The house that dairy built: Aging CDR, Babcock Hall get new look after $72.5M makeover

Jan Shepel
Lou Gentine, center, chairman of the board of Sargento Foods, prepares to cut a braided rope of mozzarella cheese during a grand opening celebration for the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and Center for Dairy Research at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Gentine is flanked by Randy Romanski, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, left, and John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, right.

MADISON ‒ Babcock Hall is a popular destination for ice cream lovers while the Center for Dairy Research is well-known to dairy manufacturers in Wisconsin for its ability to help with technical issues and educational resources. But customers of each have known for years that both institutions on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus were falling behind because of a flagging infrastructure.

Babcock Hall was built in 1951 and in recent years the deterioration from those decades was beginning to show – equipment was outdated and space was tight. Projects that food scientists wanted to do had to be shelved or delayed. But a recent overhaul of the facility is finally reaching its conclusion. Tours for Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association members were conducted the first week of April when that group held its convention in Madison. During the following week, Babcock and CDR were toured by reporters and an open house was planned for the general public.

The $72.9 million project included renovating the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, which stayed within its existing footprint. The project also included building a new three-story addition for the CDR. It was the first major upgrade to the dairy plant since it was built 72 years ago. Babcock Hall today houses the Department of Food Science, Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, the Dairy Store where ice cream is sold and the Center for Dairy Research.

A poster showing students in the 1911 Dairy School is seen on display during a public open house celebrating the grand opening of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and Center for Dairy Research at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Friday, April 14, 2023.

Project conjures up déjà vu moment

The project is sort of déjà vu all over again. In 1951 when the facilities were improved, they replaced Hiram Smith Hall, a 60-year-old facility that was holding back progress in dairy research at that time.

The concept for this new and improved project was first floated in 2011 and the UW’s Board of Regents approved it in 2012. The University said it would ask the state for $16 million if the industry could raise a matching amount. According to the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, dairy industry folk did better than that, raising $18.4 million very quickly in 2012 and 2013. Some of the gifts from the industry were at the seven-figure level. 

That funding from national and state dairy industry businesses and families was essential to getting the project done. A wall commemorating the contributions of the cheese and dairy donors is on display in the lobby of the new building.

The total square footage of the entire project – both the renovation and the addition – is over 77,000 square feet.

CDR more than home of Master Cheesemakers program

The CDR was established in 1986 and is home to the state’s vaunted Master Cheesemakers Program. It offers help with product development, dairy research, troubleshooting, technical support and education for dairy processors in the state. It has become a center for dairy knowledge for people around the world.

“We have the industry coming in here, so it should be the best,” said John Lucey, CDR director. “We had equipment that needed to be replaced and with students in here it was dangerous and often labor intensive as well as inefficient in terms of energy use,” he added.

Members of the public look out over the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant from the observation deck during a during a public open house celebrating the grand opening of the plant and the Center for Dairy Research at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Friday, April 14, 2023.

The new addition for CDR includes its own food-grade, licensed production facility, including small-scale production space and a dizzying array of food processing equipment. Lucey showed reporters a nearly completed space that will house production and research into shelf-stable fluid milk products. These dairy products can be important for export since they remain wholesome for up to a year without refrigeration. He showed reporters equipment that can package milk in bags or in bottles.

New equipment will be used in the space to filter, concentrate and evaporate milk. Another space will house production and packaging for various kinds of yogurt and other soft products. Four 40-gallon vats will be used to make yogurt.

Tour highlights caves

Off the CDR’s cheesemaking room is a set of 10 small rooms, dubbed “caves,” that are designed to age various kinds of cheese in specialized temperature and humidity conditions. Each ripening room has its own set of environmental controls so small batches of cheese can be aged and tested individually. This was considered a must to help propel the state’s specialty cheese sector, Lucey said. “We had no ripening rooms in the past. We had to go to outside sources to ripen cheeses.”

Center for Dairy Research Director John Lucey who has worked in Ireland, Holland and New Zealand in the dairy industry, says “there’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world” as he shows off one of 10 'caves' where specialty cheeses can be made, tested and aged in their perfect conditions.

Lucey said he has worked in Ireland, Holland and New Zealand in the dairy industry and “there’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world” where specialty cheeses can be made, tested and aged in their perfect conditions.

One of the reasons that so much attention was given to the production, aging and perfecting of specialty cheese, he said, is that these kinds of artisan and specialty cheeses have become a huge part of the cheese industry in Wisconsin. With the proper facilities to develop more of them, as the CDR now has, it positions Wisconsin for further growth in specialty cheese, he said. It is his hope that specialty cheese production in the state could be doubled in the next decade or two.

"Best dairy research unit in the world"

About half of the country’s specialty cheese production comes from Wisconsin now and about one-fourth of Wisconsin’s total cheese production is considered to be specialty cheese, Lucey said. Back in the early 1980s specialty cheese accounted for only 2 percent of Wisconsin’s cheese production and now it’s about 25 percent.

Lucey feels that the facilities that are now available at the CDR will help the state’s cheesemakers grow into an even bigger part of that specialty market.

Butter makers are also served at the CDR. They can learn butter making and get their apprenticeship hours at the CDR.

