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Westby Cooperative Creamery invests in new process and market for its whey

The creamery located in the rugged countryside of western Wisconsin is known for its award-winning cottage cheese.

Westby Coop Creamery
Cottage cheese lines the cooler at the Westby Cooperative Creamery store located in downtown Westby, Wisconsin, about 30 miles from the Minnesota border.
Noah Fish / Agweek

WESTBY, Wis. ― The only cottage cheese manufacturer in Wisconsin has found a "whey" to become more resourceful in its cottage cheese making process, while helping save its business at the same time.

Westby Cooperative Creamery, located in downtown Westby about 30 miles from the Minnesota border, won a gold medal for its 4% small curd cottage cheese at the World Championship Cheese Contest in 2020 and 2010.

Following 2020, the creamery was forced to take its biggest byproduct from making cottage cheese and turn it into something saleable.

Emily Bialkowski, sales and marketing manager for Westby Cooperative Creamery, said the pandemic “really decimated the business” of the client that had been purchasing acid whey from the creamery. That client, which Bialkowski would not name, was using the acid whey to make protein powder.

“Historically, we had been able to siphon it off and then ship it to this client who processes it themselves,” said Bialkowski.

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When the pandemic upended that business, the cooperative was left with a lot of acid whey to get rid of, and no clients to purchase it in that same form.

“So that was costing us about $40,000 a month to appropriately dispose of this byproduct of making cottage cheese,” said Bialkowski. “So we decided to bring in the filtration equipment ourselves.

Westby Coop Creamery
Cottage cheese, a specialty of the Westby Co-op Creamery, is made by draining the cheese instead of pressing it, which holds onto some of the whey and keeps the curds loose. Noah Fish / Forum News Service

The creamery has invested $1 million into the project and in turn, expects to process 6.9 million gallons of whey in 2022.

Acid whey is a byproduct of making cottage cheese, and the whey that comes off the cottage cheese can be processed into whey permeate and whey protein. The permeate is used for animal feed, and the protein is used in a lot of nutritional supplements.

“As a dairy cooperative with over 145 small family farms that make their living off the land, we have a responsibility to actively research and invest in practices that help better our environment and the communities we live in,” said Pete Kondrup, general manager of Westby Cooperative Creamery. “Turning acid whey into a usable product is one way we can do this.”

The acid whey filtration processing equipment was installed and has been operational for several months now, said Bialkowski. To monitor the equipment, the cooperative transitioned three or four people to the task.

In addition, the creamery is working to eventually reuse the water that is used in the acid whey filtration process.

“Perhaps within the next year or so, we'll have the ability to capture the water,” said Bialkowski. “And it'll all be cleaned and ready to go, and reused in the plants for things like cleaning.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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