Guest Columns

Dairy Research

Building a bright dairy future

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

The dairy industry has long been an example of successful collaboration. From the dairy farmer check off program that helps to fund dairy research and marketing to the various organizations that bring together industry and academia on a regular basis, collaborations have always been at the heart of the dairy industry’s success.

As the dairy state, Wisconsin has been at the forefront of these collaborative efforts, founding the first dairy research center in 1986 through a joint effort between the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with additional support coming soon after from the national organization now known as the National Dairy Council.

Today, Wisconsin continues to lead, hosting the very first Wisconsin Idea Dairy Summit on June 19, 2017. This summit brought together more than 200 legislators, researchers, dairy farmers, manufacturers, trade associations and university leaders from around the state to discuss the future of the Wisconsin dairy sector.

In the end, it became clear that a vibrant future is not just about growing milk production, but also about adding more value to our dairy products to ensure that farmers and processors are both profitable. Like any industry, there are challenges, including three overarching issues that were discussed at the forum: the need for additional dairy research funding, a more thorough understanding of the global marketplace and additional insights into consumer needs and preferences. Addressing these areas of concern for the industry will require vision and continued collaboration.

Wisconsin is fortunate to have a strong history of collaboration. For more than 30 years dairy farmers have generously participated in the dairy check off program, which helps to fund essential dairy product research, such as the work that takes place at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR). From the development of new processes and value-added products to improved safety and quality solutions, dairy farmers and industry have supported innovation and research as well as education programs such as the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, the only Master training program of its kind in the United States.

Today, however, there are many new challenges that require innovative solutions. The dairy industry is facing increasing competition from plant proteins like soy and pea. There also are new opportunities in overseas markets as well as domestically. In fact, calculations based on past per capita cheese consumption trends suggest that the United States will likely need to produce an additional 9.6 billion pounds of milk to meet increased consumer demand for cheese in the next 10 years. To meet these challenges and become the “World’s Dairyland,” there will need to be additional research and innovation in dairy product shelf-stability, flavor, functionality, packaging and sustainability, a sentiment echoed by many summit attendees.

Unfortunately, fewer dollars are now spent nationally on dairy research in the United States, in contrast to the increased investment by major dairy countries like Ireland, which recently invested an additional $28 million into dairy processing research, and New Zealand, which invested $128 million in a program called Transforming the Dairy Value Chain. Without a change in this research funding trend we will fall behind globally, at a time of great opportunity. Low levels of dairy research funding have already resulted in fewer trained technical students, which translates to companies having a more difficult time filling open positions with students that are knowledgeable on dairy products. Investing in future industry leaders and the research that will help to bring innovative and creative products to market provides excellent value and should be a strong priority for our growing industry.

In addition to research funding, it also will be essential that industry invest in truly understanding the needs of the consumer. From the recent popularity of plant protein-based beverages to the taste preferences of growing populations, understanding global consumers will be essential to keeping our industry relevant and vibrant. If we don’t make what they want, the competition will.

Potential consumers can be segmented into many different categories including overseas consumers (e.g., how is pizza consumed in China), different ages (e.g., infant vs. seniors), and different ethnic groups (e.g., Hispanic is the largest ethnic group in the United States at nearly 60 million). While different segments have different needs, overall, consumers are looking for innovative products that highlight the nutritional value of dairy. Investment and innovation are urgently needed to meet these needs. In particular, consumption of traditional fluid milk has declined so we need to work together to create innovative solutions to this issue including improved packaging to protect the product from light induced off-flavors and improved quality solutions (i.e. “keep the bugs and light out”). Another approach also could involve creating new dairy beverages that meet consumer needs for high protein and calcium but include little to no lactose, which is becoming an increasingly popular trend. Beverages that contain some dairy ingredients, for example protein or dairy minerals, are another area of interest as we look to meet consumer needs for nutritionally enhanced beverages.

We also will need to consider regulatory hurdles that inhibit the commercialization of innovation such as regulations regarding the freedom to use dairy ingredients like ultrafiltered or microfiltered milk in other dairy products, something that is allowed in most other countries. Among the greatest challenges in the marketplace, however, is the ever-changing global environment. International trade has many benefits, but it also creates challenges as the industry feels the impact of international regulations, consumer trends and global pricing structures. The United States currently exports about 14 percent of domestic milk production (expressed as milk solids) and organizations like U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) would like that to increase to 20 percent within the next 5-10 years. Other groups such as the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) also are promoting greater trade and exports. CDR is honored to assist these groups with trade missions and research projects, which have aided the industry in overcoming technical challenges and developing products with improved functionality and shelf-life, but additional research and collaboration will be needed to meet the growing demands of the domestic and global marketplace.

Together we have come a long way, but as consumers develop new preferences and new markets begin to emerge, greater research efforts will be needed to ensure that the United States becomes a global powerhouse for supplying high quality dairy products. CDR plans to use its leadership role to encourage the development of a long-term strategic vision to grow our industry. We are proud to assist our farmers, cheesemakers and dairy industry to ensure that we become the “World’s Dairyland.” Though there are challenges and many things to consider as we reflect on the summit and the work ahead, dairy is already at the forefront of innovation and collaboration. It will be important that we all continue to work together to create a vision that will ensure that we will have a vibrant dairy industry well into the future.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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