The CDR facilities also include a three-stage two-story whey dryer that was sourced from the Netherlands. Whey, once considered a waste product, is now an important co-product of cheesemaking; more research is needed to maximize the value of it, he said. This dryer can produce products like milk powder.

CDR's Coordinator of the Cheese Industry and Applications Program John Jaeggi shows visitors how he mills curds of Cheddar that will be used as a test project for snack cheese.

It all adds up to “the best dairy research unit in the world,” Lucey said. He will gradually increase the staff, now that they all have a place to work and hopes to be up to 50 people by the end of the year. “We want people who are passionate and excited about their work in the dairy industry.”

Even Lucey is amazed with the range of products that can now be made in the new CDR facilities. “Really, almost anything we want to make, we can make here now. We have the space the flexibility to be able to do that.”

Babcock and ice cream

Casey Whyte, plant manager of Babock Hall said the production side of the plant produces 50,000 pounds of cheese per week, with cheesemaking done on three or four days each week. The pristine new facilities include rooms for brining, aging, cutting and wrapping. Babcock employs two cheesemakers as well as student employees and other employees.

Babcock Hall produces bottled milk, cheese and of course, ice cream for on-campus and some off-campus sales.

Babcock is famous for its ice cream and makes 18-22 ice cream flavors. He showed reporters the new cooler that is kept at minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit. When production ramps up in the new facility the cooler will hold 5,500 three-gallon tubs of ice cream. This new freezer space is something Whyte is really excited about because it is a big upgrade from the three old, smaller coolers in the older facility.

Plant manager Casey Whyte, right, gets a primer on the operation of an ice cream filling and packaging machine for pints and smaller cups by Sawvel Automation’s Jesse Lucking, left, at the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

A better freezer system means that they can be more efficient in their ice-cream making. Larger batches can be made and frozen when production is in progress rather than making small batches to try to keep up with demand. A conveyor feeds the tubs directly into the freezer.

Whyte showed reporters the raw milk intake where milk from UW cows and from Foremost Farms member farms is pumped into two silos, each containing 2,000 gallons of milk. The raw product room is where cream is separated from skim milk so that the fat content can be standardized for ice cream and other products. Heavy cream can be up to 40 percent fat, he said.

The separator is the tool that makes the variety of dairy products possible, he said. Devices to pasteurize and homogenize milk are also in this area.

Whyte has been with Babcock for 11 years and spent the last four as plant manager, a somewhat trying time as the construction project dragged on. But it also meant that he was involved in the design and construction of the new facility.

He said that vanilla ice cream is still the number-one seller of Babcock ice cream and just behind that is cookie dough.

The renovation project includes a new high-flow ice cream maker, automation with touch-screens, an improved raw-milk intake, new quality control lab space along with a new system of piping, tanks, valves and pumps to move milk more efficiently around the plant.

Super happy

Lucey and the CDR are “super happy” to have this new facility, which rises three stories on the west end of Babcock Hall. An old artist-in-residence house and part of a parking lot were sacrificed to make room for the new addition. Funding for the CDR comes from the checkoff-funded Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, from cheesemakers and from the dairy industry. His staff and the CDR cheesemakers work with 150 dairy companies each year, holding 30 different short-term courses per year in various areas like grading, cheesemaking and even educating dairy retailers and foreign buyers of dairy products.

The 80-seat state-of-the-art lecture hall near the lobby of the new building has been in use for about a year. “It is one of the first places we started using” he said. As parts of the building have gotten finished they have had a “rolling opening.”

This facility is often used by individual companies to have training sessions for their staff members alone ‒ sometimes companies want to have only their people in a session to avoid sharing trade secrets. Lucey said the CDR does 10 to 15 custom training courses each year.

One of courses CDR staffers are now planning now is for USDA inspectors. Retailers also take advantage of the expertise. “Whole Foods has been coming here for 10 years,” he said. “The more knowledge we can get to the people who are selling dairy products, the better it is for the industry.” Some of the courses are now being offered in Spanish.

Each year CDR works with over 100 dairy companies and more than 30 national and international dairy organizations on various projects and education courses. It is home to more than 15 dairy short courses per year.

Lucey, who has been with the CDR for 12 years, said the new facilities were designed to be “future facing.” While much of the equipment is hardened into the facility, certain other smaller-scale things are designed to be “plug and play” with power and utility drops in certain places where they can be moved in and out as needed.

Center for Dairy Research’s Brian Riesterer chats with the public while handing out samples during an open house celebrating the grand opening of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and Center for Dairy Research at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Friday, April 14, 2023.

Taste testing

The new facility also includes opportunities for consumers to taste test different dairy products. One area that includes a commercial kitchen is where volunteers – who are recruited through email blasts or social media – learn to be taste testers. Lucey explained that they must be able to discern between different flavors and taste characteristics. All of those who work as tasters get training so they know how to express what they are tasting. It takes 20 to 40 hours to train sensory panel members.

Cheesemaker John Jaeggi was working on a project to test snack cheese when reporters walked through his corner of the facility. He was milling and salting cheese curds to be used in the project. All of the cheese vats used in the CDR’s cheesemaking facility are small in scale and in many cases have weigh bars under them so the cheese yield can be calculated. One of the vats is lined with copper to accommodate certain specialty cheese making processes.