A grand vision and attention to detail earn Davisco’s Lake Norden, S.D., cheese and whey plantDFR’s first plant award.

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening the ax.”

That’s Mark Spence, Midwest division manager of Davisco Foods International’s Cheese Division, summing up his philosophy about tackling a project. It’s a credo that appears to be shared by Spence’s colleagues at the Le Sueur, Minn.-based cheese and whey ingredients manufacturer. And that mindset is clearly in evidence at Davisco’s Lake Norden Cheese Co. plant in Lake Norden, S.D., winner of Dairy Field Reports’ first Plant of the Year Award.

Before the first shovel of earth was turned, Davisco spent up to nine months visiting existing cheese plants around the country, meeting with contractors and interviewing equipment vendors to see the best of what the industry had to offer, explains Marvin Bartlett, director of engineering. “It all paid off, for sure,” he says.

Jon Davis, chief operations officer over Davisco’s three cheese plants, is more emphatic.

“This is as complete a plant as you will find in the country,” he beams. “The aesthetics, how it’s designed, the quality of the product and the flexibility it has in terms of processing milk into cheese and various whey products.”

Those factors and more were essential to creating a facility with an annual cheese output that has more than doubled since 2004 to an estimated 108 million pounds expected by the end of 2008, as this article went to press.

That running total is for product that has been sellable since the first day of operations. “The first vat of cheese we made, we put on a pizza,” Davis says.

In the midst of a $10 million second phase of expansions, Davisco has been in Lake Norden since the early 1980s, when the company acquired a whey plant from Land O’Lakes and took on the task of processing whey from Land O’Lakes’ cheese factory in nearby Volga, S.D. Eventually the cooperative closed that facility, leaving a void in cheese manufacturing for the region. “They wanted to get out of producing cheese in Volga,” Davis recalls. “So we basically took over their business. It was a perfect opportunity.”

In 2002, Davisco started construction on a cheese plant adjoining the whey plant; it was operational by November 2003. “We had to connect a brand-new plant with an antiquated plant,” Davis says. “You can’t see the transition from new to old.  It’s like brand-new, like both parts of the plant were built together.”

Bartlett says the challenge was to incorporate the various processes into the whey plant building. “A corridor system ties the factory together in a seamless flow of product and process,” he says.

Lake Norden Cheese Co. originally was designed only for pasta filata mozzarella, but in July 2005 Davisco added a 40-pound-block tower line to produce cheddar, Monterey jack and parmesan to pick up the slack during any lulls in the mozzarella market. Lake Norden produces 30% of the cheese that Davisco manufactures (400 million pounds at three plants) and all of its pasta filata mozzarella.

Further expansions of both the cheese and whey sides of the business are already in the offing. It’s all to serve the constant demand of Davisco’s customers, who due to confidentiality agreements must remain nameless here. “They’re the leading food manufacturers in the United States and throughout the world,” says Davis, who is justifiably proud of this plant, and it shows as he talks about it with gusto. “It’s the who’s who.”

Sharpening the ax

Davis credits the success of Lake Norden to scrupulous planning by the company’s design team that worked arm in arm with architects, equipment suppliers and even Land O’Lakes. “We leveraged a great deal of LOL’s experience. We didn’t know a whole lot about producing mozzarella, and LOL’s senior management gave us a complete open book and access to their technical folks that did – it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful otherwise,” Davis says, also noting assistance by Scherping Systems, supplier of the plant’s cheese vats; Big D Construction served as general contractor and E.A. Bonelli as engineer. “This was such a good collaborative effort. It was the best people in the industry – an all-star team.”

And if it’s true as they say, the devil is in the details, Davisco’s efforts were heaven sent. The Lake Norden plant combines the best ideas used by cheese plants around the country – like 45-degree-angled window seals that trap less dirt and an enclosed pipe chase above the plant floor to guard against contamination during maintenance activities – along with home-grown innovations, like 20,000 linear feet of food-safe, non-porous quartz flooring made by Cambria, a division of Davisco. “Every door that opens a certain way, we talked about why it should,” Davis says. “Air flow, product flow, people flow.”

