A man in a blue shirt works to install a large piece of silver equipment in the newly renovated Dairy Pilot Plant
A worker helps finish moving a new pasteurizer into the dairy pilot plant at UW-River Falls. The new equipment is a key part of the remodeled Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence that could open as soon as this fall. UWRF photo.

Rebuilding the UW-River Falls dairy pilot plant one piece at a time

Arrival of new pasteurizer latest sign that on-campus dairy plant is getting closer to completion

July 19, 2023 - Two forklifts slowly lowered a large, shiny metallic piece of equipment from a semi-truck trailer onto a dolly below before several workers pushed and pulled the item into a room in the Agricultural Science building at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. 

The equipment – a high temperature, short-time pasteurizer – will serve as the heartbeat of the university’s much anticipated dairy pilot plant, a renovation project 10 years in the making that dairy industry leaders view as an education model for current and future employees in that sector. The plant was renamed the Wuethrich Family/Grassland Dairy Center of Excellence in November in honor of the Wuethrich Family Foundation and Grassland Dairy Products, Inc. of Greenwood having donated $1 million toward the plant.

As Michelle Farner watched the pasteurizer be unloaded and moved, she was grateful for its arrival. The equipment that was transported to UWRF on June 30 and is key to the dairy pilot plant’s modernized operations has been in the works for the past five years, and Farner – director of dairy production at UWRF – and others have eagerly anticipated its appearance. 

“This is huge, not only for our university but for the dairy industry and for Wisconsin,” Farner said shortly before a recent presentation about the dairy pilot plant to the River Falls Rotary Club. “This is what really will make our whole plant go.” 

For a variety of reasons, obtaining the pasteurizer has taken much longer than originally anticipated, Farner said. As it was unloaded and then moved to its location in the dairy pilot plant, she said she felt a sense of gratification.

“This has been a long time coming,” Farner said, “and it’s a relief to have it here.”

To serve as a location where students take part in cutting-edge, hands-on learning and training in dairy production, the dairy pilot plant required significant modernization, including needing a new pasteurizer, Farner said.

Pasteurization of milk involves heating it, thereby killing off potentially harmful bacteria and making milk safe to consume. The old pasteurizer could process about 1,100 pounds of milk an hour; the new one will do 5,000 pounds in the same amount of time. That increased processing speed will allow the dairy pilot plant to double the number of students working there, to as many as 30 at a time. 

“That old equipment simply wasn’t functioning the way we needed it to,” Farner said of the previous campus dairy plant that was discontinued five years ago. “We needed to remake that entire plant. It has taken time, but that is what we have done.”

Brianna Crotteau, of Cameron, who graduated in May with a degree in agricultural business now works as dairy pilot plant project coordinator and said the new pasteurizer and revamped dairy plant will enhance student learning. Because of the ongoing dairy plant renovation during her time at UWRF, Crotteau was not able to work with a modern pasteurizer when she was a student. But she is grateful others will have that opportunity. 

“I am very excited that upcoming students at our university will be able to utilize and learn from this piece of equipment,” she said. 

UW-River Falls Chancellor Maria Gallo said the new dairy pilot plant will provide hands-on learning opportunities for students that will allow them to gain skills necessary to work in the dairy industry of today and tomorrow. Training those students receive will in turn bolster Wisconsin's dairy sector. 

"The dairy pilot plant will play a key role in Wisconsin as it will allow us to provide industry employees with high-level training that will allow them to fill jobs in this vital part of our state's dairy economy," Gallo said.

The pasteurizer is the most recent piece of equipment that is part of the overhauled plant. A decade ago, Wisconsin dairy industry partners and state and UWRF officials decided to remake the plant. Since then, nearly two dozen organizations have donated $5.2 million of the dairy plant’s nearly $9 million cost, with the remainder of funding coming from state dollars.

That high degree of private funding is unusual for a UW System project, Farner said, and shows that dairy businesses are invested in making the plant a success. Companies hope to connect with well-trained prospective employees through the university’s dairy science and food science programs. 

“The dairy industry has been so supportive of this project getting done,” Farner said. 

Final work is being done on the 6,000 square-foot dairy plant, which Farner said she hopes is up and running this fall. After more meetings, fundraising and overcoming obstacles than she cares to recall, she eagerly anticipates students being able to learn in the state-of-the art facility. 

“It is gratifying to think about the high-quality educational opportunities we will be able to provide our students that they have not had access to before,” Farner said. “We will be helping our students and the dairy industry in this state – that is what our university does.”

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