Creating More Valuable Milk for New York Farmers and Processors

The cows on New York State farms must be happy, because they make really good milk. It’s tasty, nutritious and locally produced. In 2013 Martin Wiedmann had an idea to make milk even better. Now his team is helping the industry learn how to adapt their routines to make a more valuable, extended shelf-life fluid milk product.

This article was developed for the 2018 NYFVI annual report. More information about this work can be found online at MQIP.

Five years ago Martin Wiedmann, Professor of Food Science at Cornell University submitted a proposal to Farm Viability. He and his team wanted to understand the point of entry for sporeforming bacteria in raw milk, and to be able to associate each type with its deleterious impact.

This first project aligned with the Farm Viability strategic priority “Incubating New Ideas”. The board knew the work was at an early stage, but they also saw its potential. As the saying goes, “you need to measure to manage.”

At the end of that project, the team had identified management practices and spore sources that are important in the transmission of spores into bulk tank raw milk, including sporeformers that resist high heat pasteurization and can ruin milk powder as well as where in the supply chain it is introduced. Customers in many countries have limits for a specific group of sporeformers, known as “Highly Heat Resistant Spores”, so deeper knowledge in this area was critical for processors exporting milk powder.

In addition to the highly heat resistant spores, the team also learned what factors were important in the presence of anaerobic sporeformers in raw milk, which can cause cheese to “blow” in the aging process, creating waste in the supply chain.

However, the sporeformers that created the most interest were the psychrotolerant spores that proved to be capable of growing at low temperatures and spoiling fluid milk. These spores are capable of surviving HTST pasteurization and are responsible for nearly 50% of fluid milk spoilage.

Processors and dairy farmers both know that the dairy aisle has turned into a beverage aisle as plant based beverages have flooded the market. While consumers seek out these products for a variety of reasons, they do have one advantage: a longer shelflife than real milk that comes from dairy cows. Extended shelf-life fluid milk could become a new premium product. It will also help with logistics management as the industry adapts to online shopping.

In 2016, the next step was to learn how to cost effectively manage the spores through farm-level interventions. Wiedmann received a second FVI grant to continue his efforts. That project demonstrated that bulk tank raw milk spore levels can be reduced through specific low-cost interventions at the dairy farm including personnel training on enhanced hygiene techniques as well as improvement of towel preparation protocols.

Wiedmann’s current project on the topic is to understand the impact of reduced spore counts on fluid milk shelflife (e.g., number of days of shelf-life extension) relative to the reduction in spore levels at the farm.  This will allow a processor to establish a dollar value for specific spore counts. There will also be a farm level economic analysis conducted so a producer will understand the approximate cost of delivering a lower spore product.

Processors have been following the work closely and two processors are part of the project’s advisory board. As the 2018 proposal was submitted, one business indicated formal support and willingness to pay producer premiums if the project demonstrated the value of the low spore raw milk.

“As the winners of the 2017 Best Milk in New York State award, Stewart’s and our local milk producers are committed to providing the highest quality fluid milk to our customers.  Stewart’s still offers a tiered quality premium to our local farms and provide support to achieve them through our certified milk inspectors and in-house lab. If the study shows that farm-level interventions can provide a longer shelf life to our product through low psychrotolerant spore levels in their raw milk, the information gained and shared should achieve higher quality payments.  Stewart’s investment in quality at the farm level helps provide an award-winning product to our customers!”
Brett Abbey, Stewart’s Shops

The Farm Viability investment in this work has been approximately $350,000. 30 producers have been directly involved and many more have followed the study through presentations and outreach publications.

“If we can control spore-forming variables and learn how to market low-spore milk with its extended shelf life, freshness and taste, then our hope is that processors will be willing to pay farmers more for our milk.”

John Mueller, Willow Bend Farm at Clifton Springs, N.Y.