Spence further explains how safety measures were specifically designed into the plant.

“Everything’s about food safety,” he says. “Without quality, you might as well shut the doors. But we bring those two components together, safety and quality.”

Other measures include additional protective railings on the manways serving tanker trucks in the receiving area, and HEPA filters that screen the in-plant air several dozen times each hour. “When your senior leadership is behind your safety program, it puts you way ahead of the curve in terms of ultimate success,” Spence declares.

Equal attention is paid to keeping things moving, including enterprise versions of Wonderware and Maximo software; DFH Internet reporting system that allows online monitoring of plant operations from anywhere; and predictive maintenance programs.

“We typically use the latest and greatest technology that’s available. In this case, we’re on the leading edge,” Davis says.

Plant manager Todd Pennings remarks: “I like being able to check on the plant while sitting in a hotel room when traveling.”

Further assets include a motion-detecting lighting system in the warehouse, a CIP room that automatically dispenses chemicals throughout the plant, and an ammonia system built with extra capacity to handle the upcoming expansions.

The daily routine

Lake Norden receives nearly 3 million pounds of raw milk every day from farms in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. Along with the 600,000 pounds of whole milk equivalent brought in from Davisco’s plant in Jerome, Idaho, Lake Norden processes 3.4 million pounds of milk daily.

There are three bays for raw intake plus a segregated pasteurized bay from which 80% protein and sweet cream are shipped out, Pennings explains. The loadout bay has its own CIP system “so there’s no way you can cross-contaminate the product,” he says.

All trucks are completely washed top to bottom after unloading. “It doesn’t matter if it was washed an hour ago – it gets rewashed here,” Pennings says.

Spence says “we run a tight ship” when it comes to cleanliness, leaving the plant ready at a moment’s notice for any kind of inspection. “They can walk in any day and we’re ready for them. Jon doesn’t notify us ahead of time when a tour is coming, because every day is a tour day for us.”

A vestibule separates the raw and pasteurized tanks. Condensed and ultrafiltered skim are offloaded to four other silos; smaller holding tanks contain sweet cream. Each tank is equipped with mixproof valves to automatically switch between each one.

The starter control room operates the five starter tanks with a combined capacity of nearly 9,000 gallons. Coccus and rod starters are used, depending on the recipe.

Meanwhile in the pasteurizer room, one unit handles cheese milk, while another is set up to handle UF skim, with a total capacity of 120,000 pounds per hour. “This area is designed so once we double the size of the cheese plant, we can hook up another pasteurizer and go,” Pennings says. All tanks, pipes and fittings are clearly labeled to more easily train new hires, as well as for the benefit of visitors, he explains.

An ultrafiltration unit allows lactose to be removed before making cheese, thus improving efficiency. Also, if there’s more incoming milk than can be stored or used quickly, it can be condensed and shipped to another Davisco plant, Davis explains.

The nerve center of Lake Norden’s pasta filata operations, the make room currently houses six Scherping horizontal vats that each can hold 79,000 pounds of mozzarella or provolone cheese. The vats feed to four finishing tables, a cooker/stretcher and two rotary molder chillers. “We have one of the simplest and most effective cheese rooms in the industry,” says Troy Ammann, Davisco’s director of operations. “One person can easily manage the processes, taking the milk and converting it into cheese.”

In the not-too-distant future, Davisco plans to double the size of the make room as part of the plant’s phase-two expansion. The outside wall is of modular construction that can be moved as a single unit to its new location, and a temporary wall erected while the 80,000-square-foot addition is built, Spence explains.

The addition will basically mirror the current make room. “That will accommodate all of the expected expansion of the Interstate 29 milk shed,” Spence says. “We’re keeping up with the dairymen.”

