State-of-the-art renovations to UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall are expected to revolutionize the Wisconsin cheese industry and bring the university’s iconic dairy production back to campus after a 3½-year hiatus.
The Babcock Dairy Plant will resume operations on campus and the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) will have its own space as part of a $72.9 million renovation project that rebuilt the dairy plant and added a three-story, 77,400-square-foot addition to Babcock Hall. As the new dairy plant took shape in the footprint of the old one, Babcock dairy products, including its famous ice cream, were kept in production through a network of contracts with other manufacturers.
The old dairy plant was badly outdated, and, at the time it was demolished, plant workers were running out of fixes. And the CDR, having never had a space of its own, was severely limited in its research capabilities and ability to innovate the dairy industry.
The new facilities bring UW-Madison’s facilities up to industry standards and even go beyond what most companies have in their manufacturing plants.
“I’ve lived in Ireland and Holland and New Zealand in my career before I came here — there’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world,” CDR director John Lucey said.
The Babcock Dairy Plant and the CDR are separate entities, despite being housed under the same roof. The dairy plant is primarily used as a student learning laboratory, and it produces milk, cheese and ice cream for campus and a handful of off-campus sites.
The CDR is the dairy research arm of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and is a liaison between UW-Madison and the state’s dairy industry, as well as national and international partners. The center provides training to about 1,000 people a year and hosts the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, which is reserved for people who’ve been making cheese for at least a decade. It also serves as a central location for about 150 companies to innovate new dairy products without the costs of running their own small-batch test labs.
The CDR’s new facility, now fully separated from the Babcock Dairy Plant for the first time in more than three decades, features small-scale equipment and ripening caves to develop specialty cheeses and other fermented and whey dairy products.
It also includes an auditorium that can seat 100 and pull in live feeds from the center’s processing plant as part of short courses for its master cheesemaker program, plus an industrial kitchen next door for people to test their concoctions.
The CDR facility will bolster research into specialty cheeses, which account for a quarter of Wisconsin’s dairy exports, Lucey said, noting that more than 200 organizations across the U.S. funneled $18 million into the project.
“A lot of our companies do not have any ability to do pilot trials for anything — they just have big manufacturing facilities,” Lucey said. “By pooling it together, they can all benefit from it.”
UW-Madison officials decided the dairy plant needed upgrades in 2010, but the project was delayed after it was found that initial estimates would not cover the cost of modernizing an aging facility that had received no meaningful renovations since its inception in 1951.
Before the renovation, Babcock Dairy Plant was a bit like a 1940s car, UW-Madison Food Science Department chair Scott Rankin said.
Sure, you could use that old car to teach students the basics of vehicular mechanics — or in the plant’s case, the building blocks of dairy production — but neither cars or dairy plants designed in the late 1940s reflect their wider industries today.
“It’s neat to keep it on the road and driving it, but it’s not a good daily driver. And that’s what the dairy plant needs to do, is to be a daily driver,” Rankin said. “Students in the plant, they got lots of exposure to any common practices and good food safety, food sanitation, processing technologies and so forth. But it’s done in an infrastructure that was really 60, 70 years old.”
The former dairy plant featured numerous inefficiencies that often created logistical challenges for workers or extended processes by multiple hours a day.
Dairy plant manager Casey Whyte is one of the few people left in the state who can still calculate buttermilk fat percentages by hand — out of necessity, because the old plant didn’t have the equipment to measure it digitally.
Modern milk separators, such as the one just installed in the new dairy plant, also save time because they are self-cleaning.
Getting milk inside the dairy plant was a hurdle in itself — when the facility first opened, milk was still being delivered by pick-up truck in 10-gallon cans. As the dairy industry shifted to transporting raw milk in semi-tanker trailers, the plant could still only handle smaller delivery trucks.
And while Rankin said the dairy plant’s products have always been safe to eat, its age and antiquated design made it harder to operate as new food sanitation practices were introduced. Current food safety practices encourage a single entrance to limit contagions and sanitary systems with higher air quality standards. In the former the dairy plant, 70 years of exposure to cleaning chemicals eroded the floors, and there were multiple entries.
Plus, there were cross-contamination concerns: CDR researchers also worked out of the dairy plant and sometimes needed to use materials such as mold to create new cheese with little separation from where the dairy plant would be making ice cream, Whyte said.
“It’s been used heavily over all those decades,” Rankin said. “The fundamental structures in the building were failing … the cement was simply disintegrating or eroding. So, we could not keep up with all that patch work.”
If you can dream it, the CDR can now make it.
That’s due in part to dedicated areas reserved solely for crafting and curing specialty cheeses. Ten ripening rooms have the digital technology to alter environmental factors such as humidity and airflow inside with the push of a button and have negative pressure air to keep out contaminants.
And if the environment deviates for any reason, researchers will get notifications on their devices, Lucey said. Being able to control the curing specifics will allow researchers to tweak future experiments, he added.
“As a cheesemaker and scientists, you can see all the information about what happened in that room and how did my cheese go, and then download all of that to say, ‘Well, we think we want to change this temperature next time because we think we can get a better flavor or texture from that kind of product,’” Lucey said. “(It’s an) amazing facility for us here in Wisconsin to really create all kinds of additional specialty cheeses in the future.”
Imaginations don’t have to stop at cheese, Lucey said. While specialty cheeses remain the main focus — half of all specialty cheese worldwide comes from Wisconsin — there’s room for innovation in extending the shelf life of dairy products up to a year or so. Longer shelf lives will ultimately reduce milk waste, Lucey said, as traditional dairy products expire within a few weeks and are often dumped down the drain.
New equipment in CDR facilities would heat milk to higher temperatures to make it more resistant to bacteria. Different packaging — similar to what’s used in beer — would allow it to be stored unrefrigerated and put in the fridge when it’s wanted cold.
“With this kind of product, your milk lasts for a year or more, so food waste would be much reduced,” he said.