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Monday, April 28, 2014

Tom Still: Dairy innovation alive and well in Wisconsin as industry adapts to change


By Tom Still
If you don't think technology has been a part of Wisconsin's dairy industry since its humble beginnings, consider the story of Professor Stephen M. Babcock and his butterfat test.

You may know Babcock's name if for no other reason than the iconic dairy store on the UW-Madison campus that is named in his honor.

It's where visitors can buy ice cream, cheese and more in seemingly endless flavors and forms, all within a setting that speaks to the university's historic role in defining Wisconsin as "America's Dairyland."

Babcock's contributions to that image and reality began in 1890, his first year on campus, with the publication of a straight-forward chemistry experiment. He discovered that all of the compounds of milk – except for the fat – dissolve in sulfuric acid.

He devised a test that involved adding sulfuric acid to a known quantity of milk, centrifuging the sample to condense the fat, and calculating the milk fat or "butterfat" content based on the amount of fat recovered per volume of milk tested.

It was an easily conducted field test that revolutionized dairy farming because it set a reliable standard for production, since milk without sufficient butterfat could not be made into many of the dairy products we still enjoy today.

Babcock's test laid the foundation for an agricultural industry built on quality, science and innovation, from the laboratories and "Dairy Short Courses" of a still-young university, to the barns of Wisconsin and to the tables of a growing nation.

Roll forward nearly 125 years and Wisconsin's dairy industry faces new challenges to its continued prosperity, from environmental pressures on the land and water that sustains it, to consumer trends that compel product innovation.

Fostering that kind of innovation is the goal of a new project within the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, one of the world's leading centers for discovery within an industry that has become international in every way.

That global presence was on display last week in Milwaukee, where about 3,000 people took part in the International Cheese Technology Expo and related events hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

That expo was a fitting backdrop for the launch of CDR's TURBO project, which is an acronym for Tech Transfer, University Research and Business Opportunity.

The goal for TURBO seems simple enough: Use principles common to business accelerators to ramp up commercialization of novel dairy technologies and products.

It's aimed at removing speed bumps that often slow the process of "transferring" technology from the lab bench – where too many ideas remain stuck – to companies and consumers.

Potential users of TURBO could include companies interested in incorporating more health-oriented dairy ingredients in their products, companies looking for more efficient production processes, and entrepreneurs with their own dairy technologies that could benefit from the center's testing and development capabilities.

Large companies and individual entrepreneurs alike can also license technologies from the Center of Dairy Research's patent portfolio, or otherwise gain access to other technologies that may not be patentable but are otherwise available.

What's on the idea shelf? Here are a few examples:

* A process that can be used to separate beta-casein for more efficient commercial use. Applications include use as a food ingredient, coffee whitener, whipping and foaming applications, infant formula and even pharmaceuticals.

* Technology that can accelerate the ripening or "aging" of cheese while improving texture and extending shelf life.

* A process for manufacturing a high-protein, cheddar-like cheese snack with a minimum of 36 percent protein. Applications include a school lunch program, snack sticks, athletic snacks and weight management programs.

* Technology that can produce a low-fat mozzarella-type cheese with improved texture and baking properties, with applications for pizza, frozen meals and school lunch programs.

Agriculture was a $61 billion industry last year in Wisconsin, representing one-fifth of the state's gross domestic product, and dairy accounted for nearly half ($26.5 billion) of the total. Even modest amounts of new product innovation and production efficiencies will add significantly to that bottom line.

Wisconsin's dairy industry has come a long way since Babcock's butterfat test, but changing consumer, production, energy and environmental demands mean science and technology are just as vital to the industry today as they were at the turn of the 20th century. It makes good sense to stay on the cutting edge of the world's cheese board.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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