Quality, safety and capacity needs were built into Upstate Niagara’s new Buffalo-area plant. The facility was designed and constructed on a greenfield site, which allowed Upstate Niagara to incorporate a variety of new technologies to address product safety and security, energy efficiency and plant automation.

“You don’t get this opportunity very often,” Jim Murphy, Upstate Niagara Cooperative’s director of quality operations, says of building a new dairy plant from the ground up.

Building the $32.5 million plant in West Seneca, N.Y., which opened in January 2006 and was fully commissioned the following May, was the perfect chance for the co-op to tailor a facility to its exact needs and include room to grow. To be sure, the organization expects to grow with the plant, considered a key element in keeping its Western New York farmer members competitive in the increasingly compact dairy marketplace.

The facility was designed and constructed on a greenfield site, which allowed Upstate to incorporate a variety of new technologies to address product safety and security, energy efficiency and plant automation. Upstate reports that the facility exceeds the New York state requirements for energy efficiency by 11%, an important achievement in the face of skyrocketing energy costs. Plus, a brand-new building meant Upstate was able to lay it out in a logical fashion, compared to the hodgepodge of additions common to many old-time city dairy plants that have expanded over time.

The new plant was outfitted mostly with new equipment, with the exception of some fillers and case-packing equipment relocated from the facility it replaced, a century-old plant on Scott Street in downtown Buffalo. With the commissioning of the new facility, Upstate’s cultured manufacturing capacity has doubled. The plant’s streamlined production flow is intended to support future mass volume, while the company still can also supply niche products for its existing customer base. 

“We overbuilt the plant to accommodate future growth,” Murphy says. “If you build a plant with capacity two times what you’re doing, you have to find more customers.”

So space was allotted for more equipment to come later as it’s needed; for example, there’s room for several more pasteurized tanks, with knockout panels already installed above their future locations to access the maintenance mezzanine. “We put a lot of money into things that aren’t expandable like heating and cooling,” Murphy explains. “This is the first time that I’ve had more heating and cooling than I need.”

A computer system controls all functions of plant operations – receiving, blending, processing, filling and cleaning – and can be accessed on any touch screen throughout the facility. The plant “historian” records all activity for key equipment such as tank levels, temperature, pressure and conductivity, and reduces the amount of legal charts to maintain. “If there’s a problem, we actually go in and look at the data,” Murphy says. “We don’t have to guess.”

Downtime is reduced significantly due to the enhanced graphics for troubleshooting key areas of plant operations. The use of in-line solids analyzers have helped reduce plant losses, which are controlled throughout the plant and are prevented by the system’s process interlocks.

For added food security, all finished product is bar coded. “We have implemented a full traceability system for all materials from ingredients and packaging all the way to finished product,” Murphy notes.

Palletizing robots have been installed to eliminate most of the hand stacking that existed in the old facility. Programming on this system also controls which type of pallet and pallet wrap to be used for each SKU, with a pallet-stacking sequence unique to each product. “When they change the product, it changes the bar code and communicates to the robot to change its pallet pattern,” Murphy says.

Food safety measures were built in as well. All flooring is epoxy rather than tile, and the walls feature Strandlock, an epoxy coating that’s impervious to moisture and resistant to chemicals used in washdown. Further, the air-handling system is equipped with HEPA filters and designed to flow to minimize airborne contaminants. “We were able to get the air flow how we wanted it. You don’t want it flowing from raw to pasteurized,” Murphy says. “Cottage cheese is your most susceptible product because of the higher pH and it’s exposed.”

The basics

Milk is delivered every morning from Upstate Niagara’s member farms throughout Western New York. Raw product must pass a standard battery of lab tests before it can be offloaded. “We license the receivers so they can do their own antibiotic tests at receiving,” Murphy says.

The raw room features three batch tanks, with room to install three more as demand warrants. The HTST room houses two pasteurizers, one for product operating at 75 gallons per minute and a second for skim at 90, with room for a third press. “Current processing capacity can take us to 120 million pounds a year,” Murphy says.

