Cream and butter popularity has Quebec's dairy farmers producing more than ever

Quebec's dairy farmers and producers are scrambling to expand operations due to an increased interest in butter and cream, thanks in part to the "foodie" movement.

In just two years, daily milk production in Quebec has increased by 1 million litres

Peter Strebel has been working with cows since 1976 when his father bought a dairy farm in in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Quebec's dairy farmers and producers are scrambling to expand operations due to an increased interest in butter and cream, thanks in large part to the "foodie" movement.

In the last 30 years, the increase in demand for dairy products has mostly followed Canada's population growth, with the exception of two time periods.

There was a decrease in demand in the early '90s due to studies that pointed out animal fat, including milk fat, could lead to high cholesterol. 

Since 2013, though, there's been a sharp increase in demand — almost 25 per cent more. 

For Peter Strebel, who owns Strebel Farms in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, 50 kilometres southeast of Montreal, that growth has had an impact on his daily output.

"It's a little bit more challenging to be able to follow production," he said.

"To increase milk production, it's about a two-year production cycle. You have to have a calf, she has to get pregnant, you have to raise her and everything. It takes about two years before you can raise your milk production with your own animals."

Also necessary to expand production: a bigger barn, more crops to feed the cows and bigger production capacities. It means that processing facilities also need to grow.

Each cow on the Strebel farm wears an electronic tag which monitors its activity and health. The farm has 125 milking cows. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Health and taste

The increased interest in dairy with a higher fat content — such as butter and cream — can be directly linked to two things: studies showing that dairy saturated fat could actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and the rise of the foodie.

"Over the years, the science brought more light to the fat category. In the last decade, most science has succeeded in demonstrating that saturated fats were not as bad as some lobbyists would pretend," said Alain Bourbeau, the general manager of the Quebec Milk Producers' Federation.

Celebrity chefs have also played a role. Their love of using butter and cream to flavour dishes has Canadian foodies turning more and more to those dairy products.

"Let's say our average farm five years ago had about 50 to 55 cows. Now, we are over 75 cows," said Bourbeau.

"You need more cows to produce that milk. It has an effect on the average size of the farm as well as the day-to-day pick up of milk."
(Hélène Simard/CBC)

In 2015, the average production of milk in Quebec was around eight million litres per day. Just two years later, the daily average has increased to more than nine million litres per day.

Adapting to demands

For Strebel, the increase in demand came at a good time. He was already expanding his farm for his sons who will eventually take over the business.

But many dairy farmers in Quebec are just now catching up to the demand. Also struggling are the processing facilities, where production capacities are limited.

"It's a lot of milk that involves having more resources at the farm gate, more resources on the road, more resources to process all that milk," Bourbeau said.

"That's why it's not small change. It has a huge impact and it's a positive one, most of the time."

In order to meet the demands of dairy with higher fat content, processing facilities are left with more of the byproduct, the skimmed milk left behind when making butter and cream.

Alain Bourbeau is the general manager of the Quebec Milk Producers' Federation. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

The byproduct can be used to make dried milk for animal feeding or powdered skim milk. In February, almost a million litres had to be thrown away because it couldn't be processed.

But Bourbeau points out that amount is less than 0.02 per cent of Quebec's yearly dairy production total.

About the Author

Sarah Leavitt

Journalist

Sarah Leavitt is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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