Dairy production is a long-running tradition at MSU and they have the cheese to prove it

RJ Wolcott
Lansing State Journal
The process of making cheddar cheese curds starts with 700 gallons of pasteurized milk, ultimately yielding 600 lbs. of cheese curds. The MSU Dairy plant makes just over a dozen kinds of cheese, producing about 40,000 pounds annually.

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — At any given time, there's close to 30,000 pounds of cheese inside Michigan State University's Anthony Hall.

That's enough cheese to construct 20 full-sized replicas of the Sparty statue in cheddar, Gouda and asiago. Or to make a grilled cheese sandwich for every fan in Spartan Stadium on a football Saturday.

It's made with milk from MSU cows, pasteurized, cultured, pressed and packaged right on campus, the Lansing Sate Journal reported .

Wheels of Gouda loom over dozens of 40-pound boxes of cheddar cheese, packaged and primed for holiday sale. Elsewhere, packets of cheese curds wait to be devoured.

MSU's Dairy Plant is better known for producing ice cream flavors named for sports coaches and Big Ten rivals, but it also produces roughly 40,000 pounds of cheese every year.

Cheddar is far and away the biggest seller, and the staff makes it year round, but offerings range from Gruyere and asiago to offbeat chocolate cheese confections.
Joshua Hall, a dairy production technician at MSU, said the holiday season is the peak for cheese sales, but it requires planning.

"If we want sharp cheddar for Christmas, we need to be making it a year or two in advance," Hall explained.

In early December, Hall and Josh Clark, a dairy technician, were in the midst of cheese production.

The process begins with the pasteurization of milk, followed by the addition of bacteria to acidify it and enzymes to help bring it into a solid form.

Steam circulated inside the 700-gallon metallic bath, heating the milk, with Hall stirring with a large metal instrument.

Liquid whey was drained out of the tank, leaving behind close to 600 pounds of cheese curds. Hall stacked the curds along the side of the tub to allow excess liquid to drain out of the tank.

Michigan State University  Dairy production technician Joshua Hall separates the makings of cheddar cheese curds while draining off whey, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, at the MSU Dairy Plant in East Lansing.

"This is my favorite thing to do," Hall said as he cut the pile of curds into mounds and flipped them in order to ensure even heating.

From there, the cheese will be pressed to remove even more liquid before being shaped and packaged for storage.

The amount of maturation time needed varies by variety. Younger cheeses need just a few months, though several varieties get better and better with each passing year, Hall said.

"As cheese ages, the fundamental components of cheese, protein fat and sugar, break down because of bacteria," he said. "What we perceive as flavors like nuttiness, meatiness, those are a consequence of fat and protein breakdown and their relationship to one another."

Of the 40,000 pounds made annually, some 30,000 is sold, while the rest is held back to mature, said Zeynep Ustunol, a professor and director of graduate programs at MSU's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Dairy production is a long-running tradition at MSU. The university opened its first production facility in 1894.

Students can still learn about the process in the dairy production class and make their own cheeses for their required independent project.

While not available at cafeterias, both the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center and University Club of MSU use MSU cheeses, Ustunol said.

MSU has two dairy herds, she explained. One south of campus and the other at the Kellogg Biological Station. The latter is grass-fed, and their milk is used for MSU's fancier cheeses, including a smoked cheddar and Gouda.

Milk from grass-fed cows gives cheeses "a different texture, body, and flavor," Hall explained. Its use in cheese production, he added, "gives us a fantastic taste profile, above what would expect from a herd being fed total mixed rations."

"We have some excellent cheeses people don't know about," she said.