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Spink Colony in SD works to double milk returns by making cheese

Eli Wipf, the dairy and beef production manager since September 2012 at the Spink Colony near Frankfort, S.D., says the herd since March 2013 has been shifting toward a three-way cross including Holstein, Scandinavian red and Montbeliarde dairy cattle. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service1 / 4
Käsemeister (German for “cheese master”) Creamery is a new retail brand for Spink Colony at Frankfort, S.D., where the community also raises hogs and and cash crops. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service2 / 4
Paul Wipf, secretary-treasurer of the Spink Colony, a Hutterite community in rural Frankfort, S.D., gives a tour of the cheese making facilities on June 1, 2018. Several hundred people attended. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service3 / 4
The three-way cross among Holstein, Scandinavian red and Montbeliarde dairy breeds produces friendly cattle -- “maybe too friendly,” jokes Eli Wipf, the Spink Colony’s dairy and beef boss at Frankfort, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service4 / 4

FRANKFORT, S.D. — It's tough to stay in dairy production when milk prices are $15 to $17 per hundredweight. The Spink Colony at Frankfort didn't want to give up its longstanding dairy enterprise so leaders decided to take the milk from their 82-cow herd up the food chain and market through the new Käsemeister Creamery cheese factory. The colony welcomed 300 well-wishers at an open house for the cheese factory and retail center on June 1, just in time for June Dairy Month.

Paul Wipf, secretary-treasurer of the Hutterite colony, said the cheese plant was in the process of getting ramped up from January through May when it was opened to the public. They built a retail store on the farm, open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, about 10 miles south of Frankfort, which is 22 miles southeast of Redfield, S.D.

Everyone touring the plant seemed to understand the reason for climbing the food chain.

Paul notes that milk checks in the past two years have been running only a few cents above the break-even price of about 13 cents per pound. By getting into the cheese world, they hope to add up to 20 cents to that figure, but acknowledge there is a risk and a learning curve.

Paul says the colony leaders decided to get into cheese more than two years ago. They built a plant that is sized to accommodate milk from as many as 350 to 400 cows — four times what they have now.

Spink Colony has been at this location since 1945 and has been in the milking business since the beginning. The colony has 130 members. When the colony reached 160 members in 2012, they split to form the Collins Colony at Willow Lake, S.D.

Consumers first

"So far with this cheese venture, it looks pretty promising," Paul says.

The colony employs two full-time men in the cheese plant, supplemented with part-timers. On certain days of the week, women from the colony work in packaging. "You could probably get it done with four full-time guys," Paul says.

The factory is making aged cheddar, regular cheddar and Colby. To develop their business, they're working with a consultant in St. Louis who specializes in on-farm creamery clients.

The colony started production in early May and currently is making cheese with about half of its milk capacity. The rest still goes to Land O'Lakes, which has been helpful and supportive in the cheese venture.

With the cheddars, they add flavors. They had seven flavors available for the taste-testing and open house. "Whatever the public wants, we can make it," Paul says. The colony wouldn't have to add much equipment to make twice as much cheese as it makes today. They have room to install another cheese vat in their sparkling production room, and adding a second shift in a day is doable.

The colony also raises cash crops of sunflowers, corn and soybeans. They use 10 center-pivot irrigators, including some permits off the James River. They also raise hogs and maintain a herd of 250 stock cows. They finish and sell about 70 dairy steers and 190 beef steers.

They started selling cheese products through their own store but also through stores in nearby towns, including Redfield, Tulare, and Huron, S.D. Their cheese is also in Menards, Hy-Vee, Fairway and Sunshine stores.

Investing in A2

Eli Wipf, a distant relative to Paul, is the colony's dairy and beef manager and is in charge of an 82-cow dairy and a 220-cow beef operation. He's been the dairy boss since September 2012. In March 2013, Eli says, the colony started developing the three-way dairy breed cross including Swedish (Scandinavian) red, Montbeliarde and Holstein.The first three-way was born May 15, 2016.

"Our barn is 35 years old," Eli says. "The cow gets bigger, like everything in agriculture. The (Holstein) cows outgrew our barn." They were seeking a smaller-framed, durable and efficient animal.

The cross has achieved a 4.06 percent butterfat average and a herd average of 74 pounds of milk per cow per day. One of their cows produces 120 pounds per day. Eli believes the calves have more vigor and produce more cheese yield than a purebred Holstein.

The colony finishes their own steers and markets them through Glacial Lakes Livestock in Watertown, S.D. A recent load of steers averaged 1,500 pounds at 15 months of age and brought an average of $1.04 per pound. They colony sells some beef direct to consumers in Huron and Sioux Falls, S.D.

For the future, they are selecting dairy bulls for the A2 trait. This is common to cows whose milk doesn't carry what's called a BCM7 peptide, a characteristic of Holstein milk, which is classified as A1 because of a mutation.

In fact, Spink Colony is working toward developing an A2A2 herd, where both the mother and father carry the A2 trait.

The A2 trait is sometimes called the "original milk" because it is prevalent in traditional breeds like Guernsey, brown Swiss and Jersey. Some experts think it has human health benefits associated with diabetes, heart disease and autism. A2A2 milk brings a premium in Australia and New Zealand, and in California, but not yet the Midwest.

"When it does come — and it will — we want to have our foot in the door," Eli says of A2 premiums. He is also looking what's called the "BB," trait, which provides greater cheese yield in the milk.

Eli also touts the colony's "natural" principles. This simply means that "as much as possible" they stay away from antibiotics and other drugs, while still using some vaccines.They also use a lot of aloe vera, a plant-based medication that can help with various ailments, including mastitis infection.

On the crop side, the colony this year planted a quarter of land to non-GMO alfalfa for the cows, and 80 acres of non-GMO corn, both developed by Dairyland Seed in Wisconsin. "If the consumer is worried about it — if they don't want to buy it — the GMO-free cheese is there," Eli says.

If the cheese enterprise pans out as hoped, the colony plans to graduate from its double-seven-stall milking parlor and possibly add robots. The reason is simple, says Eli, who rises at 3 a.m. every other day to milk cows. The second milking is at 3 p.m

"There are more important things that me and the guys that are doing the milking can do for an hour and a half than stand there and milk," Eli says. "With robots, the cows can milk whenever they feel like it." Eli can sleep until 6 a.m. "It's working smarter instead of harder," he says, with a broad smile.