U.S. dairy processor Agropur, St. Paul, Minn., is thriving by manufacturing aseptic and extended-shelf-life dairy (ESL) dairy and nondairy beverages. (See “Agropur USA invests in ESL products.”)

ESL products are attractive because they deliver higher margins compared to fresh milk products. Producing them, however, requires a bigger infrastructure, noted Eric Brunelle, the division’s CEO.

About half of the plant’s production is in long-shelf-life products. The dairy also processes HT/ST (high temperature/short time) milk for its own Schroeder milk brand in formats ranging from paper half-pints to plastic gallons.

Moving these various size packages through the plant to the warehouse and eventually to the customer requires specific packaging equipment, sanitary conveyors approved to handle dairy foods, secondary packaging machines, and robotic palletizers. The longer shelf life of ESL and aseptic milks allows a processor to ship the products farther away from the plant.

Agropur VP of Operations Jim Schultz took Dairy Foods on a tour of the St. Paul facility.  Agropur has five fillers for fresh milk handling half-pint to gallon formats and one bag filler (packaging milk for foodservice accounts). The smaller-format fillers can produce 1,000 cartons (like half-pints for school milk) per minute. After filling, the containers are code-dated and conveyed to the packing room. Depending upon the customer, the products are collated and packaged in corrugate cases or in plastic crates.

There is also an 18-valve filler for quarts and half-gallons and a 26-valve filler for gallons. Filled bottles are conveyed automatically to the case stacker room and then to the refrigerated warehouse. Depending upon the customer, the packages are put into milk crates, corrugated boxes, bossey carts or caseless pallets.

Automation has helped efficiencies and improved worker safety in the dairy processing plant. One robotic palletizer unit can build three different pallets in three different configurations at the same time. The company’s ERP system keeps track of orders, their location in the warehouse, and when they are trucked to the customer. See photos of Agropur’s dairy plant in St. Paul, Minn, in this exclusive photo gallery.