Putting a South Dakota stamp on national dairy brands

Farm Forum

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – South Dakota has nine large-scale factories that turn cow’s milk into cheese, ice cream and milk for your breakfast cereal, and though they might not always carry a “made in South Dakota” label, their products are sold all around the world.

And they’re good. Many South Dakota-made cheeses have won awards at worldwide contests. For 20-plus years, South Dakota plants have sent cheese to compete at the national and international levels, and they do well.

It goes to show that the state is a good place for dairy, according to David Skaggs, dairy development representative for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Many things have to come together to make good milk products.

“From the forage and water intake of the animal right through to the processing plant is what develops good cheese,” Skaggs said.

He’d like to see even more dairy ventures come to South Dakota. We have the land and the ability to grow some of the best forages in the country, Skaggs said. South Dakota also has water resources and the right climate for cattle, he added. It might be hot in summer, but new cross-ventilated barns have improved cow comfort.

“We could have a lot more dairy cows in our state,” he said, adding that he’d love to see the return of dairy to western South Dakota. “We just have the vast resources to do cattle right – to do dairy right.”

South Dakota dairies are producing more milk all of the time. They’re adding cows and increasing the amount of milk each cow produces. This April marked a big month for milk in South Dakota. The state produced 13 percent more milk than a year ago, the biggest increase in the U.S.

South Dakota processing plants make 265 million pounds of cheese in a year. Much of the cheese and milk products are blended with others around the country to supply large food companies.

A lot of South Dakota cheese goes to other facilities where it’s shredded or cut into blocks for sale under a private label such as Sargento or store brands such as Hy-Vee and Kroger.

Valley Queen Cheese in Milbank is the nation’s largest producer of reduced-fat American-style cheese, including cheddar, Colby Monterey Jack and Colby Jack. It’s distributed across the U.S. under branded and private labels. Most large cheese plants operate that way.

“This model has worked well for us for many years,” Valley Queen CEO Mark Leddy said. “We have one cheese customer who we have supplied cheese to since the late 1940s.”

In addition to cheese, Valley Queen whey products and lactose are used in candy bars, infant formula and nutritional supplements globally. Milk fat left from making reduced fat cheese at the Milbank plant goes into milk chocolate candy and cream cheese.

Here are some places to find other dairy products made in South Dakota:

• Chips: If your fingers are stained bright orange from eating nacho cheese-flavored Doritos, chances are there are traces of South Dakota cheese on your hands. The DairiConcepts plant in the northern South Dakota town of Pollock makes cheese products that go to Frito Lay for use in its snack foods and canned sauces.

Another dairy snack food comes out of Brookings. The Bel Brands plant opened two years ago and can churn out 1.5 million Babybel individually wrapped snack cheeses a day.

• Pizza and subs: A national take-and-bake pizza chain gets its mozzarella from a plant in Lake Norden, which is owned by Agropur. The name of the chain couldn’t be disclosed because of confidentiality reasons.

The Lake Norden plant also supplies provolone cheese for a national chain of sandwich restaurants. Skaggs said he always has provolone on his sandwich when he visits. “A lot of people don’t try it, but it’s a very mild flavor.”

• Ice cream: Ingredients for a cool summertime treat come out of a plant in Freeman. The AMPI – Associated Milk Producers Inc. – plant there makes the ice cream mix used in the regional favorite South Dakota State University ice cream. It’s the world’s best ice cream in Skaggs’ book.

The plant also supplies ingredients for a popular East Coast bread maker. Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe in Pennsylvania uses nonfat dry milk powder that’s made in Freeman.

• Artisan cheeses: A few smaller-scale plants sell artisan cheese under their own labels. Valley Side Farm in Crooks makes cheddar cheese blends with dill and peppers.

Also in southeastern South Dakota, Dimock Dairy makes cheese and spreads with blend-ins such as ghost peppers, tomato basil and pepperoni. The plant has been at it for 85 years.

To the north in Hoven, another AMPI plant specializes in hard Italian-style cheese. Its Asiago, Romano and Parmesan style cheese is sold under private labels, mostly in the Chicago area and to the east. Its Parmesan was the grand champion at the National Milk Producers Federation’s cheese contest in 2012.