Excess heat generated by pasteurization is sent up into the mezzanine, where valve clusters are located so they can be worked on waist-high instead of at ceiling level, Murphy explains. “You don’t see a lot of piping. It’s either up or behind, not haphazard in inaccessible places,” he says.

There are five pasteurized tanks – two for skim, two for cream and one multipurpose tank that can be used for skim, condensed skim and cream. Separated cream is pumped through a cooling press, then through a cream crystallizer to remove latent heat for a more maintainable temperature for silo storage.

As a cultured plant, the West Seneca facility is “cream neutral” on an annual basis, Murphy says. “If we have a run on higher-fat products, we have to purchase cream. But we purchase it from a sister plant,” he says, noting that excess cream is sent to sister plants for use in ice cream mix and other products. “It works out great. You always know the quality and consistency of the cream.”

The computerized batching system features automatic standardization. “From an R&D perspective, when we develop a product, we can load in all the processing parameters,” Murphy says. All recipes are tracked, including lot codes for all ingredients. When each batch meets all specs and passes lab tests, it’s released for processing.

Products made perfect

The yogurt room features six fermentation tanks for blended yogurt, totaling 24,000 gallons; three tanks for cup-set and fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, totaling 8,000 gallons; and five blended yogurt surge tanks totaling 24,000 gallons. Two cooling presses are used to halt fermentation when blended yogurt reaches the proper pH level.

In the cottage cheese room, there are six 4,000-gallon direct culinary steam cooking vats, four 10,000-pound drainer/creamers and one drainer/washer/cooler. Cooked curd is moved from the vats as a slurry to protect the integrity of the curds, into the drainer/washer/cooler. The drainer/creamers utilize load cells so they can be calibrated for the weight needed for each batch and drained to that amount, after which the dressing is added.

There are three dressing tanks – one for each fat level (nonfat, 1% and 4%) – plus chive and pineapple flavorings, which are hooked in by a separate line when needed. The system is completely automatic. “Once a certain percentage of dressing gets in, it will start to agitate,” Murphy says.

Eight lines stand in the filling room, for yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream and dips in multiple sizes and formats ranging from single serve to bag in box.

The newest line is the high-speed yogurt filler, which can handle 4-, 6- and 8-ounce cups at up to 560 cups per minute, or 6,000 cases daily. Fruit is added during filling, and each yogurt filler has its own fruit skid, which for the highest-volume line is two 2,000-pound aseptic fruit totes manifolded together to serve one filler. On the day of DFR’s visit, the line was running 4-ounce cups for schools and foodservice. Murphy says this product has wide distribution: “It’s on cruise lines in the Caribbean and in the Anchorage, Alaska, school district.”

Meanwhile, the two dip lines feature fillers relocated from the old plant; these lines run at up to 145 units per minute.

Each line has a dedicated case packer; for 4-ounce yogurt, this means 48 cups per corrugated box. Containers of dip, sour cream and cottage cheese are handled by Delkor SpotPak machines. Delkor machines were used at the old plant, but were nearly at the end of their service life so they were replaced by new equipment, Murphy says, noting that there’s far less downtime on the SpotPak lines than any other line. That comes in handy especially during spikes in dip production, in the fall for football season and around the Fourth of July. In the SpotPak machines, suction cups pick up tubs, which are stacked in groups of six with a sheet of cardboard between the two groups. Then each unit of 12 is shrinkwrapped.

Blended yogurt goes right into the cooler after filling. Cup-set yogurt first goes to the hot room for incubation, then into a chilling tunnel to halt incubation before going to the cooler. Sour cream, dips and cottage cheese make a stop in the chiller to gradually get their temperatures down before heading to the cooler, from where product is picked for shipment.

Murphy explains that all products made at West Seneca are Orthodox Union kosher while many are also supervised kosher; a rabbi is assigned to the plant and maintains an office and support staff. Milk for supervised kosher products is segregated from the rest of the supply.

