Some small dairy farms need to pivot to other commodities — like specialty cheese
DURHAM — Almost 20 years ago, Sheri and Jason Wiebe realized their small dairy needed to offer more than milk to survive.
Sheri, who was brought up in Manitoba, Canada, suggested making cheese.
“I grew up by two cheese factories,” she said. “We were used to getting our cheese fresh.”
The couple did some research and embarked on a plan — produce high-quality cheddar from the milk obtained from their 150 or so dairy cows.
“I wanted to do something more profitable,” Jason said. “The price of milk is so volatile.”
Soon after starting their new business, Neville McNaughton — also known as "Dr. Cheese" — visited with the couple. He suggested they manufacture Cottonwood River Reserve — a raw, aged sharp cheese. He gave them the recipe, along with lots of advice, and the cheese took off.
“It’s our best seller,” Sheri said.
All the other cheeses the couple manufactures on their dairy farm, Jason Wiebe Dairy, in Durham are based on a recipe from Sheri's mother's cousin Eleanor, who still lives in Manitoba. Some of their bestsellers include bacon cheddar, raw milk cheddar and jalapeno cheddar.
The Wiebes also sell about 60% of their milk to a co-op.
Small dairy farms
Kansas’ dairy industry has grown significantly during the past two decades, with an outlook for continued growth.
Milk production in Kansas during January 2021 totaled 352 million pounds, up 2% from January 2020, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The average number of milk cows was 172,000 head. This is up 3,000 head from one year ago. Milk production per cow averaged 2,045 pounds.
Over the past 20 years, the number of dairy cows in Kansas has doubled. In addition, advances in technology allow producers to increase milk production at both small and large dairies.
As the fight for increased production continues, more small dairies are unable to keep up. Some are turning to value-added products, such as cheese, yogurt or agritourism. Others are closing.
'Dr. Cheese' changing the paradigm
McNaughton, who holds a degree in cheese making from his native New Zealand and runs Sanitary Design Industries, a consulting company in St. Louis, wants to help dairy farmers across the U.S. Although adding a value-added product like cheese may help, he said, the farmer must make sure the product is superior to what is already produced by the large manufacturers.
“Most don’t make it very well. If you're small, why would you want to make commodity cheese?" McNaughton asked. "You can't ever be as efficient as a large producer, so you can't produce the same type of cheese they produce."
McNaughton, who has helped hundreds of farmers and cheese producers nationwide, said far too many farmers fail because of inferior quality. He also recommends doing what the Wiebes do — specialize in one or two types of cheese and make each product well.
He also suggests learning the fundamentals from someone who knows how to make cheese, set up the machines, and organize the business structure.
“When you are making cheese it’s a bit like sailing a yacht because everything is changing all the time,” McNaughton said. “Cheesemaking is a craft.”
Making a profit
McNaughton said it is pretty obvious when a cheese business won't be successful. These producers either do not have proper knowledge, have the wrong equipment or are not producing at a large enough scale to turn a profit.
“Your profitability is tied to your vat size,” he said. “Each time you go through the eight-hour period of production, the amount of cheese can be doubled for an incremental cost.”
The Wiebes understand the concept of producing in bulk. Their vat holds 5,400 pounds of milk and can produce 600 pounds of cheese. They also have machines to cut and wrap the finished project after it is stored in sterilized boxes overnight.
Once the cheese is wrapped, it is moved to new boxes in specially-designed cooling units. Their raw milk cheese must be stored for at least 60 days before it's sold. Their special Cottonwood River Reserve product must be maintained at 50 degrees for at least one year.
In addition to turning a profit, the producer must enjoy their product, and if they have cows, enjoy their herd.
“We use only our milk,” Jason said. “We have complete control.”
The Wiebes hope to purchase a robotic milk machine in the near future, which will boost efficiency.
“Cheese is about pleasure,” McNaughton said. “Food is not just substance.”
Wiebe cheese is distributed nationwide. Some locations where their product is for sale in Kansas a Smith’s Market in Hutchinson, The Paisley Pear in Hays, Krehbiel's Specialty Meats in McPherson, Green Acres Market in Wichita and Prairieland Market in Salina.