The Big Chill

Wells’ Dairy’s South Ice Cream Plant dominates the worldof frozen dessert production.
Record-keepers at Wells’ Dairy Inc. say it takes 75,000 cows to produce the milk needed every day by the company’s three plants in Le Mars, Iowa. It’s a cinch that most of that goes to the South Ice Cream Plant, purported to be the largest free-standing ice cream manufacturing plant in the world.
In fact, three large dairy farms in northwest Iowa commit their total output to Wells, with additional milk coming from as far away as California and New Mexico, says Bruce Noorgaard, lab technician and 33-year company veteran. It’s a long way from the cornfield that occupied this site about a dozen years ago.
The plant’s receiving area can hold eight semi tanker trucks at once. All milk is sampled and must pass lab testing before it’s offloaded and processed in one of four systems to create the mix needed to make a bewildering array of Blue Bunny-branded packaged ice cream and frozen novelties, along with contract-packed goods.
Novel Ideas
It seems like the action never stops at the South plant, and in a way, that’s true. Ice cream moves to each line in a constant flow, each square, round, cup or bar just barely ahead of the next. Company officials won’t reveal exact figures for the capacity of each line, but to see them in operation, it must be considerable. More than 200 mixes are used to create all the products made here, with most lines under computer control.
Take one of the plant’s extruded stick novelty lines, for example.  Ice cream is fed to the bar former from above, the frozen stream cut by a wire to the proper size as a wooden stick is inserted before the bar drops onto on conveyor, followed close behind by its thousands of cousins on their way to be wrapped and boxed.
The plant’s newest novelty production line, installed two years ago, makes extruded bars and features the latest in robotic technology. Formed bars laid three across ride the conveyor belt into a spiral hardener. Bars exiting this blast freezer are snatched up by a robotic arm and placed on the wrapping line. Wrapped bars then are grabbed by another robot and packed into boxes, which are robotically packed into cases.
Other stick novelties are made on one of the plant’s 18-wide fillers that accept a variety of molds for making a wide assortment of bars and pops, including Blue Bunny’s popular tri-color Bomb Pop. To make these colorful treats, each of three flavors is added one at a time, then allowed to set up so the stick can be inserted before final freezing.
A more recent addition to the Blue Bunny product lineup that runs on this line is the no-sugar-added Sweet Freedom White Chocolate Almond Lites. The bars are formed from vanilla-flavored frozen dairy dessert. After the stick is inserted and the bars set up, they’re lifted from their molds and dipped into a bath of white chocolate with almond pieces. Finished bars are wrapped, sorted, boxed, date-stamped, weighed and run through a metal detector on their way to the freezer.
Another 18-wide filler runs chocolate fudge bars. The formed bars are dipped into a water bath before wrapping. “It makes the texture and flavor better in the customer’s freezer,” Noorgaard explains, noting that water used for the dip is run through a charcoal filter before use.
Meanwhile, other novelty lines run ice cream, sherbet or sundaes in foam cups. Sundae cups are filled, two each of chocolate and strawberry on the same line to create variety packs containing a 12-cup assortment. A fudge or strawberry revel is fed into the stream of vanilla ice cream at the point of filling. Fruit revels are made at Wells’ Dairy’s own milk plant in Le Mars.
Moving on to the cone novelty line, Noorgaard explains the chocolate sauce sprayed into each cone. “We put a barrier in every cone we make,” he says. “It keeps the cone from absorbing moisture from the ice cream.”
Sprayed cones travel eight wide on the two cone fillers. They’re filled with vanilla ice cream, then pass through a hardening tunnel. Cones leave the tunnel upside down and are dipped in chocolate, then rolled in nuts, with a foam ball used to help form a rounded dome atop each cone, Noorgaard says. Finished cones slide down a ramp into a sheet of wrappers, which are each cut and sealed before boxing.  
Rounding out the novelty operation are the sandwich lines, as well as lines that run “face bars” — Disney-themed character novelties, among others — on fillers that use molds with separate wells for each color and facial feature depicted in frozen-dessert form. An air-injection system puts gumball eyes on each face, Noorgaard notes.
All products eventually wind up in the plant’s 12-story freezer, where more that 52,000 pallets of product can be held at –20 degrees F.
Package Deals
“Here again, the ice cream never stops,” Noorgaard remarks of the constant flow to the packaged ice cream lines.
Round cartons are fed to the filler lines from the carton-forming room, where two can formers create the cylinders from flat stock. Fed into a carousel filler, cartons are filled from above with a constant stream of ice cream that’s cut by a wire a split second before the filled carton moves ahead for lidding and a new empty carton advances to take its place.
