A recent news story explained how Westby Cooperative Creamery made the decision to installing equipment at its plant that filters out the protein, solids and water from the cottage cheese they make.
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It also involves the process of reverse osmosis to concentrate the permeate that is sold to a company that dries it. The concentrated permeate is sold to farms that use it for a feed supplement.

Before the system was installed, Westby was spending $50,000 per month to dispose of the whey as if it were a hazardous material explains manager Pete Kondrup. Now they can turn it into protein that can be used for human and animal feed and nutritional supplements.

“We wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t do this project,” Kondrup said. “It wasn’t sustainable to keep the plant running and spending $50,000 a month hauling the whey out. The most important thing is we continue to run…and we do add some value to the milk. A better pay price. That’s our main goal to get as much back as we can.”

Chances are you have eaten whey protein today without even knowing it or thinking about it. Whey is what’s left after the cheese is made in every cheese factory across the land. For every 100 pounds of milk the cheese maker receives, about ten percent goes into the cheese, the other 90 percent rest is water containing whey protein. You can’t see it but until 35 years ago, you could smell it during hot summer days in the pond located behind most cheese factories.

Today, whey protein is an ingredient in so many foods: bakery goods, candy, salad dressing, infant formula, cookies, snack foods, energy bars, breakfast cereal, ice cream, cheese and on and on.

Some years ago I searched the internet (and asked a lot of dairy people) and could not find an account of the time when cheese factory whey stunk up the ponds each summer and who fixed the problem.

A livestock trucker and farmer

When I was a young County Ag agent in Clark county, we annually hired a livestock truck and driver to haul the 4-H cattle to the State Fair. The owner of the truck was one Frank Thomas who farmed at Greenwood while also working at a farm auction for the famed Thorp Finance.

He always laughingly proclaimed that the only way he got out of Greenwood High School was to sneak out after his junior year and that he was a ‘halfway dairy farmer.”

I lost track of Thomas after I left UW Extension and moved on to other ag positions as did he until in 1979. As manager of ADA of Wisconsin, I attended the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Cheese Makes Association at the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.

After lunch, a friend grabbed me by the arm saying “you’ve got to hear this“ and dragged me into a room where a speaker by the of name Frank Thomas was about to discuss: “potential ultrafiltration in cheesemaking and whey processing”.

Upon seeing me, the man at the podium waved and yelled out, “When are we going to get together again?” I was in shock at seeing my old farmer/trucker friend, Frank Thomas, wearing a black suit (and not jeans), giving a seminar to the top cheese makers and industry folks in the world.

Frank Thomas was one of the few people I ever met who changed the world: dairying, cheesemaking, human and livestock diets, food ingredients and health on a national and international basis. The feat he accomplished 40 years ago is still current today. Off and on over the years I heard bits and pieces about Thomas and what he was doing but never got to talk with him.

A bit later we did get together and I heard his story.

The story begins

“A cheese maker friend who owned a factory in Hoven, South Dakota asked me to help him out,” Thomas began. “This was in the mid ‘60’s and eventually I bought him out.”

Although Thomas admitted to having no experience in cheesemaking, he learned very quickly and a year later bought a cheese factory at Pollock and in 1967 he started a new cheese operation at Sturgis in the Black Hills and then a butter plant at Bowdle.

Into research

“I guess I’m kind of a stingy guy,” Thomas explained. ‘I was paying $3.25 per hundred for milk in 1964 and throwing or giving 90 percent of it away. I learned of a town near the Missouri River that was using some new technology to remove minerals from their drinking water.“

Thomas visited the town and began to ponder: Could he use that technology to take invisible solids out of whey and sell them at a profit? Thomas put together some equipment and began testing at the Hoven plant.

“I set up a laboratory and began researching separating the protein into a concentrate using spiral wound membranes,” he told me.

In 1972, Thomas opened the first ever ultrafiltration reverse osmosis whey processing plant at the Pollock facility and became a local hero. The Pollock Pioneer newspaper carried a major story in its June 14, 1973 issue hailing Thomas for spending $250,000 to build the new protein plant “which could bring a minor revolution in the whole (dairy) industry”.

Getting that first plant up and running was not always an easy project for Thomas and not everyone in the industry thought it would work.

John Skogberg, local county agent quoted these words of Thomas: “Many dairy processing specialists and officials of state universities and the USDA said it was impossible to separate the milk proteins from the whey economically.”

Had to be done

There were also a growing number of industry and government officials who knew that something had to be done to solve the whey problem at cheese plants. One was William Schwantes, owner of Lynn dairy at Granton, Wisconsin, who was having whey disposal problems. The result: Schwantes and Thomas formed a partnership and Lynn Proteins was built in 1974 as the second plant of its kind in the U.S. Thomas and his Thomas Technical Services technology went on to establish 126 whey protein plants across the country.

The technology Thomas pioneered has progressed since those early days and is now considered a ‘must’ in every cheese operation with whey protein concentrate a valuable product worldwide.

Frank Thomas died in August 1997 at age 73 after a lifetime spent changing dairying and the world. This will continue at Westby Co-op as the whey is better used…thanks to Frank Thomas.

John F. Oncken can be reached at jfodairy2@gmail

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