Ultra motivated: Constantine expansion adds 1.3 million pounds of daily processing capacity

In Constantine, Michigan, the corner of Station Street and East 2nd Street sits in a new shadow. Gleaming in the sun and reaching up to 78 feet tall, 17 water and milk silos tower over the village corner. Rewind a few months, stand on that same corner and you’ll find an entirely different view.

The transformation began in June 2018. First, a crew installed footers to support the foundation of a 7,500 square foot addition to the existing milk processing plant. Then custom built machinery was fit into place. Those silos paraded through the village, a crane tilted them 90 degrees to mount into place. Soon after, skim milk started flowing through the new system. And at last, the first load of ultra-filtered milk departed.

All in six months’ time.

The MMPA dairy plant – located six miles north of the Michigan-Indiana border – underwent a 1.3 million pounds of milk per day expansion. Completed in November 2018, the project comes at a time when more milk processing capabilities are needed in the Great Lakes region.

“Our ability to execute a project like our Constantine expansion in the timely manner we did demonstrates our commitment and determination to proceed with our strategy,” Joe Diglio, MMPA chief executive officer, said.

MMPA’s strategy includes asset maximization, business development and strategic alignment with customers.

The MMPA board of directors—made up of 13 elected dairy farmer members—approved the project in April 2018. They were confident in the innovative vision of MMPA staff and took on the risk of moving away from MMPA’s traditional product mix, according to the team involved.

The board continually reviews expansion opportunities at every meeting to determine what opportunities are best for MMPA members.The ultra-filtered project fit into MMPA’s strategy and met the co-op’s timing, capital and return on investment goals, according to the team. The board realized the need for immediate investments along with other long term solutions to accommodate the region’s milk supply.

“They were like, ‘Can you get it done tomorrow?’” Dave Davis, Constantine plant manager recalled from conversations with the board.

Even with great leadership, construction of a project of this scale can take a long time. MMPA completed construction in six months. For Davis, meeting the aggressive deadline was possible due to “great teamwork” among staff. In addition, over 20 construction and equipment vendors were involved, all locked into  meeting the project’s accelerated timing. “At one point, we had 110 people onsite,” he said.

The new value added product, ultra-filtered milk, builds upon Constantine’s existing portfolio of mainly commodity dairy products like butter and powder. Ultra-filtered milk is a fluid dairy product created by concentrating protein and removing minerals and lactose. The process also removes water naturally found in milk during concentration, called cow water.

When the plant receives member milk, it is first separated into skim milk and cream, then pasteurized. Some of the cream is churned into MMPA’s award-winning butter. As for the skim milk, it can be evaporated, dried or concentrated into ultra-filtered milk. From there, ultra-filtered milk can be used in infant nutrition, cheese standardization, yogurt and dairy nutrition drinks.

The new addition to MMPA’s product line adds value for members not just for the product itself, but by displacing skim milk previously destined for condensed skim. The value to members is “two-fold,” Jim Feeney, senior director of sales says. “It’s not just adding new products, it’s displacing one of our lowest margin products.”

While designing and constructing the new addition to Constantine, the team paid close attention to sustainability and efficiency. The system has a low water and carbon footprint, according to Aaron Beak, MMPA director of business development and hedging. “We installed more energy efficient equipment, improved biosecurity and focused on all the bells and whistles,” he said.

“The ultra-filtration plant can generate up to 85,000 gallons of pasteurized equivalate water per day. We use the clean water to clean and operate the ultra-filtration system,” Davis added.

Ultra-filtered technology runs milk through a series of membranes to get a particular result based on the customer’s needs, according to Beak. MMPA’s system allows for customization, which makes it unique.

“Our system is make-to-order,” Beak said. Some customers know what they want, while in other cases MMPA develops a product to fit their needs.

Customer relationships are “critical” for this system and its strategic location in southern Michigan, Feeney adds. “We will continue to work with historical customers as well as new opportunities,” he said. “There are products that don’t exist today we want to work with customers to develop.”

The ultra-filtered milk system fits market demands as consumers search for higher-protein, lower-carb, lower-lactose products. Consumers pay close attention to food labels these days, and ultra-filtrated milk allows for a shorter ingredient list on retail products while meeting those needs, according to the team.

“The timing [for the expansion] was as soon as possible because the market was ripe for opportunity,” Feeney said.

Looking ahead, the team says there is room for more growth in both technology and sales opportunities. With the board’s support and a motivated staff, the expansion is one way MMPA is adapting to a continually evolving dairy industry.

“Transitions can take place slowly or rapidly,” Diglio said. “It really depends on how prepared you are to embrace a changing environment.”

–Allison Stuby Miller

This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger. Subscribe »