Cheese blocks ejected from the RMCs travel down a flume to be held in brine for up to five hours in one of 17 brining cages, each holding a vat’s worth of cheese, about 8,300 pounds. “Each vat goes to its own cage, so you always have vat integrity,” Penning says.

Freed from their cages, blocks of cheese are rinsed and travel up a conveyor to the packaging room, passing through a metal detector along the way; an X-ray machine will soon be added upstream from the metal detector, Pennings notes.

Cheese blocks are Cryovac’d and packed for shipment. Typical configurations include bulk boxes of 60 20-pound blocks that are robotically double-stacked, palleted and wrapped in clear film. The plant’s most popular product, 20-pound blocks are generally shredded or sliced by the customer.

“In a single day, we can make 6-pound, 10-pound and 20-pound blocks,” Pennings says, “and we can do 40-pound blocks if we need to in our cheese towers.”

The cheese tower room was added when mozzarella business fell off temporarily in the plant’s early going. “This was nothing but a warehouse. We never intended to make 40-pound blocks, but the marketplace helped us justify the added diversification,” Pennings says.

Fed directly from the vats, five towers can each make 1,800 pounds of cheddar or parmesan cheese per hour, forming blocks that are shrink-wrapped and cased for shipping. “When mozzarella demand softens, we make cheddar; that market is more liquid with a longer shelf life,” Davis says. “We haven’t had to make cheddar for two or three years because the market has been strong [for mozzarella].”

Davis credits Bartlett and his team for the versatile design. “It looks like it was built for those towers,” he says of the former warehouse space. “He designed it with the flexibility to handle many things.”

Finished product winds up in the cold warehouse, which can hold up to 5 million pounds of cheese. Mozzarella generally ships in four to five days, while cheddar moves out in about a week. “With mozzarella, we have the micro test [results] within three days [because] you can pull the sample right away,” Pennings explains. “With cheddar, you have to wait three days.”

The current whey separator room started out as the old truck bay seven years ago. Here, whey drained from the cheese vats and tables is run through clarifiers to remove cheese fines. The whey cream is separated out before the product goes to the plant’s brand-new whey pasteurizer.

Pasteurized whey is ultrafiltered and the lactose separated out; 80% lactose is siloed for shipment and the permeate evaporated, condensed and dried. The UF, installed in 2006, produces 240 gallons of water per minute, which gets polished and used for CIP, Pennings says. “We’re using it twice before it hits the drain,” he says.

Lake Norden’s powder-drying capabilities are further leveraged for a flourishing custom products business, including a national branded sweetener that leaves the plant in 250-pound totes.

Expanded once in early 1990s, the powder warehouse got a 44,000-square-foot addition last spring, bringing its capacity to 12 million pounds. In addition to custom products, the warehouse handles lactose in 55-pound bags and 1-ton totes. “Most of our bags are being shipped to China and the Philippines,” Spence says.

Fresh from a $3 million expansion including state-of-the-art equipment, Lake Norden’s whey department will soon see further improvements. “We’re going to take all the equipment we just installed and move it,” says Pennings, into a new whey 50,000-square-foot plant aimed at boosting production of Davisco’s BiPro branded whey protein isolate.

New product concepts are developed at Davisco’s whey applications lab in Eden Prairie, Minn., which Davis describes as “a huge kitchen.” Mitch Davis, vice president of R&D, and his team are constantly working on whey protein derivative products, the types of products that will continue to transform the whey fractionation industry. Prototypes are then taken to the plant level, sometimes at Lake Norden but usually at the headquarters plant in Le Sueur.

Food safety

In addition to the plant’s safety-related design elements, Davisco mandates strict policies and procedures. All employees are trained at orientation and annually on GMP policies, security and HACCP programs. HACCP plans are in place that detail specific food-safety procedures and requirements. These plans are reviewed quarterly by a multidisciplinary HACCP team.

