five-stall receiving bay of Melrose Dairy Proteins LLC (MDP) 24/7, delivering some 3.5 million pounds of milk each day.
That’s the daily output of more than 50,000 dairy cows, who supply MDP, a cheese and whey protein concentrate plant located in Melrose, Minn., some 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The plant is ideally situated within the heart of Stearns County, still Minnesota’s largest dairy county.
"About 70% to 75% of our milk supply comes from within a 50-mile radius, and the majority of that milk comes from Stearns County," says plant manager Hank Braegelmann. About 70 milk trucks, ranging from straight beds to semi-trailers, deliver milk to the plant daily.
Today, a straight-bed bulk truck rolls in, containing 49,000 lb. of milk from nine dairy farms. The hauler picked up his first farm at 3 this morning, completed his load, and rolled into the receiving bay at 9:45 a.m. He pulls a milk sample from the top of the tank, and a rapid, seven-minute test is run to ensure the milk contains no traces of antibiotics. After getting clearance, he hooks up his hose to unload. Once it is empty, he washes out the tank and jumps back into the cab for a second load before he wraps up his 15-hour day.
Braegelmann points out that the Melrose plant can pull milk from all corners of the state and, on occasion, as far west as California. Those long hauls are less frequent, since California has rebalanced its milk supply by reducing cows and/or adding more plant capacity over the past several years.
Nevertheless, the Melrose plant is used for such "balancing," taking in excess milk when fluid processing plants and even other cheese plants get overwhelmed with production. The first six months of the year are typically high-volume months, with Melrose running closer to its 4 million pounds/day capacity. Late summer and fall, when milk production typically tails off, means less volume for the plant.
At the same time, MDP has milk trade agreements with other dairy processors in the state to share milk and move milk to the closest plant to save trucking costs. Prior to the agreements, hauling costs were running higher than they needed to be because processors were bringing milk in from patron farms far distant from plant locations.
"There was 50¢/cwt. on the table. We haven’t been able to take all of that out, but we’ve taken some miles out," Braegelmann says. MDP has trade agreements with most of the milk plants in the area. "There’s nobody we won’t play with if it takes costs out," he says.
Some 49,000 lb. of milk from nine dairy farms is unloaded from this truck in a matter of minutes in one of five receiving bays at the Melrose plant.
Once it arrives at the plant, milk is processed into a variety of cheeses, ranging from Cheddar to hard Italian varieties such as Parmesan and Romano. The hard, Italian-style cheeses are cured and used for grated, fresh grated and shreds. The Cheddar styles are utilized for further manufacturing, handled in 500-lb. barrels and marketed to any number of customers. The whey proteins, left over from the cheesemaking process, is further concentrated into liquid whey protein concentrates of 34% and 55%.
These products are sold to various customers who further refine the proteins as food ingredients and for use in feed products as calf milk replacers. Additionally, permeate that is separated from the whey stream is pumped directly to privately owned Proliant to be dried and used for food and animal feeds. "A fair amount of this material is then exported internationally," Braegelmann says.
Braegelmann says the MDP plant is midway through a five-year effort to reduce energy consumption in the plant by 5% per year. That’s a big number, since energy is 40% of the plant’s annual operating cost in electricity, natural gas and water treatment operations. Three years into the project, the plant is on track to meet its goals.
Melrose Dairy Proteins LLC is a joint venture owned by Land O’Lakes and Dairy Farmers of America. It shares a production site with Proliant, which further processes whey permeate for food and animal feed.