Ag Talk 11-8-10
Changes are coming for the dairy industry in northern Colorado.
Many of those changes will be driven by the new Leprino Foods cheese plant under construction on the east side of Greeley, Colo. Nick Opper, who has been with the Denver-based company for 30 years, is the vice president of production operations and Greeley plant manager for Leprino.
He discussed the new plant earlier this month at the agriculture committee meeting of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce.
And some of the numbers he casually tossed out to committee members were, quite frankly, eye-openers.
Once the plant starts full production of making cheese – as well as several other products – it will require an additional 62,000 cows to supply the milk the plant will need.
Presently, Weld is the 17th largest U.S. dairy county in cow numbers – 69,783 – and produces 57 percent of the milk in Colorado, according to Colorado dairy industry facts developed by Colorado State University Extension and Dairy Farmers of America. DFA supplies the vast majority of milk to Leprino at its nine current production facilities, which range from New York to California.
Opper said 20,000 of those new cows will be needed within a year, when the plant begins operations, with the other 42,000 needed by 2013 when the plant starts producing cheese and cheese products.
That offers a chance for local dairy producers to grow, but it also means new dairies will be moving into the region and those new dairies could come from various parts of the country. California, however, has been mentioned as the most likely area where dairy producers plan to relocate to Colorado.
Colorado’s climate is ideal for dairy production, a fact beef cattle feeders have known for decades. While it can get hot in the summer and cold in the winter, extended periods of either are rare, so bovine animals can pretty much stay on a set diet, and, in the case of dairy cows, their milk production doesn’t tend to fluctuate all that much.
But back to the new cheese plant.
Opper said construction will soon start on a 150-foot tower on the first phase of the plant, which will cover 100,000 to 200,000 square feet. The entire footprint of the plant, however, is 700,000 square feet. Once the three-phase construction process is complete in 2013, it will be 1,750 feet long, north to south. That’s about six football fields long.
Presently, there are about 75 people working on the construction phase, but another 75 will soon be added when the plant’s initial equipment starts arriving around Thanksgiving. Once the plant starts making cheese, 200 to 300 employees will be needed, Opper said, and most will be hired locally. Within a couple of years, there will be about 500 people at the plant.
The new employees, he said, can be cross-trained at Leprino’s Fort Morgan, Colo., plant, which has been operational for 18 years. Computer and basic skills will be required of the new hires, who also will be trained in food safety, Opper said. Weld County Human Services will assist in finding the new employees, although Opper said a human resources person will soon be on the Greeley site.
While cheese is the main thrust of Leprino, its plants – including its newest – also produce whey. A sweet whey product is used in baked products, Opper said, particularly east of the Mississippi River. Whey protein is used in nutritional drinks and power bars, among other things, while lactose is used in infant formula that is exported to Asia. Leprino is the largest supplier of lactose in the world.
Since its start, supplying cheese to neighborhood restaurants in northwest Denver some 60 years ago, Leprino has developed 50 production patents. In addition to nine U.S. plants, it also has plants in Wales and Northern Ireland that are small but strategically located, Opper said.
Greeley was chosen for Leprino’s 10th U.S. plant because of its ready milk supply, its close proximity to an interstate highway, and an assurance from DFA that future milk demands can be met. At full production, the Greeley plant will require 2 billion pounds of milk per year.
At present, Colorado dairies are producing about 2.8 billion pounds a year.
That 2.8 billion pounds? Roughly, that’s 32.6 million gallons.
Bill Jackson has covered agriculture in northern Colorado for more than 30 years. If you have ideas for this column, please call him at (970) 392-4442.
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