Dairy Processing 101: What do I Make?

What Do I Make? Deciding What to Make

One of the most common question to come up in a cheesemaking workshop is “What should I make?” The easiest response is, “What do you like to eat?” It is a great place to start. You will have to eat the stuff eventually and if you do not like it, then why waste the money and time to make the stuff?

Many people are familiar with certain dairy products. Many are regional favorites. Cheese curds when you visit your aunt in Wisconsin or cousin in New York, for example. Variations to those recipes are also seen in different regions. If you are not familiar with the different dairy products, it is often helpful to do a tasting of the various products that seem interesting to you and your family.

To do a tasting, it is handy to:

  • Pick both industrial versions and farmstead versions of the same product or product family (stoneyfield yogurt, greek yogurt, a skim yogurt, a local cream-top yogurt and one of the probiotic yogurts, for example);
  • Have at least four samples from a broad range of each family of products (chevre, quark, cream cheese and bakers cheese, for examples of lactic cheeses);
  • Try to get product made from your breed, buy it, and see if you like it;
  • Try local or regional versions of the product. Are they good? If not, why? Can you make it better?
  • Have a separate index card for each person to fill out for each product. They need to be honest;
  • Learn as much about the history of the product, especially for your region or breed, as possible.

Narrow the above list down to a dozen different ideas or less. Then go through the following list of questions to narrow your process down a little further:

  • Do I like to eat that?
  • If a cream product, do my animals make enough cream to justify skimming it?
  • If a cream product, what will you do with the skim?
  • Can it be made from the milk of the animals I already own?
  • If I do not own the animals? How much does a female lactating animal cost? Is their estimated annual production enough to justify making that product?
  • Are there enough lactating animals in the genepool to make the product batches that I need to make and sell this product?
  • How long is their lactation? Are they seasonal breeders?
  • Is there ready technical help that can assist me in making this product legal for sale (and of excellent quality)?
  • Will the equipment and supplies be used more efficiently, or will I have to buy more equipment?
  • Does this product need special equipment? If yes, then how much does it cost? Is it legal now, or does it have to clear state and federal guidelines? How much time can you take to sort that out?
  • Where will this product be sold?
  • If across state lines, do you have to meet IMS standards (federal food inspection standards)?
  • If IMS, will your equipment work, or do you have to buy something? If yes, how much is that going to cost?
  • Can you hand fill and hand cap up to a certain volume per make?
  • How much education am I going to have to do with my customers?
  • Who else is making this product? If there is someone else, why should you be making it?
  • How much are they selling this product for?
  • Can I make more money making this product than shipping milk bulk? (see section on raw product needs in business planning section of workbook to understand this question more)
  • What waste product is there (whey, unsold product, etc.)? How can I legally get rid of it?  What will that cost?
  • Will you need to have this product available year round? If yes, will it be aged or stored when not in production? Will you milk year round?
  • Are there variations to this recipe or packaging that can be made into other products? For example, a waxed cheese and a natural rind cheese from same recipe can make two different cheeses entirely; adding herbs or spices; marinating the product; glass jars vs. plastic deli containers...
  • Is there a family tradition of a particular dairy product?
  • Is there a regional tradition of this particular dairy product?
  • Is there a breed tradition for this particular dairy product? For example, Milking Devon cattle are known for butter and Cornish/Devon clotted cream.
  • Is there adequate disposable income locally to purchase your product? This is especially true for fresh products like fluid milk.
  • If not, will this product need to be sold outside of area? If yes, where?
  • Can you mail this product? If yes, how much will this cost per unit/case?
  • Are you mechanically inclined? Are you comfortable working on and processing in the equipment that you will need to make this product? For example, a continuous ice cream freezer and filler has a lot of parts that have to be broken down and cleaned, only to be put back together again.
  • Have you made that product in batch sizes needed to make money? For example, if you made ice cream in kitchen, can you make it commercially in a batch or continuous freezer?
  • Have you run the numbers (including cost of labor) to see if this is profitable for your operation?
  • If cheese and cultured products, do you understand the process? 
  • Do you have time to make this product? For example, a poll of cheesemakers that sell cheese curd say it takes on average 16 hours from time of transferring milk to packaging cheese in retail packages to make this cheese. 
  • Do you understand the physical labor needed to make this product? Are you healthy enough to consider that product?
  • How are you planning to sell this product?