By Brandi Perry
Mississippi State University in Starkville is known for football, baseball, Bully, tailgating and a strong agricultural background. However, many people are not aware that they also have one of the only university-owned cattle herds to make the top rankings. From that herd, the campus produces milk, ice cream and their world-renowned cheese. This is their story.
The history of cheese at Mississippi State University is a fascinating one, but none of it would be possible without the Bearden Dairy Research Center. More than 100 cows, a mixture of Holstein, Jersey and crossbred, are milked twice a day every single day of the year. The Jersey herd has been ranked in the top 10 of all categories for groups similar to their size. This includes a number 5 ranking in protein, 4th in milk and 10th in milk-fat production. Total output of milk every year is more than 365,000 gallons. However, these are not the same type of cows your grandparents milked. These cows produce 8-10 gallons a day, while the hand-milked cows from days gone by may have yielded 1-2 gallons a day at best.
Currently, the Mississippi State University herd in the second or third oldest jersey herd in the United States. That herd was registered in 1906 for Mississippi A&M. The herd has been continually bred since then. For the first time since the 1950s, a cow was brought into the system in 2014.
Kenneth Graves, the dairy herder at Bearden Dairy at Mississippi State, explained the lifestyle of the cows in the herd. "When the calf is born, they are hand raised and fed twice a day. As they get older, they slowly move up the chain until they are here. Our goal is for that cow to have its first calf at 21 months old."
Even though the cow may have its first calf at nearly two years of age, most of the goals have a 3-4 lactation goal. In other words, if the cows live to be 6 to 7 years old, they have had a long life.
Dr. Amanda Stone, an Assistant Professor in the School of Animal and Dairy Science, explained why the farm only used artificial insemination. "Artificial insemination is the only way we can improve the genetics of the goal. Our goal here at Mississippi State is to genetically improve a cow to the point where it is more efficient, makes more milk and lives longer. Once the older cows are moved out of the milking rotation, their offspring will be taking their place. Not only do those cows come in with fewer years on them, they also have better genetics."
Jersey cows have a lot more fat in their milk than what you find in your local grocery store Coming it between 4.5-5%, the milk in the grocery store will be closer to 3%. Holstein's run has 4.2% fat in their milk and are also known for their quantity of milk. Throughout the United States, there's more Holstein cattle milked than all the other cows combined. At the Bearden Dairy, milking is done at 3 am and 3 pm and are handled by the students in the animal science programs. This occurs every single day of the year, including holidays and the most horrendous weather.
From the dairy, the milk travels to Custer Dairy Processing Plant where the raw milk (up to 1300 gallons a day) is pasteurized and either gets turned into fluid milk for bottling all over campus, cheese, ice cream or butter. James McClelland has been a part of this incredible process for nearly 30 years now.
"In 1938, just before World War II closed the border at Holland, ten teakwood molds were shipped to us. Dr. Herzer was looking for a notable cheese to bring to the university that was just as popular as the football team. That's how the ‘cannon balls’ of edam cheese started," McClellan explained.
The mold helps shape the three-pound balls of edam cheese and more than 50,000 are sold each year. There are one and a half pound balls of edam that are included in Maroon and White Gift Packs. Once the cheese is made and put into the mold, it is placed in a salt brine bath before it is covered with wax. However, the cheese is not immediately placed for sale. Edam is aged for three months before anyone can take it home.
Cheddar cheese is also made in the processing plant and are made in huge blocks weighing 20 pounds. Two 20 pounds blocks are placed in a wooden crate and aged for three months as well. When the three months pass, the cheddar is cut two-pound blocks and then sold. More than 50,000 of these blocks are sold annually.
The most popular cheese produced by the Custer Dairy Processing Plant is called Vallagret. Similar to a Swiss, the cheese is produced in wheels and ages in cold storage. Only 10,000 wheels of this cheese is made annually and it is usually the one that sells out the fastest during the holiday season.
Cheese isn't the only delicious product made at the dairy processing plant. "We churn out about 5,500 pounds of butter each year and about 25,000 gallons of the best ice cream on the planet," McClellan educated with a smile. "There are seven flavors of the ice cream but the Muscadine Ripple is by far the most popular."
The muscadines used to make the ice cream are actually grown and harvested at the South Mississippi Branch Experimentation Station. It takes 150 gallons of muscadine juice to make a year's worth of the popular snack.
From the processing plant, all the delicious products are brought to the MAFES Store on the campus of Mississippi State University. This store welcomes visitors thousands of visitors through their doors every year, the majority from Mississippi but many others from across the country. Additionally, the cheese products are shipped all over the world, especially during the holiday season, where orders may only be two cheese balls or 1,500. Corporate companies, professional athletes and students share these cheeses with those who may not have yet experienced it. Mississippi State University is indirectly extending hospitality worldwide through their cheeses.
The MAFES Cheese Store on the campus of Mississippi State University is open from 8 am until 5 pm CST Monday through Friday. The store is closed during regular university holidays but is open for home football game days. The store is located in the glass annex at the front of the Herzer Food Science Building on 925 Stone Boulevard. In addition to products available to order online, the MAFES Sales Store offers a wide range of products for purchase in the store.
There are so many incredible places scattered up and down the backroads of Mississippi that should be on everyone's bucket list. This is definitely one of those places. From world-class hospitality to the best milk products found in the southeast, Mississippi State University should be a destination for anyone that appreciates the best of what the Magnolia State has to offer.