By DEBRA J. GROOM
EMPIRE FARM & DAIRY
|The outside of Cayuga Milk Ingredients in Aurelius|
At a large dairy factory in the town of Aurelius, just to the west of this Cayuga County city better known for Harriet Tubman, William Seward and a state prison, nearly 2.3 million pounds of milk a day is processed, much of it into milk protein isolate.
The milk from 29 area farms that are part of the Cayuga Marketing cooperative comes together and is put through high-pressure filtration to end up with this milk protein used in many manufactured food products.
The waste product, mostly lactose and minerals, is used to make calf and lamb milk replacement used by farmers.
It’s quite an operation, sitting toward the end of Eagle Drive out in a rural area of what was formerly farmland. While Cayuga Marketing has been around for about 30 years (begun by eight local farmers who wanted a better way to bargain for higher milk prices), this manufacturing operation, called Cayuga Milk Ingredients, is fairly new, springing up about nine years ago when the farmer-owners in Cayuga Marketing began thinking about milk processing.
“The group was trying to obtain some savings on (milk) hauling,” said Kevin Ellis, Cayuga Milk Ingredients chief executive officer.
Most people remember 2007 and 2008 as when the national recession took hold of the economy. For farmers, it also was the time of high diesel fuel prices reaching more than $4 a gallon. Farmers were looking at anything they could do to cut their transportation costs.
|The inside of the Cayuga Milk Ingredients plant. Photo supplied by the company.|
Ellis said they looked at making fluid milk, commodity and special cheeses and specialty milk proteins.
“The big question was ‘what type of product should we make?’” Ellis said. “We had to build a business plan, we had to build a business from the ground up. It kind of forced us to look at everything.”
After nearly three years of discussions, meetings, research and travel, it was decided to focus on the milk proteins and to build the plant on the site in the town of Aurelius.
“OK, we’re going to build something,” Ellis said of the decision.
It was a bold move.
Not many dairy farmers, who are experts at the business of farming, cows, feed and growing crops, tend to wander into the business of processing milk on a grand scale. Some farmers use their own milk to make cheese or yogurt for retail sale on their own farms. But this was something on a larger, grander scale.
“This was a big risk, but it was the next thing for us,” said Dirk Young, who milks 1,200 cows each day at his Twin Birch Farm in the town of Skaneateles, Onondaga County.
“And I think this is just the first step,” Young said, noting Cayuga Milk Ingredients may jump into the consumer dairy market in the future.
Ellis said right now, there are only a few operations making milk protein concentrate, which contains up to 85 percent milk proteins. He said there are plants making concentrate in Batavia in Genesee County, and in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Washington and Idaho.
The Cayuga Milk Ingredients plant makes milk protein isolate, which is more than 85 percent milk proteins.
“There are only a handful of plants anywhere making isolate,” Ellis said.
The American Dairy Products Institute lists four plants in the U.S. making milk protein isolate: Cayuga Milk Ingredients; Idaho Milk Products in Jerome, Idaho; Dairy Products of America in Kansas City, Mo.; and Milk Specialties Global in Eden Park, Minn.
The plant makes 28,000 pounds of milk protein isolate a day.
Just think of everything you see in a grocery store that lists extra protein on the package. Items like yogurt, protein bars and shakes, nutritional foods and supplements and protein powders contain milk protein isolates.
In fact, a website called newhope.com featured an article about what is called “the new protein explosion.” It stated estimates from the Nutrition Business Council for 2013 showing the sale of sports nutrition powders brought in $3.41 billion and protein powders brought in $2.9 billion.
The article goes on to say: “Protein is top of the mind for almost every consumer today. Numerous surveys and polls indicate that consumers desire, and, often go out of their way, to find products where protein is the primary ingredient. Essential to human health, protein makes up about 16 percent of total bodyweight, including structures like hair, muscles, fingernails, and so on.”
This is great for Cayuga Milk Ingredients. Ellis said the plant has “maxed out” of its protein products for a year.
But, this isn’t an end-fall for the farmers who supply milk to Cayuga. In times like now, when we’re at the bottom of another milk price cycle, Cayuga Milk Ingredients also is paying its farmers competitive amounts for their milk. This means the Cayuga Milk farmers also have seen their prices plummet in the last year.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, milk prices paid to farmers in New York in March 2014 ranged from $23.82 a hundredweight to $24.22 a hundred. In March 2016, the prices were more than $10 a hundred less — ranging from $13.66 a hundred to $14.06 a hundred.
And Ellis doesn’t see these prices getting any better any time soon. He said while most milk price market cycles usually last about eight months, this one is already at 17 months “with no recovery in sight.”
So how does having Cayuga Milk Ingredients help the farmer?
“It makes us more secure. We know we have a market for our milk,” said Young. “And we have a little more control over some costs like hauling,” noting he knows he is paying only to ship his milk the short few miles to Aurelius each day.
But what Young likes best about Cayuga Milk Ingredients is what he calls pride.
“I have pride in knowing where my milk goes each day,” he said. “Before, I didn’t have pride because I didn’t know where my milk would go or what it was being used for from day to day. The protein isolates seems to be a growing market and there’s a certain amount of pride that we’re supplying milk for this product.”