Milking it for all its worth: Getting milk to Bongard’s in Perham is precise, multi-step process
He can see the road stretched before him from inside the cab of the Peterbilt semi truck. Wide windows reveal an asphalt road and what seems like an endless expanse of farm fields and farm sites.
Driver Eric Joos has started the roughly 100-mile trip from West River Dairy in Stevens County to the Bongards Creamery plant in Perham.
Your burger wouldn't have cheese without these twice a day trips.
Nine full-time drivers make the round trip from Riverview's West River Dairy site to the Bongards plant in Perham twice a day. For some, the first trip starts before daylight and the second trip ends in late afternoon. For others, the two trips may both be in darkness, depending on the time of year.
The trips are made year-round, seven days a week, 24 hours a day because milk won't wait.
Joos, who schedules the route and oversees drivers at Riverview, said the dairy has at least two back-up trailers to store milk should the weather or other conditions prevent a milk run. But, it's rare a trip is missed or delayed, he said.
"Milk hauling is fairly demanding," Joos said. "It takes someone who is dedicated and has a strong work ethic."
Not every truck driver is cut out for the job, Joos said. Riverview wants drivers with some specific qualities.
"We want someone who is patient," Joos said. "Somebody who is even-keeled and professional in their attitude and appearance."
And someone of integrity, Joos said.
Riverview has six trucks and 11 trailers. When an empty trailer returns from Perham it gets filled again at the dairy while another truck and trailer leave on a trip. The interchange of trailers is on a strict schedule which is important for production at the dairy and production at the Bongards plant in Perham, Joos said. "We are constantly filling tanks, 24/7," Joos said. The tanks hold 7,400 gallons of milk. Pumps fill the tanks at a rate of 2,000 gallons an hour.
Each trip to Perham takes about five to six hours which includes travel time and unloading. Each driving shift lasts about 10 ½ to 12 hours. Drivers work in a rotation of several days of work and several days off work.
The trip starts
On a morning in May Joos was scheduled to haul what's called a seventh tanker. The seventh tanker is a route that happens every few days within a route schedule.
West River is located about 12 miles from Riverview's main office near Morris.
Joos arrives shortly after 7 a.m. and the tanker is nearly full. It takes about 3 ½ hours to fill a tanker. Several shiny tankers are lined up against a deck of pipes used for flowing milk to the tankers.
A meter records how many gallons have entered the tank and a fill probe is attached to a yellow cord in the tanker stall.
When the tanker is full, a Riverview employee unhooks the hose from the tanker. The tanker hose host is locked. The back of the tanker is washed with a hose as well as the loading deck. Joos attaches a blue tag to the back of the tanker as part of the sealing and recording process.
Joos then records the truck information, his name and departure time in a computer that sits on a desk against the wall in the corner of a large building.
He returns to the truck and checks the oil, shocks, tires and other items.
"Each driver, every day, checks every thing over," Joos said.
At the plant
The Bongards creamery plant is on the edge of Perham. Joos needs to take a curved road that used be gravel until it was recently paved. Then, he navigates a series of side streets to reach the plant.
The plant at Perham has 125 employees and operates 24 hours a day seven days a week, said Daryl Larson, the chief executive officer of Bongards Creamery in Perham.. The cows don't stop milking, so the production can't stop, Larson said.
When Joos arrives at 10:06 a.m., a semi truck and straight truck are unloading in the bay. The fronts of semi trucks stick out the front of the unloading area. The bay holds typically holds two semi trucks and two straight trucks.
"Some days there can be a line. It's different every day,"Joos said. "Like Tony told me, it's not very busy right now."
Joos pulls up to the entry and waits for his turn to enter an unloading stall. He will be here for about an hour.
A Bongards employee in a white cap and white clothes climbs to the top of the tanker and sticks probes into the tanker to take samples of milk.
The milk can't be unloaded until it passes the tests.
The tests can detect contaminants and antibiotics. Bongards also tests the fat and protein content.
Joos laughed about milk companies that advertise that their milk contains no antibiotics. No milk or milk products can contain antibiotics because plants reject raw milk with antibiotics. Producers don't use milk from cows on antibiotics as part of their supply, Joos said.
If contaminants are detected, including antibiotics, the milk is disposed of, Larson said.
When the milk samples pass the test, Joos can unload. First he needs to spray the back of the tanker and the equipment to which the hose will be attached. Once the hose is attached to the back of the trailer, it takes about 30 minutes to unload the milk.
Joos spends that 30 minutes returning phone calls and washing the outside of the truck.
He scrubs the tanker and the truck and then pulls a water hose from the bay and sprays water to rinse off the soap.
The tanker interiors are washed each time milk is unloaded but drivers regularly wash the exteriors.
Joos said the tankers and trucks are traveling advertisements for Riverview. A clean, shiny, truck and tanker are noticed by the public and they reflect positively on the company, Joos said.
The tankers bear the Bongards logo. "They don't pay us for that," Joos said. It's more a goodwill gesture from Riverview to Bongards that symbolizes the partnership, both Joos and Larson said.
The unloading area hums with the buzz of equipment as milk is removed from tanks and other drivers wash their tankers.
It's not long before a Viessman's truck pulls to the side of the street to start the line of trucks waiting to unload.
The quiet plant is getting busier.
A cooperative straight truck drives into the bay to unload. A second Riverview truck driven by Mike Wartner pulls in to unload. A Cardinal semi truck and trailer turns into the unloading line and a private hauler follows him.
When the milk is removed, the second part of the operation starts as the tanker is washed. The interior tanker washing takes about 30 minutes.
When the interior of the tanker is clean, the truck leaves the plant to return to Riverview where, on a regular route day, the driver will pick up a second tanker and make the trip again.