“There are certain things we have to do,” Spence remarks, “and there are other things we do to raise the bar.”

Testing is done on both in-process and finished product samples to ensure that all products meet required analytical and microbiological requirements. All products are released by authorized quality-assurance personnel. “We don’t modify any of our processes without completely engaging our corporate quality assurance department,” Ammann notes.

In-house GMP audits are performed monthly by the plant QC manager. The report is issued to plant and corporate management for follow-up and corrective action. Daily department walkthroughs are performed and documented by quality technicians to address any potential GMP and security issues. The plant and all quality programs are audited annually by a third-party auditing company.

All ingredient suppliers are required to provide results of a current third-party audit or must be audited by plant officials prior to being approved. A supplier guarantee, allergen statement and specification sheet are required for each ingredient. A certificate of analysis must accompany each shipment received.


Despite their successes, the Lake Norden team faced several challenges during the development of the plant, but the manner in which they’ve taken on these challenges further speaks to the talents of this award-winning crew.

“One of the biggest challenges was keeping the existing whey plant running during construction,” maintenance manager Dave Kindt says, noting that skillful coordination paid off. David further explains: “We couldn’t afford to be down a day, and we never were.”

Other challenges included concerns of the local municipal government, as well as how to handle wastewater. “We spend more time on the effluent leaving than the milk coming in,” Bartlett says.

Nitrogen and phosphates are removed at the plant’s high-tech wastewater treatment facility, and the treated water is released to a controlled, fenced-off wetland created by Davisco. “It’s a wildlife preserve,” Pennings says, explaining the wetland is home to game birds and other animals. “It’s the only place in Hamlin County that’s safe from pheasant hunting.”

Everyone from the top down pitched in wherever needed to get the project off the ground and moving along on schedule, Spence says. “We were putting in 14-, 16-hour days. You’d have an accountant lifting bags of salt. Jon and I were digging out a cheese vat. There was a lot of camaraderie to get this going,” he says. “It was overwhelming, to start a plant like this and hit a home run the first go-round.”

From that very first ready-for-market batch of cheese, the Lake Norden team has successfully met its ongoing daily challenge: producing mozzarella and provolone with the various functionalities required by different customers. “For example, the cheese could have the proper amount of fat, salt and moisture, but the primary concern of the customer is the melt, flavor and stretch on a pizza,” Ammann explains. “So within the classification of LMPS mozzarella, we can have several customer-specific specs that are tailored to each customer’s unique requirements for those functional needs. Our plant and staff have addressed this by doing functionality testing on each vat of cheese at least twice (at two different ages).

Davis adds: “This isn’t new to the existing mozzarella producers, but it was new to us. Producing cheddar certainly has similar disciplines in terms of satisfying the customers’ needs, but mozzarella, as we learned quickly, was a slightly different animal.

“Another challenge is that mozzarella has a relatively short shelf life and therefore the product is all made to order, and the orders typically have less than two weeks lead time. This becomes particularly challenging at times of slowing demand, and the milk is coming in from the farm while the order for cheese is not in hand. We addressed the fluctuations in demand by installing block towers, which allow us to product cheese types that can be aged, thereby allowing us to run at capacity every day.”

Reflecting a sentiment expressed by many processors, Pennings notes that it’s getting more difficult to attract and retain employees who are willing to make a long-term commitment to cheesemaking. However, he’s quick to add that Davisco has been successful at this, and the plant’s turnover is low. “It’s getting harder, but once you find good people, you do what it takes to keep them,” Pennings says.

The Lake Norden team seems to take on challenges with skill and ease, a significant task for a facility that continues to undergo such dynamic changes.

For example, doubling cheese capacity will yield a lot more whey to process, Davis notes. “When you do one, you have to consider the ramifications of the other,” he says.

Bartlett adds: “The good thing is, all that was thought of when we built the original cheese plant.”