A sample of every SKU of every product made is held in the shelf-life cooler, which is maintained at 45 degrees F, the high end for legal Grade A and higher than most home refrigerators. A sensory evaluation is conducted at the end of coded shelf life.

The R&D lab conducts tastings once daily on every product except for cottage cheese, for which cuttings are done twice to give late-shift cottage cheese operators a chance to sample their own handiwork. The plant runs product on two shifts with a third for sanitation, though production takes place on third shift during peak demand periods.

Movin' on up

Moving operations from the old plant to the new one was a gradual process. Yogurt operations were moved first, followed by sour cream, dips and cottage cheese. “We were still running downtown. You can’t tell your customers you need a month to move,” Murphy says. “We brought one filler over every two weeks for the first four fillers.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the move was that such a monumental task was possible by a relatively small company. “A lot of other companies would have their own start-up team,” says plant manager Dan Dunn. “Everyone pitched in, I can’t say enough about our employees; they were always available when we needed them.”

Though technologies introduced in the new plant were a challenge, the seasoned work force proved itself more than up to the task. “Their detailed understanding of how products are manufactured has enabled us to surpass our product quality levels from the old facility,” Murphy says. “We now manage the workday through technology and review key measurements throughout to ensure continuous improvement.”

Another challenge Upstate faces is the incorporation of sustainability considerations into its day-to-day operations. The company is actively participating in several industry initiatives, including the Carbon Council led by Dairy Management Inc., and it has established an internal task force that’s charged with overseeing the cooperative’s sustainability initiatives targeting the life cycle of products from farm to customer, with special emphasis on operational efficiencies. Further, Upstate recently implemented a new decision-making system with sustainability criteria to evaluate capital projects, new product design and supplier selection.

All of Upstate’s plants maintain formal HACCP systems as a core component of its food safety program. The programs are reviewed annually by an accredited third-party expert.  The company’s food safety program includes formal procedures for product and environmental monitoring, daily product cuttings and shelf-life evaluation of every product manufactured. A variety of quality metrics are tracked, with results posted to all employees to promote everyone’s involvement in quality.

An in-house inspection program consists of routine internal audits conducted at the plant level, corporate QA oversight and regulatory as well as third-party audits. Upstate has used third-party consultants to perform mock regulatory inspections as well as independent assessment audits. A supplier certification program, based on close partnerships, maintains and annually updates vendor files.

In all, Upstate Niagara’s new plant appears to be a rousing success, particularly among its farmer owners who came from all over Western New York for an open house when the facility was commissioned.

“They are just so proud of this place,” says Murphy, a dairy industry veteran who previously worked for one of the major yogurt manufacturers.

And Upstate’s members are convinced, Murphy says, that topnotch manufacturing operations like the West Seneca plant are key to maintaining their independence as a co-op. “We’re going through change as an industry faster than any of us every imagined.”

At A Glance

Upstate Niagara Cooperative Inc.
Location: West Seneca, N.Y.
Year opened:2006
Size:  146,000 square feet on a 19-acre site.
Number of employees:  140
Products made: Yogurt (blended and cup-set/FOB), sour cream, sour cream-based dips and cottage cheese in units sized 4, 5, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24 and 32 ounces, and 2.5, 5, 22.5 and 40 pounds.
Total processing capacity:120 million pounds
Pasteurization: HTST, two systems
Number of lines: 8 (4 yogurt, 2 bulk, 1 sour cream, 1 cheese)
Storage capacity: Raw milk, 90,000 gallons; cooler, 1,400 pallets.

These companies are among Upstate Niagara’s key suppliers:

Atlas Automation
APV, an SPX Brand
Dairy Conveyor Corp.
Fristam Pumps
Ferguson Electric
Lehigh Construction
Mettler-Toledo Safeline
Modern Packaging
Twinco Inc.
Walker Stainless