A single word defines the successful future of the dairy industry. Everything else – food safety, herd health, retaining workers, reforming pricing – falls a close second.
The word is innovation.
Plant-based imitators and microbe-produced dairy proteins are media darlings these days, even as the New York Times threaded the phrase “the decline of the dairy industry” into a November article that described milk as “falling out of fashion” in a piece on the bankruptcy of Dean Foods.
In August, the same newspaper profiled New Culture, Motif Ingredients and Perfect Day, companies chasing the goal of microbially-fermented dairy proteins.
Dairy processors will not stand still as competitors walk the marketing tightrope of claiming the halo of dairy foods’ timeless flavor and nutrition benefits, even as they disparage our carbon footprint and animal care. National programs like FARM and work at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy can protect dairy’s flank with best practices for cow comfort and science-based environmental impact data. But manufacturers and America’s farmer-supported dairy centers must lead the charge on product innovation.
In Wisconsin, innovation lives at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of Wisconsin.
How important is CDR to Wisconsin’s future? The recent Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 met for nearly a year, and six of their 51 recommendations were rated Very High Priority.
Five of those six leading priorities have CDR at their core. Take a look:
- Establish a state-funded Dairy Innovation Hub, bringing together three Wisconsin state universities to link dairy cow research with sustainability initiatives, along with dairy product development and farm business opportunities. This priority is funded and underway, with CDR in the pivotal research role.
- Expand Wisconsin dairy exports and study a statewide brand and export board (two related priorities that both earned “very high” status). CDR is executing research into optimizing cheese for specific international markets and is leading exploration of an export board.
- Fund new full-time positions at Center for Dairy Research. A “very high” priority that needs state legislative support to succeed.
- Become a USDA-chartered Dairy Innovation Initiative Center. Done! CDR and Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association teamed up to successfully present a dynamic innovation center to USDA.
In short, this task force met for nine months and concluded that Wisconsin’s highest dairy priority (if not the nation’s highest priority) is a vibrant and active Center for Dairy Research.
Amazingly, the talented staff at CDR has shouldered more priorities than ever as construction of a new center, and renovation of their home in Babcock Hall, bangs and clangs around them. Construction of a new, three-floor Center for Dairy Research abutting a completely renovated Babcock dairy plant will be a game-changer. It’s also been a seven-year challenge that is finally glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel.
This summer, university leadership, and leaders in Wisconsin’s Department of Administration turned ongoing meetings with industry stakeholders to the task of solving a new increase in the estimated cost of this complex building project. Credit industry expert Tom Hedge with the idea of a third-party review, executed in July and August, to bring clarity to the scope, schedule and budget for this construction project.
One key recommendation from this “audit” has been executed with the hiring of Gilbane Building Company to serve as owner’s representative to the state. Gilbane is working with project vendors and state engineers to finalize process equipment design and utility requirements, optimize scheduling and discern a project final budget.
Early next year, solid financial data will define the path forward for this building project, and the entire dairy industry will be asked to tell state legislators, University Regents and the Governor that Wisconsin’s highest dairy priority is the Center for Dairy Research, and a final package of funding is needed to finish a world-class home for this talented team.
Innovation is dairy’s future, and innovation needs the new Center for Dairy Research.