Filled, lidded rounds are individually wrapped in film, then shrink wrapped in bundles of six for hardening. After hardening, the six-packs are broken into bundles of three for storage and shipping. A paper UPC code label is applied to each six-packs, which assists in product tracking based on date of manufacture, batch and other data.
On the squares line, flat carton stock is spread open and filled from above, a wire again cutting the constant flow of ice cream. The ends of the filled cartons are sealed before the squares are weighed and metal detected. Sealed squares are guided through a diverger into a film wrapper and shrink tunnel, where they spend just enough time to affix the wrapper but not enough to melt the product.
A conveyor belt takes squares to the hardener. Packaged flavors are run in a specific sequence based on the nut and egg allergen content of each flavor, Noorgaard explains.
Tanks, located on the plant’s upper level, contain the blended mixes needed to create all the products manufactured at the South plant. Ice cream mix is blended on the lower level, then pumped into the tanks upstairs until it is needed. “These tanks are situated above or near the lines they serve, so mix doesn’t have to travel far,” Noorgaard says. The system is constructed so mix can be transferred to or from almost anywhere within the plan, he says.
Nuts and Bolts
All machinery, including pipes and fruit feeders, is completely washed between runs. Machinery and parts are date-tagged after cleaning; if they’re not re-used within three days, they must be disassembled and cleaned again, Noorgaard says. “Every machine gets completely overhauled once a year,” he says, noting this generally takes place during slower production times in the fall and winter, when machinery can be taken out of service for two or three weeks on a rotating basis.
Ergonomics and employee safety are priorities at Wells’ Dairy. The company has established functional ergonomics teams, composed of hourly employees, to help reduce the number of injuries.
Routine internal audits are conducted to ensure unsafe conditions do not exist. Also, instead of relying on outside services, each Wells facility has its own hazardous materials and confined-space rescue team.
The company also has auditing programs to oversee in-house processes as well as suppliers, explains Brian Pietz, director of quality assurance. “The plants at Wells’ Dairy have highly trained quality-assurance technicians who audit all of our lines and products every two hours for a variety of quality metrics,” Pietz says. “The machine operators also audit their lines continually during the run.”
Food-safety efforts include frequent inspections by numerous outside food-safety and quality auditors, Pietz says. In addition, lab technicians conduct quality assurance line audits every two hours, he says.
According to Noorgaard, lab techs conduct their on-floor audits with laptop computers rather than paper forms. At the end of each shift, their information is downloaded in the lab.
To further ensure the safety of incoming commodities, Wells’ Dairy has a supplier certification program that is run by the company’s food safety and purchasing departments, Pietz says.
Big Plant, Big Job
All the plant’s inner workings are key components of a flourishing business for the company in the Ice Cream Capital of the World.
“Keeping things exciting for the consumer can create some complexities on the manufacturing side of the business,” says public relations manager Lesley Bartholomew.
“Wells’ Dairy’s flexibility and innovative work force allow us to bring exciting new products to the consumer year after year.”
Plant at-a-glance
Wells’ Dairy Inc.
South Ice Cream Plant
Location: Le Mars, Iowa.
Year Opened: 1992; expanded three times since.
Size: 900,000 square feet over two levels on a 111-acre site.
Employees: About 1,000.
Output:  More than 75 million gallons of frozen dairy desserts annually, encompassing all categories.
Frozen Storage: 10.2 million cubic feet; 12 stories tall with 52,500 pallet spaces.
Westward Ho!
Utah plant adds manufacturing capacity for growth in Wells’ western markets.
In its first manufacturing venture outside the Midwest, Wells’ Dairy Inc. opened its St. George, Utah, ice cream plant in July 2003.
Located in the far southwestern corner of Utah near Zion National Park, the plant serves the company’s high-altitude markets and increases availability of Blue Bunny products to western customers.
“We hope to grow our opportunities in those markets. The St. George plant gives us a chance to do that,” says Doug Wells, president of the supply group, noting the growing popularity of the Blue Bunny brand in areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The 160,000-square-foot plant employs 68 people on two production lines that currently manufacture Blue Bunny packaged ice cream.
“We’re going to make St. George the ice cream capital of the West,” quips Gary Wells, chief executive officer.
Wells’ Dairy maintains three plants in Le Mars, Iowa, manufacturing ice cream, frozen novelties, fluid milk and cultured products; and a plant in Omaha, Neb., that makes fluid milk, juices and drinks, and yogurt.