And even with the coming changes, the daily routine is not expected to be disrupted. “You don’t budget or allow for lost production when analyzing capital expansions,” Davis says. “If you did, most of your capital projects would be stopped somewhere just after putting them on paper.”

Why South Dakota?

As areas like Idaho’s Magic Valley, New Mexico and West Texas grow in stature among industrial cheesemaking regions, why did Davisco – which also has a cheese plant in Idaho – choose Lake Norden as a base to grow this segment of its business?

Davis points to the expansion of milk production along the Interstate 29 corridor in Eastern South Dakota and Western Minnesota. “The growth in the dairy industry is right here, within five hours of this plant,” he says.

He admits that “putting in a new plant in the Midwest was a leap of faith,” because the future didn’t look all that bright when the company launched this venture in 2001. But the Davis family, Midwesterners born and bred, felt the region’s good feed supply and proximity to large population centers were a plus.

The gambit paid off. “My father [Mark Davis, Davisco president] always thought that the Midwest was the best place to produce milk, and it has been, in spades,” Jon Davis says. “When my father decided to go west to Idaho 18 years ago, he always would mention to us that we would be coming back here to the Midwest to reinvest, that the Midwest was the area of the country that should be producing much of its milk, and he was right on.”

According to Pennings, six or seven new dairy farms have been built in the area within the past two to three years. “As we’ve been growing, the dairies are growing all around us,” he says. “They’re not you’re typical dairies – they’re 2,700 head or bigger.”

The company’s relationship with the community has been friendly; Lake Norden’s municipal water tower boldly proclaims, “Cheese is our whey.” Davis recalls: “There were certainly some growing pains, but overall it’s a great town to do business in, a great state to do business in.

“The dairy industry is a heck of an economic engine. A dollar spent here [by Davisco customers] is seven or eight dollars in the local economy,” he adds of the plant’s overall impact on its hometown that has a population barely double that of the facility’s work force. “You want economic vibrancy in a town, put up a cheese and powder plant fed by an efficient local supply of milk. It’s a blueprint for economic development.”

Continuing success

What’s coming next at Lake Norden? The new BiPro whey plant is in the engineering phase; meanwhile, expansion of the cheese plant will proceed based on market demand and the further expansion of the region’s healthy dairy industry, Davis says. “It’s a wait-and-see based on the milk supply,” he says. “But we don’t expect to be waiting long; we’ve already had preliminary internal discussion on the design and layout.”

Looking ahead three to five years, Davis expects daily processing capacity to more than double. “We want to get to 7 million pounds,” he says, adding that the company also plans to eventually package whey products for final sale on site, rather than ship out in bulk quantities.  Davisco’s R&D team is working “on how best to take it to the marketplace,” Davis explains.

As for winning DFR’s Plant of the Year Award, Davis heaps the credit upon the team that designed and operates the facility. “These guys deserve it,” he declares. “They do a hell of a job.”

And regardless of the accolades, they’re confident they’ve done things right. “This plant looks as good or better than the day we started it up,” Bartlett says. “I wouldn’t do anything different today than we did then.”

AT a glance

Davisco Foods International Inc.

Location: Lake Norden, S.D.

Year built: Cheese plant opened 2003 at site of whey plant acquired in 1983.

Size: 275,000 square feet on 30 acres, plus 630-acre wastewater treatment facility and wetlands.

Number of employees: 202

Products made: LMPS and LMWM mozzarella, and provolone in 6-, 10- and 20-pound blocks and 3.5-inch diameter rounds, packed in various configurations; cheddar, Monterey jack and parmesan in 40-pound blocks; WPC 80 and lactose; custom drying of other non-dairy food products.

Total processing capacity: 320,000 pounds of cheese daily (3 million pounds of milk).

Pasteurization: Milk HTST, 120,000 pounds/hour; UF milk HTST, 72,000 pounds/hour; sweet cream HTST, 7,300 pounds/hour; whey HTST, 140,000 pounds/hour.

