July 2 was a milestone in the history of the Valley Queen Cheese Factory in Milbank. Employees watched as the first two vats of white cheddar cheese moved through the company’s new make room and packaging room.
“The production run kicked off a month-long startup of new cheesemaking equipment recently installed at Valley Queen,” said Doug Wilke, the company’s CEO. “During the coming four weeks, employees will continue making adjustments to ensure that equipment, systems, and processes are properly performing before Valley Queen completely transitions cheese production from its old systems to the new one.”
The startup is the culmination of more than two years of planning, design, construction, and infrastructure upgrades by the 90-year-old company. Valley Queen invested $53 million to increase the plant’s milk processing capacity by 25 percent to 5.3 million pounds per day to meet the growing demand for cheese and dairy ingredients. The expenditure is the largest investment made in the history of the company. The project involved the construction of the new cheese make and packaging rooms and infrastructure updates such as replacing milk silos, upgrading the wastewater treatment plant, and adding boiler and cooling capacity.
In June, Valley Queen completed the installation of equalization tank covers and air scrubbers at its wastewater treatment plant. These are designed to control odor coming from the wastewater treatment plant which was upgraded to accommodate increased cheese and dairy ingredient production.
A major part of the startup involves training Valley Queen’s 286 full-time employees to use the new equipment and understand the new processes. “Eighteen seasonal employees and 10 interns have been hired to work at the plant this summer so full-time employees can participate in the retraining,” explained Brian Sandvig, vice president of operations and human resources. “Our controls and process vendors also have teams here to support the training effort and assist with equipment modifications.”
“The success of this startup is threefold,” stressed Wilke. “We want to see an improvement in the safety environment for our operators. We want to ensure customers are receiving premier quality product. And, finally, we don’t want to miss a beat. Our goal is for our customers to continue to see the same quality product during the transition with increased product performance capabilities.”
Photo courtesy of Valley Queen: Valley Queen employees monitored safety, quality, equipment and process performance during the start-up of new cheesemaking equipment on Tuesday, July 2.