by James Dudlicek
Dairy Field takes a look at some of the industry’s
most innovative plants.
safety and quality — all are aspects of a topnotch dairy processing
operation. Today’s top companies know this, and they devote
significant time and resources to improve upon these elements that are
crucial to success.
While marketing and advertising are important to the
viability of a product, without effective and innovative production
capabilities, a product has little chance of long-term survival in the
That’s why processors continue, year in and year
out, to insist on excellence at the plant level to support their
merchandising goals. Whether it’s using the latest production
technology, installing the most high-tech storage and retrieval systems,
developing cutting-edge processes or expanding facilities to meet demand,
processors are making their plants as innovative as technology and
resources will allow.
Dairy Field has visited plants that have included
these and other facets in their operations to increase their productivity and,
hence, buttress their products’ position on the market.
The following is a look at some of the more innovative
plants we’ve seen, in four major processing categories.
It takes an organized team effort to process 70
million gallons of milk every year at a single plant, and that’s
exactly what the H.E. Butt Grocery Co. has at its San Antonio milk plant.
Part of H-E-B’s 56-acre San Antonio Regional
Distribution Center — encompassing manufacturing and distribution
operations for dairy, produce, snacks and frozen foods — the plant
takes in as many as 30 truckloads of milk daily and turns it into products
sold at the company’s 300 supermarkets in Texas, Louisiana and
Mexico. The milk plant produces two lines of milk — the vitamin D-
and E-fortified H-E-B premium line and the value-priced Hill Country Fare
brand, both in gallons and half gallons.
“We can get the milk from the cow to the
customer in two days, typically,” says Bob McCullough, group vice
president of manufacturing. “So what we process today, we’ll
ship tomorrow morning or tomorrow night at the latest. That’s a real
advantage to us from a freshness standpoint. We deliver to our stores seven
days a week — every store.”
Opened in July 1976, the plant started as a five-day
operation with seven-day receiving. Within its first year, production
reached the 15-million-gallon range. “Now it’s a seven-day,
24-hour-a-day operation,” says McCullough.
Open 365 days a year, the plant will at least receive
milk on Christmas and New Year’s Day. “Most times we’ll
need to process at least a little bit [on those holidays] because we turn
our warehouse so frequently,” says McCullough. “Farmers have
done a very, very poor job training the cows to not give milk on Christmas
or New Year’s, so since they give it, we take it.”
That milk comes to the San Antonio plant from farms in
Texas and New Mexico within the Select Dairies co-op, comprising large
dairies of 2,000 to 3,200 head of cattle. “Because of the size of the
dairies, they have daily pickup. That gives us a level of freshness on raw
milk that’s a true advantage to us,” says McCullough.
“The focus on freshness gives us a real advantage over our
Raw milk arriving at the San Antonio plant goes into a
standardized high-temperature/short-time (HTST) pasteurization system.
“As milk is fed into the pasteurization system, it’s also
separated and then recombined at whatever fat level you set it for,”
McCullough explains. “So if we want to run 2 percent milk, we can set
the standardization system for that, and milk will be pasteurized,
separated and then reblended so we have a stream of 2 percent milk and a
stream of fat coming off of that. It’s a very sophisticated
The plant’s two-bay receiving area accepts 28 to
30 6,000-gallon truckloads of raw milk each day. The daily take is stored
in four silos capable of holding 170,000 gallons.
From receiving, the raw milk passes through the
quality control lab, where all incoming milk is tested for five types of
antibiotics and other impurities. All testing data is stored in a database
containing history and trending information. Three technicians not on the
milk plant team provide independent testing of all other incoming
ingredients, like vitamin fortifications and flavors. A cooler, which
attempts to replicate home refrigerator storage conditions, holds samples
of all finished products. At 45 to 50 degrees F, fluid milk is held until
two to four days beyond the expiration date. Products are then sampled for
quality control; batch samples are retained to check in case of customer
complaints of milk spoilage.
Raw milk destined for store-bound bottles is fed into
one of two HTST pasteurizing systems, where it is pasteurized at 165
degrees for 22 seconds, explains Chris Gundrum, milk plant leader. The
fluid milk pasteurizer handles 8,000 gallons per hour, 20 hours a day, he
says. A second HTST system, which handles 3,600 gallons per hour in batches
of 1,500 to 2,000 gallons, is used primarily for cultured products and
orange juice. It processes 16,000 gallons of cultured products and 6,000
gallons of orange juice daily. The entire pasteurizing area is the
responsibility of a single operator.
Meanwhile, the blow-molding room churns out gallon and
half-gallon plastic bottles that move on either directly to fillers or into
storage for inventory. The plant started manufacturing its own bottles with
the arrival of two blow-molding machines in 1980; a third was added in
Bottles are fed to the labeler, where containers are
labeled front and back. The San Antonio plant produces all milk sold at
H-E-B’s Mexico stores, so some runs are done with Spanish labels (or
bilingual for Hill Country Fare products). The labeler handles 10,000
bottles per cycle, then shuts down for addition of more product or
restarting. The newer machines have touch-screen operation and photo-eye
technology for added safety, notes Gundrum.
Labeled bottles then move to the filling area; 145
gallon bottles per minute are filled with one of eight SKUs of gallon milk
on each of three filling machines. Two of the fillers handle milk and
juice, while the third is used exclusively for bottled water. Bottles then
move on to the checkweigher, which kicks underweight containers out of the
production line. Bottles of milk are packed into cases, stacked onto
pallets and sorted on racks with a unique automated crane system.
The computer-controlled system stacks cases onto
pallets, takes a photo to determine the bottles’ cap color, counts
the number of caps and identifies the product type. Gundrum says the
company is upgrading its software to tie this step into the inventory
system; currently the plant conducts a physical inventory twice daily.
The San Antonio plant employs an innovative crane and
rack palletizing system that sorts loaded pallets in racks three high and
10 deep. The bright-yellow unmanned crane, controlled by a computer
workstation, deposits pallets in the rack and automatically records the
movements on the computer. “The product we’re doing now will be
in our stores this afternoon or, the latest, tomorrow morning,” says
McCullough explains how the system identifies
products. “It’s got a camera that can identify the cap color,
compare it with a known library of colors, decide what product it is and
maintain a perpetual inventory for us,” he says. “Our forklift
operators will identify the products as they take it away; the crane
identifies it, puts it in a rack, and we have a very accurate perpetual
This automated system has given H-E-B yet another edge on its
competition by speeding up the process of getting fresh product from plant to
store, says McCullough. “We had forklift drivers, typically three per
shift, out there taking milk away from the palletizers and putting it into a
static rack system. We put in flow-through racks, 10 deep; they guarantee us
FIFO [first in, first out],” he says. “Using the crane, we’re
eliminating the forklift drivers, and finally, using the camera system and the
sequel server that we have, we’re able to generate that real-time inventory.
So it gives us clear milk identity going in. We can inventory the racks any
time using real-time inventory just by pulling it up on the screen, and we can
really control the inventory and the accuracy of our production requirements
in a much stronger manner than we could prior to the introduction of this system.”
Future plans call for edging up capacities a bit for milk and
cultured dairy production. “If we look at bottle-making capacity, receiving
capacity, processing and filling capacity, the plant is fairly well-balanced,
with the right amount of takeaway or queue at each step of the process,”
says McCullough. “A significant expansion of the capacity of this plant
would affect every process and not something that’s economically justifiable.
We have a lot of capacity at our Houston milk plant, and we use that as a way
of keeping this plant in balance.” — James Dudlicek