From milk to yogurt…and beyond


  • Dairy demand is increasing in Canada
  • Changes in genetics is increasing dairy productivity substantially with fewer animals
  • Increased demand means more opportunities for dairy niche markets

What’s old is new again when it comes to Canadians’ changing dairy tastes. Simply put, fat is good again.

That means renewed popularity for cream – long shunned by shoppers attracted to low-fat or fat-free products – solid increases for cheese consumption, and dramatic expansion in yogurt, where a plethora of types and brands now line the dairy case.

“Consumers have more comfort again with higher fat drinks and cream-based sauces. People are looking at 18 per cent cream versus 10 per cent cream in their coffees, for example,” explains Al Mussell, research lead at Guelph-based Agri-Food Economic Systems.  

Dairy products cream of the crop

That new-found comfort can be attributed to changing beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet – a balance of food groups instead of exclusion – and a desire for simplicity in an increasingly complex food environment.

There’s never been a better time to be a dairy farmer.

“There’s an excitement about food and natural ingredients like cream and butter that’s leading to a renaissance in cooking and culinary experimentation,” says Michael Barrett, president and CEO of Gay Lea Foods Co-operative Ltd., a major Canadian dairy processor. “At the same time, increasingly sophisticated consumer palates are growing the demand for innovation in product development.”

Barrett adds that milk is also being looked at as a source of healthy ingredients, with its various components potentially serving as additives in other products.

Overall, the demand changes have come with a need to increase production, which is a good-news story for farmers, according to Alberta dairy farmer and yogurt processor Hennie Bos.

“Last year, we produced five per cent more milk in Canada than the year before, which is unheard of. We’re seeing more products being sold and consumed by Canadians, which is a great story in my point of view as a farmer,” he says.

More milk from fewer animals

According to Brian Van Doormaal, Canadian Dairy Network general manager, Canadian milk production has been fairly stable over the last two decades. What has changed is the number of farms and cows, largely due to innovations in areas such as genetics and milking technology.

“There’s a lot of on-farm innovation that’s allowing farmers to increase butterfat and milk production, such as the use of voluntary milking systems, for example. Production per cow increases when they can get milked as often as they want,” explains Wally Smith, B.C. dairy farmer and president of Dairy Farmers of Canada.  

Changes in genetics have been tremendous. Production per cow per year has doubled since the 1960s, with more than three quarters of that progress in Holsteins directly attributable to genetics, Van Doormaal says.

“The level of production is 50 per cent higher now than it was even 25 years ago. We were averaging 7,000 litres per cow per year, and now it’s 10,000,” he adds.

The real genetics game-changer since 2008, though, has been genomics – evaluating an animal’s DNA to estimate its genetic merit. Not only has the annual rate of genetic progress in Holsteins now doubled, but genomics also allows selection for so-called functional traits, like longevity, fertility and disease resistance, which couldn’t accurately be selected for before.

Change means opportunity

For niche market processors like Hennie Bos’s Bles-Wold Yogurt, change means opportunity. Their business started in 1996 with plain and a few flavoured product options; today, they make a wide range of yogurt, including drinkable products and the wildly popular Greek yogurt.

“There’s never been a better time to be a dairy farmer,” Smith believes. “More milk from fewer animals means a reduced carbon foot print for the industry. That makes us very sustainable, and we can say that very proudly.”

The bigger challenge now – say those in the industry – is dealing with the surplus skim that accompanies the increased butterfat market. Current Canadian skim milk drying infrastructure has reached its capacity, and domestically produced product isn’t price-competitive with growing imports.

A solution could lie with a new national ingredient strategy announced in July by Dairy Farmers of Canada and dairy processor associations; details are to be released once the ratification process is complete.

From an AgriSuccess article (Special Edition 2017) by Lilian Schaer (@foodandfarming).