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Cheese success - UW-River falls dairy plant hits milestone
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 02/29/2024

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls' new $9 million dairy pilot plant, the Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence, has successfully produced its first batch of cheddar cheese after years of planning and construction. This achievement marks a significant milestone for the facility, which aims to not only manufacture cheese and ice cream but also serve as a training ground for future dairy professionals.

The journey to this point began over a decade ago with the recognition of the need for a modern facility to replace the outdated existing plant. After years of fundraising and construction delays, including those caused by the pandemic, the new 6,000-square-foot plant finally opened its doors in October 2023.

Leading the charge is Rueben Nilsson, the plant manager with extensive cheesemaking experience. He, along with his team, has been working diligently to get the equipment and processes running smoothly. Their first attempt at cheese production encountered initial challenges, but they persevered, successfully producing cheese curds last week and culminating in this week's successful cheddar batch.

"There are a lot of steps and factors to manage to ensure everything functions as intended," Nilsson explained, emphasizing the complexity of the process. "It's crucial that all the equipment pieces work together seamlessly, and we're ensuring proper communication between them."

This success paves the way for future endeavors, including ice cream production, which is expected to begin soon. These products will be sold under the brand name Falcon Creamery at the campus's Freddy's Dairy Bar.

Beyond delicious dairy products, the plant serves a vital educational purpose. Makenzie Skibbie, a food science and technology student, is one of the beneficiaries. With prior cheesemaking experience, she sees the facility as invaluable to her education and future career prospects. "This place will equip us with the skills needed to work in modern dairy plants," she said, "giving me a competitive edge and confidence in the job market."

Briana Crotteau, a recent graduate, echoes this sentiment. "This facility allows students and trainees to gain comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of dairy production, from milk production at the university's Mann Valley Farm to the intricacies of the processing steps and the creation of the final product."

As Nilsson observes the well-formed cheddar, a sense of satisfaction washes over him. "We're thrilled about this success," he said. "We'll continue refining the process and producing more cheese, ultimately aiming to establish this plant as a top-notch educational resource while manufacturing high-quality dairy products."

The Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence stands as a testament to collaboration, perseverance, and a commitment to fostering the future generation of dairy industry professionals.

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