Lines: One cheese vat-and-table line that can serve a pasta filata mozzarella line or a 40-pound block tower line; six horizontal vats, four finishing tables, one cooker/stretcher, two rotary molder chillers.

Storage capacity: Raw milk, 2.4 million pounds; condensed, 1.4 million pounds; cooler, 5 million pounds.

Growth at Lake Norden

Cheese production growth by year:

2004: 52 million pounds
2005: 78 million pounds
2006: 93 million pounds
2007: 104 million pounds
2008: 108 million pounds (estimated)


Among Davisco Foods International’s suppliers are the following companies:
AGC Engineering
BMO Capital
Bank of America
CFR Membranes
CMS Flavorseal
Filtration Engineering
First Bank and Trust (Brookings, S.D.)
First National Bank of Pierre (S.D.)
Johnson Industries
Scherping Systems
Walker Stainless
Westfalia Separator


Davisco Foods International is a privately held, family-owned cheese and food ingredient company with an aggressive, entrepreneurial vision. Three generations of confident, risk-taking expansion have made the company a leader in the dairy industry. Davisco is committed to technical advancement, customer service and superior quality.

Based in Le Sueur, Minn., Davisco was founded in 1943 by Stanley Davis, with his purchase of the St. Peter Creamery. Davisco is managed by Stanley’s son, President Mark Davis, and his four sons, Marty, Mitch, Matt and Jon.

The Davis family owns cheese companies in Le Sueur; Jerome, Idaho; and Lake Norden, S.D., in addition to food ingredient companies in Le Sueur and Nicollet, Minn.; Lake Norden; and Jerome. Davisco has sales offices in Minneapolis, Mexico City, Geneva and Shanghai, and worldwide partners in the Middle East, Japan and Africa.

With annual sales approaching an estimated $600 million, Davisco produces 370 million pounds of Italian-style and cheddar cheese per year and is one of the largest suppliers of cheese to Kraft Foods. Davisco prides itself in its support of local communities by providing jobs and buying milk from regional farmers.

Meticulous about quality control and excellent customer service, Davisco has made it a mission to lead the industry in food technology by producing innovative proteins for health and nutrition.

A pioneer in whey protein isolate research, Davisco produces 10 million pounds of whey protein isolates annually. Davisco is the industry leader in technology and production, accounting for 65% of whey protein isolates sold worldwide. Whey protein isolates are found in 50% of grocery products today, including sports drinks, reduced-fat candies, low -fat salad dressings, infant formula, yogurts, dips, shelf-stable baking mixes and low-fat cheese sauces.

Davisco produces a variety of customized whey protein products and a full line of whey protein products, which includes BiPRO, BioZate, whey protein concentrate 80%, glycomacropeptide (GMP), alpha-lactalbumin, lactose and premium deproteinized whey.

In addition, the company operates Davis Family Dairies, a new venture expected to open this past fall in Nicollet County, Minn. Operated in cooperation with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, this new state-of-the art dairy facility will be a commercially viable operation used to educate veterinary students in a commercial dairy environment; conduct research in cow health and management, including emerging practices and products research under a controlled but commercial setting; provide outreach and continuing education opportunities for dairy veterinarians, dairy professionals, extension educators and others in the dairy industry; and be a public demonstration site for modern, high-quality dairy production processes where groups such as producers, international guests and elementary students can view the dairy by appointment.

The new dairy facility will house more than 4,000 animals and employ more than 30 people. It will serve as a birthing site for more than 6,000 calves per year and milking facilities for 3,000 cows on site.

Beyond the ag sector, the Davis family owns and operates Cambria Natural Quartz Countertops, the only producer of natural quartz surfaces in the United States. With state-of-the-art facilities, combined with the work ethic of experienced employee teams, Cambria has rapidly become an industry leader.