Prairie Farms to launch lactose-free milk and dairy products


POCAHONTAS, Ill. — Prairie Farms Dairy is launching a line of lactose-free milks and dairy products next month, as the regional cooperative diversifies its product offerings and searches for new markets to help small dairy farmers survive.

Seven years ago, the company sourced milk from nearly 1,000 farms, CEO Matt McClelland said. The Edwardsville-based cooperative has been losing about 40 members a year as small farms, which have between 175 to 200 cows, struggle to stay open amid rising operating costs.

“The scale you need to be at is just getting tougher and tougher,” McClelland. “You have to be efficient or unfortunately you’re not going to be in the dairy business much longer.”

Prairie Farms Dairy announces release of lactose free dairy options

Matt McClelland, CEO of Prairie Farms Dairy, poses Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at the Doll Dairy Farm in Pochahontas, Ill.

Prairie Farms processes its milk into a variety of dairy products in plants around the Midwest and distributes to grocery stores, schools, food service outlets and more. Products include ice cream, butter, veggie dip, iced coffee, cottage cheese and, of course, milk.

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Prairie Farms started looking at adding the lactose-free products to its portfolio last year. Lactose, a natural sugar found in milk and dairy products, can cause gastrointestinal problems in people whose digestive systems can’t tolerate it or are sensitive to it.

People often turn to soy, oat or almond milks as a substitute — but they could enjoy dairy again with the new line, McClelland said.

“We want to take that excuse away,” McClelland said. The brand’s new lactose-free line include whole, 1%, 2%, low-fat, fat-free and chocolate milk, sour cream and cottage cheese.

To make the lactose-free products, a natural enzyme is used to break down the lactose in milk. McClelland likened it to how Prairie Farms manufactures its chocolate milk, but instead of adding chocolate powder and sugar to a batch of milk, the manufacturing facility adds the enzyme. The lactose-free products will taste the same as the original counterparts, he said.

The lactose-free products will be made at the Carlinville plant to begin with, but McClelland said all 47 Prairie Farms manufacturing plants have the ability to make the new products. McClelland said he wants to normalize lactose-free dairy products and, at the same time, widen the brand’s customer base.

“To be quite honest, I don’t know why we haven’t done it sooner,” McClelland said. “I think we’re going to earn some milk drinkers back and that’s exciting for us and exciting for dairy farmers.”

Prairie Farms will also be introducing a 12% butterfat vanilla ice cream in four-quart pails this summer.

Prairie Farms Dairy announces release of lactose free dairy options

Logan Doll spreads hay inside a barn to feed the cows after their morning milking on Tuesday, May 14, at the Doll Dairy Farm in Pochahontas, Ill.

The family farm

About 50 miles east of St. Louis, Frank Doll and his two sons tend the family dairy farm, working with about 225 Holstein cows and 100 calves near the village of Pocahontas.

The Dolls milk the cows twice a day daily, and the herd produces about 690,000 gallons of milk a year. Every day, a truck arrives to transport that milk to a Prairie Farms processing plant, typically in Carlinville or Granite City, Des Moines, Iowa, or Holland, Indiana.

Doll said he can watch the milk leave his farm and it’ll be on a delivery truck to a store in 48 hours.

“It’s quality fresh and we’re very excited about that,” said Doll, who is also the Prairie Farms Dairy board president.

Doll is one of 224 Prairie Farms member farms in Illinois. He said growing operating costs makes it hard for some to earn a profit in dairy farming today. Doll sells calves and even “rents” out the uteruses of some of his cows to other farmers for breeding to generate a side income.

Doll said he hopes his oldest son takes over the farm, which has been in their family since 1938 — but to stay in the dairy business, the farm would have to expand by 500 more cows, which could cost up to $5 million.

For now, Doll said technology and breeding has made it possible to increase milk production, so they are able to generate more gallons without growing the herd.

Plus, as more people approach Doll looking for work, the farm could potentially boost milking sessions to three times a day, which would further increase milk production.

“Everything is going up (in price) so we have to do a good job of diversifying (income),” Doll said. “We’re pretty profitable. We’re in a sweet spot and we’re making money.”

Prairie Farms Dairy announces release of lactose free dairy options

Blake Doll brings in hay to feed the cows after their morning milking on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at the Doll Dairy Farm in Pochahontas, Ill.

And, after years of competing with plant-based milk and dairy alternatives, a dairy milk revival is on the horizon, according to McClelland.

The dairy food industry will grow over 6% annually to a market value of over $1.3 trillion by 2030, according to market researcher Fortune Business Insights.

Fortune Business Insights attributes the COVID-19 pandemic with increasing consumers’ want of healthy and nutrition-based dairy products, however, the continued success of plant-based milks will restrain the growth of dairy products.

McClelland said he’s seen an uptick in sales of specifically whole and 2% milks over the last couple of years and thinks the trend will continue.

Prairie Farms Dairy announces release of lactose free dairy options

A cow is seen Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at the Doll Dairy Farm in Pochahontas, Illinois.

Cow’s milk is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and minerals. Some plant-based milks, like soy, can be high in protein, and are often fortified with nutrients, appealing to people for health reasons and those avoiding animal products.

“When you look at the nutritional benefits of dairy versus nut water, there’s no comparison,” McClelland said. “Nutritionally, it’s the best bang for your buck.”

He said Prairie Farms will expand its lactose-free line as possible, aiming to put more money in the pockets of dairy farmers.

“At the end of the day, my job is to create a market for Frank (Doll) and our members’ milk,” McClelland said. “This lactose-free product just expands that marketplace to where we can utilize the milk in more places.”

View life in St. Louis through the Post-Dispatch photographers’ lenses. Edited by Jenna Jones.

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