County facility produces butter by the truckload
There is something reassuring about large industrial facilities. The hum of ventilation, the repetitious clattering of machines, the warning whistles and bells of large equipment moving, it is all …
County facility produces butter by the truckload
There is something reassuring about large industrial facilities. The hum of ventilation, the repetitious clattering of machines, the warning whistles and bells of large equipment moving, it is all somehow comforting and awe-inspiring.
It is also a source of pride. ‘We made this’ is not a thought taken lightly. Not only must someone have planned the intricate paths of machinery and service lines, but it had to be built, and built correctly.
There are not many such industrial facilities in Wood County, but there are a few. Just outside of Winnsboro, on the north side of State Hwy. 11, stands one of the county’s own: Keller’s Creamery.
Owned and operated by the co-operative, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the 199,000 sq. ft. plant sits on 256 acres. It was built, according to Plant Manager Dean Heinert, to capture the boom in local dairy production in the 1990s.
Interestingly, while milk processing is yet a significant part of plant operations, Keller’s Creamery is, today, all about butter. It stands as the second largest producer of butter in the nation – last year churning out 102 million pounds of creamy goodness.
After scrubbing up twice – once with hand-soap and once with alcohol – and donning a sterile lab coat, booties, facecloth and hardhat, Heinert led a walkabout of the facility. It started at a butter churn the size of a 40-foot shipping container.
“We had this one built for us in Germany by Westphalia,” Heinert explained, “It houses upper chambers which compress as much of the moisture out of the cream as possible, then two very large screw-shaped churns.”
The plant manager went on to explain that making butter is all about removing as much moisture and air as possible and then re-adding it at a controlled rate, time and temperature.
In addition to butter, Keller’s also produces butter blends – what local shoppers would know as ‘spreadables’ and anhydrous butter oil, which is butter fat separated and mixed with canola or olive oil.
The three large, independent, butter churns feed a number of packaging machines. These packaging lines are a mechanical engineer’s dream, as the precision with which they operate is impressive.
Interestingly, the packaging machines are old technology. As Heinert explained, “Butter is an old business – you find something that works and you stick with it.”
Keller’s Creamery packages butter from single 4-oz sticks to 55-pound blocks used in commercial bakeries.
The production area is impressive for another reason. The service lines and product paths are all stainless steel. Heinert, who started his career with Keller’s in 1999, could easily explain the process.
Given his tutelage even an inexperienced hand could begin to follow the production process, which at first appears like a maze of stainless steel.
All butter leaving the facility passes a number of checks, for consistency, weight and temperature. Heinert explained that ensuring the purity of the products is high on the priority list. Even the path which was chosen for the tour was taken so as to minimize any chance of contamination.
DFA Dairy Brands, still known locally as Keller’s, is a critical cog in national butter production. As a consumable, butter has made quite a market comeback in the past ten years.
Most of the cream received by Keller’s is shipped in from either Garden City, Kan. or Portales, N.M. The raw milk is drawn mostly from the southeast, Florida and Georgia specifically.
Winnsboro folks can attest to the number of trucks in and out of Keller’s on a 24-hour basis. The plant keeps three of four loading bays busy round the clock.
Heinert explained, “The nature of our business is such that we must carefully balance the amount and timeliness of our incoming milk and cream shipments with our ability to put quality products out the door.”
The complexity of that task is driven home when walking through the shipping bay.
Cooled to 38 degrees F, the shipping bay dwarfs those at big-box retail stores. Flow-through, railed, pallet racks reach to the overhead.
What is headed out for distribution are three types of products: DFA Brand products, private label products and cooking stock for culinary schools and chefs. In addition to the butter products, that also includes buttermilk, condensed milk and powered milk.
A few of the DFA brands produced by Keller’s include Keller’s, Borden, Falfurrias (yes, the same Falfurrias as was first made in Falfurrias, Texas), and Plugra. The plant also provides to a number of private concerns as well as large commercial bakeries and supermarkets.
Like every step of the production process, everything is tracked, including any waste from the processes.
One advantage to dairy is that excess from the nearly-closed process can be used for other products. “We work hard to keep waste a mere fraction,” Heinert offered.
The water which is culled from the butter-making process is harvested, purified and used to clean the system lines and machinery.
Of course, the whole facility comes to a sudden stop without the 170-200 employees. Dairy production is naturally a cyclical endeavor as cows give milk aplenty through the winter/spring, but measurably less in the summer.
Logically then, Keller’s increases employee numbers to around 200 during what is known as the ‘spring flush,’ and employee numbers tail off during the hottest months of the year.
“We are running at near capacity right now,” Heinert commented.
Heinert, who is in his 24th year with the dairy, speaks highly of the DFA and the employees who make the magic happen, day and night.
“Our workforce makes an incredible team,” he commented, “and we simply could not do without them. It is my personal objective to make DFA Winnsboro an employer of choice for Winnsboro and the surrounding area. We are headed in that direction.”
When one sees those trucks run east and west on Highway 11, it is reassuring to know that a company in Wood County supplies the nation with a staple food stock found in every kitchen.