- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

PLYMOUTH, Wis. (AP) - Smilaire Registered Holsteins is a small family dairy operation of a bygone era, complete with the iconic red barn that could be drawn into the pages of a children’s picture book or filmed for a movie scene.

Cows quietly await the day’s second milking as Scott Ditter explains how Smilaire became a milk supplier to Sartori.

“My milk used to go a mile and half away from here, they started using powdered milk in their cheese, and you get a better yield that way . they’re taking our milk … and supplementing it with powder. And that just bothered me,” Ditter said.

Smilaire milk still goes just down the road, just now it’s to a Sartori cheese plant. All dairy suppliers are within 50 miles of Sartori plants in Antigo and Plymouth.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette (http://gbpg.net/291UcRf ) reports that Sartori’s locally sourced milk is crafted into Italian-style hard cheeses that are served worldwide (starting with Japan and Italy in 1970). Cheddar and curds have become synonymous with Wisconsin cheese, but Sartori remains true to its roots of Italian immigrant and co-founder Paolo Sartori by mastering Asiago and Parmesan (its most awarded cheese).

Innovation at Sartori even has a distinctly Italian flavor. BellaVitano, a unique creation of Plymouth-based company, starts with a Parmesan bite but mellows into a creamier mellow version that’s often paired with other flavors like Merlot wine, black pepper or a citrus ginger blend.

Paulette Ditter, Scott’s wife who grew up on this farm, extends her hand to show the “top dress” of yellow hued cotton seed and protein mix that’s fed to specific cows. Cows that Paulette knows all by name.

When Sartori brand ambassador Maria Sartori - who along with field rep JR Neu is touring the farm with me - wants to try milking a cow by hand, Paulette and her granddaughter Zoe talk over the options. Titanic, they decide, is the best option. While not a disaster, spilled milk (technically milk squirted on into the straw covered floor instead of the bucket) is part of the experience.

Milking cows by hand, for the record, is not how the Ditters operate. Here husband and wife - each with an assigned side of the barn - move from cow to cow, sanitize udders and hook on the milking machine that does the job in a matter of minutes. I jokingly ask if they race to see who can get done with their side first. Scott, who speaks in a calm and deliberate manner, makes it clear that they would never do such a thing. It’s not in the best interest of the cows.

“You can tell how well a farmer handles the herd by their temperament. If your tone of voice changes, they pick that up,” Scott said. “Strauss cows I believe are really mellow cows. When you’re in there, they aren’t real spooky or nothing, and that’s the management. You can get them real spooky if you want, but that ain’t my idea of a good time.”

The “Strauss” Scott Ditter is referring to is Majestic Crossing Dairy run by brothers Dean and Darin Strauss, sixth generation dairy farmers with a herd of 2,000 cows producing 46 million pounds of milk. Each cow on the Strauss farm spends about 3 hours per day in the milking process from waiting in a holding pen to final swipe of udder antiseptic. Cows lounge in barns the remainder of the day, free to mingle, eat, drink and lay on water beds on their own schedule.

Regardless of herd size and milking practices, Sartori accepts milk only from farms that participate in the National FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program. Sartori field reps evaluate each farm on long list of criteria ranging from sore feet and abrasions on the cows to animal handling training and protocols. Each farm is evaluated at least once every three years and a randomly selected sample of farms undergo a third-party evaluation.

Neu, whom I caught regularly scratching and petting cows with affection reserved for family pets, says if he sees animal welfare concerns during any farm visit (field reps regularly make trips to farms for a multitude of reasons) he completes a full FARM program evaluation.

If criteria aren’t met, Sartori field reps develop an action plan with the farmer to correct the problems.

“Animal welfare is a big issue now, and rightly so,” Scott Ditter said. “The consumer wants to know.”

Yes, Strauss and the Ditters said, when I asked if happy cows produce more milk. Both will also say mental muscles do more heavy lifting on farms today than years ago.

Disinfectant costs, crop rotations, feed supplies, cheese yield per pound of milk tracked in spreadsheets - there’s always something that needs figuring.

Flexing mental muscles when it comes to breeding, feeding and other factors, Majestic Crossing Dairy is consistently one of Sartori’s top four farms in cheese yield. Even a one percent gain in yield over 46 million pounds equals a lot more cheese from the same number of cows in the same number of truck deliveries.

The Ditters worked with Neu to research a solution for a re-occurring bacteria issue and discovered that installing a larger pipe carrying milk from the cows to holding tanks put an end to the problem.

While knee-deep in discussions about the science of farming, Strauss shifts focus to the more philosophical.

“You’re producing food,” Srauss said. “It’s a noble calling.”

For Scott Ditter, who is “a little partial to Citrus Ginger BellaVitano,” Sartori cheese is more than tasty.

“You go someplace and, ‘oh, you’re from Wisconsin, oh, cheddar cheese.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, we used to eat that,’” Scott said. “For us, it’s kind of neat to see the product on the store shelf. And it’s a unique product, that’s kind of neat.”

___

Information from: Press-Gazette Media, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com

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