From the Cow to the Cheesemaker

Today’s post is 1450 words, 16 photos, a 6 1/2 minute read. Enjoy

Hi everyone,

In this week’s blog I’ll take you to a dairy farm and a cheese factory. This will round out the three part series on sites and activities when visiting the Madison, Wisconsin area. There’s a lot more to discover than what I’ve described in these posts. So I invite you to come and see for yourself. If you missed the last two posts, click here and here.

As I mentioned in the last two blogs, Friendship Force of Wisconsin-Madison hosted 15 Friendship Force Ambassadors from Oita, Japan and 5 from the Tweed Valley in New South Wales, Australia. Our club organized activities to showcase a few of the many things for visitors to see and do. A visit to Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, wouldn’t be complete without seeing a few cows and tasting fresh cheese curds.

Hinchley’s Dairy Farm

Tina Hinchley is the most enthusiastic spokesperson for agriculture and dairying that I’ve ever met. Part of her mission is to educate everyone who listens to know where their food comes from especially the milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, and all the products produced by dairy cows. Tina, Duane, her husband, and Anna, her daughter took us on a tour of their farm located near Cambridge, Wisconsin. In the photo below, Tina talks about the importance of corn as feed for the cows. She also explained how the early season drought in the Midwest affected the crop yield.

I’ve been to Hinchley’s in the past. Once with another Friendship Force group and another when they hosted the Dane County Breakfast on the Farm in 2009. They also hosted in 2021 but we didn’t attend. Their operation has changed a lot over the years. In 2009, they milked about 125 cows in a stanchion barn, today they milk about 250-300 cows using a robotic milking system. It’s quite the site to see.

I should mention here that Hinchley’s offers tours for groups and individuals of their farm and milking facilities. Reservations are required. If you want to see a modern dairy operation, I highly recommended Hinchley’s.

In addition to the corn field next to the farmstead, Tina and Duane showed our international guests the grain handling system. The bins are huge, holding many thousands of bushels of corn.

The open air barn was clean and the cows curious about who was visiting their territory. The cows were also content and seemed happy. Happy cows equals more milk.

You’ll note that some the chopped feed the cows are eating is out of their reach. Never fear, there is a robot for that! The robot slowly passes up and down each side of the aisle sweeping the forage back within the reach of the cows. Back on the farm I grew up on, this job was performed by one of us kids. In addition, there was a robot that cleaned the slats the cows were standing on. Not a shovel or fork or wheelbarrow in sight. I never thought I’d see the day.

I was enthralled by the robotic milking system. When a cow enters the milking stall, the sensor she is wearing is scanned. The screen on the milker pops up with the cow’s name and number, dispenses feed according to the cow’s production, and begins recording over a hundred pieces of data. While milking, the amount of milk produced by each quarter is recorded, some quarters produce a bit more than other quarters. After a few trips through the milking unit, the robot memorizes the position the milker needs to be in for each particular cow. The amount of milk is measured against the typical amount this cow has produced in previous milkings. It’s fascinating to me, an old country boy that milked cows in a much different way.

I should mention here that on average the cows are milked about 2.7 times per day some as many as five times. If a cow enters the milking stall too early, it’s rejected. The gate opens and she walks out. Come back later when it’s your turn!

The robot first washes and sanitizes the cow’s udder and teats. Then the robot maneuvers the milking machine to attach the suction cups. When milk flow ends in a quarter, the cups are released. When milking is completed the teats are treated with a udder product to keep it moisturized and clean.

Check out this Youtube video if you want to see how the robotic milker works. Since there are no humans involved in the milking of the cows, you might be wondering what happens if something goes wrong. In the case of a malfunction, the robot alerts one of the humans, day or night by way of a phone call or text message. Usually, the human can fix the problem, kind of like doing a reboot of a computer. If they can’t fix issue, there is a technician on call. Sometimes the tech has to actually show up to diagnose and fix the problem.

Before leaving the barn, we each had a chance to milk a cow the old fashion way, by hand. In this photo, the milker, Iain from Australia, took a shot at the photographer!

Duane took us on a tour of the milk house where he showed how they conserve electricity by cooling the milk before it enters the bulk tank. Energy and water conservation are a big part of their overall operation.

We walked through the calf barn where the babies are separated from the bigger kids. The barn was clean, comfortable, and airy, a nice place to grow up.

Before heading off to our next adventure, we had a little fun with the tractor and a group photo.

I can’t tell you how much fun this tour was for me, I think our international friends had fun too.

If you wonder what happens to most of the milk produced in Wisconsin, keep reading about our visit to a cheese factory.

Cedar Grove Cheese

About 90% of the milk produced in Wisconsin is made into one of 600 varieties of cheese. Cheese plants around the state produce nearly 50% of the cheese consumed in the U.S. The remainder of the milk is made into butter, ice cream, bottled milk, and other products.

One sunny morning during the visit from our new friends, we journeyed from Madison to the village of Plain, population about 750. I wondered how it came be name Plain. One theory is that it was named as a homage to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Maria Plain in Austria. There are no written or recorded documents to support this notion. The other explanation is that Plain was named as such because those living there were plain people. Either way, the name stuck even after a later attempt to change the name because it was too plain!

We were in Plain to tour the Cedar Grove Cheese plant that sits on the edge of the town. It’s in the Driftless Area that the most recent ice age missed, leaving steep hills, low valleys, rivers, streams, and mixed forests. A scenic area once home to hundreds of small dairy farms.

Cedar Grove is a medium-sized family-owned cheese plant with six licensed cheesemakers and two Master cheesemakers. The owner of the factory, Bob Wills, met with us to explain how he operates. Most of the milk comes from nearby family farms with small to medium sized herds. Some of those farms produce certified organic milk that Bob uses to make organic cheeses. The organic milk is handled separately from the regular milk.

Every morning, the milk trucks pick-up milk from the farms and bring it to the plant. By the next morning, all the milk from the previous day has been converted into cheese. Some of cheese is sold in bulk to repackagers with rest packaged for sale in retail stores throughout the country. Some of the milk is made into fresh cheese curds that are distributed to local stores as it has a short shelf life. There is also a retail store at the factory. They did a good business at the conclusion of our tour.

One of the by-products of the cheesemaking process is whey. Bob sells this to a large plant where it’s dried and made into a variety of products. What is left from the making of cheese is the waste water. Cedar Grove has installed a “Living Machine,”  a series of tanks, to treat the waste water and return it to the watershed in a pure state.

Inside the plant, the workers were in the final phases of making a fresh batch of cheese curds. Bob told us that many of his workers are recent immigrants, he’s found them hard-working, dependable, and pleasant. 

Thanks for all the kind comments about the Madison area sites. I hope it was inspirational enough for you to consider a visit to this part of the world. There’s plenty to see and do.

Until next week, happy travels!