The Milky Way

It’s all done within 24 hours: The cows are milked, the milk is processed and the product is on the shelves, ready for sale.

  • August 2016

  • Reading time: 6'

    Reading time (Short): 6'

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The Milky Way

It’s all done within 24 hours: The cows are milked, the milk is processed and the product is on the shelves, ready for sale.

Cows in South Tyrol lead happy lives at altitudes of between 900 and 2,000 metres above sea level. But here at the dairy there don’t seem to be any cows. Nor can I see any milk. This land of milk, if not honey, certainly looks different. The Mila dairy plant in Bolzano/Bozen has a somewhat futuristic, fantastic appearance. With its perfectly structured workflow, it’s one of the birthplaces of South Tyrolean yogurt, butter and milk.

It is nine o’clock in the morning and my working day has now begun. But Hans Frick has practically finished his. He is one of the many South Tyrolean “milkers,” as the farmers call him. In other words, he is the milkman. While I was still enjoying sweet dreams in bed, he was collecting milk churns. The first farmer expects Hans’ arrival at around 3:45 am.

Perfectly processed

The milk comes directly down into the valley from mountain farms that lie at 800 to 2,000 metres elevation. Only the best for South Tyrolean milk: Cows here get fresh grass every day in addition to select vegetable feedstuffs. The milk is subject to strict quality controls, from milking through to processing. Ten dairy plants process milk in South Tyrol.

Unwritten laws

The milkman cannot be kept waiting. His watch is synchronised with the farmers’. I too notice that precision is vital as the milk tanker heads for the farm. One thing leaps out at me: The steering wheel is on the right-hand side. “That means we can get out faster when they run out the hoses and pump the milk from the churns into the tanker. It is also safer to get out on the right, away from the oncoming traffic,” explains PR manager Sascha Russotti. I am going with him today to find out more about how the milk is processed.

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Quickly and skilfully, Hans attaches the hose. The milk’s journey to the dairy plant begins. Today, Hans has collected milk from 79 farmers around San Genesio/Jenesien and he will deliver 12,000 litres to the plant. I observe the path of the stainless steel tubes. Over my head is a jumble of hoses and tubes that run in all directions. The Milky Way is not a careful arrangement of stars, but rather an impenetrable tangle of small and large paths that snake around the inside of the building.

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“The heart of our production lies behind this very door,” continues Sascha Russotti. “A central control system sorts the milk according to demand.” Each silo is identified for the production of a particular milk product: Fresh milk, long-life milk or yogurt.

More is less

Small farmers, who keep 12 to 15 cows, produce high-quality South Tyrolean milk. There are fifty milk collection trucks, on the road seven days a week and there are some 5,000 milk-farming families. The milk is pumped from the farmer’s milk churn into the milk tanker at a rate of 300 litres per minute. 

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Quality first

The milk must be purified, quickly and cleanly. Even the smallest trace of antibiotics is a no-no. Only if this test is passed will the journey continue into the large stainless steel tub that leads to the innermost aspects of production.

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I watch the meticulous control process. I accompany Sascha into the laboratory as the milkman delivers new samples. A container in the corner makes me curious. Empty milk cartons, divided in two, are stacked in there. “Even when the milk has been packaged it undergoes quality testing,” explains Sascha. The temperature of the milk to be sold must be constantly examined as well. The limit value is four degrees, no more and no less.

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Yogurt production

My tour continues. I enter a room where around fifty enormous stainless steel containers are lined up. This is where the milk arrives to be sent on to the central control system.

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“It’s crucial that there are no traces of antibiotics in the milk,” emphasises Sascha, who then surprises me with a question. “Do you know how yogurt is made? Milk as a raw material is much more liquid.” I have a pretty good idea, but I let Sascha answer his own question. “The yogurt owes its creamy consistency to two types of bacteria that we add to the milk.” Antibiotics would destroy these very bacterial cultures, the lactic acid bacteria or “yogurt cultures.”

Yogurt cultures use the lactose in milk as a source of energy, dividing and reducing it to lactic acid, creating the acidulous taste of the future natural yogurt. One kilogram of milk can produce one kilogram of natural yogurt. Fruit additives, similar to jam, give the yogurt different taste notes in the next stage. I roam around between the silos as the smell of fruit permeates the air.

Butter production

This is the world of butter with large machines at work. At first I think how complicated this all is, but actually it’s very simple! It takes just a few minutes to make a pack of butter. To my surprise the butter itself is completely ready in seconds. Hermann and Sepp, the “butter masters,” explain to me how the milk is turned into butter: “It is really simple,” they insist. “The fat portion of the milk, the cream, is skimmed from the rest. And the cream is the output used to produce butter. There is really nothing to making butter for yourself!”

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Hermann opens a butter churn for me. “Try it,” he says. “It’s still very soft.” It tastes delicious I confirm. It’s yogurt butter.

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Milk production

Of course I know that the milk is there, but it seems to have disappeared without trace. It is journeying down tubes and through silos before it is packaged.

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Composition of South Tyrolean fresh milk

Water

87%

Carbohydrate

4,8%

Fat

4%

Proteins

3,5%

Trace elements

0,7%

The fresh raw milk from the South Tyrolean farms is pasteurised, homogenised and then skimmed via a centrifuge. I grasp the difference between the various kinds of milk. Fresh milk is heated up briefly then cooled. Vitamins and other valuable ingredients remain, while pathogenic germs are eliminated. On the other hand, long-life milk is heated to 142°C so that all bacteria are eliminated and one fifth of the vitamins are lost.

The milk from South Tyrolean cows is particularly high in fat at around 4.4%. For the milk to be designated ‘full fat’, its fat proportion must be at least 3.5%. The remaining fat is skimmed off and used for making butter or mascarpone. 

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The production line continues, quickly and precisely. Now the long-lasting UHT milk is being filled. There is plenty more work to be done here and many other kinds of milk and milk products are waiting to be packed.

Text: Valentina Casale
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Ivo Corrà