By Kevin Murphy, RiverTown contributor

MADISON - A long-awaited renovation of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls' Dairy Pilot Plant is being called no less than a "transformational" step in the school's dairy science program.

"I'm certain it will be transformational in taking us from where we were to a much higher level,"

Dale Gallenberg, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said Friday.

The $2.44 million project expands and renovates space in the basement of the Agriculture Science Building to accommodate donated equipment to process raw milk and make cheese and ice cream.

The dairy pilot plant is primarily a teaching laboratory where dairy processes are demonstrated for students. Expanding and renovating the physical space will allow the number of students and student employees to double or triple, Gallenberg said.

While 20 to 30 students may use the existing pilot plant for course work during a typical semester, and 10 to 12 students work part time there, after the renovations 60 to 75 students are anticipated to take lab course work and 25 employed there, he said.

The pilot plant has been off line since last fall as renovations to the HVAC, plumbing, electrical and other systems are underway and expected to be completed by September. Then, the donated dairy processing equipment can be installed during the following two months.

The state has allocated $2.44 million to renovate the pilot plant's physical space and the UWRF Foundation, the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association and others are obtaining donated processing equipment to be donated or obtained at a reduced cost that Gallenberg said would have a value between $2.5 and $3 million.

The college began planning the renovation several years ago after a student employee in the pilot plant said he could help obtain updated equipment and the Cheesemakers Association expressed interest in having the facility modernized, Gallenberg said.

The plant had been in operation since the mid-1980s and was overdue for renovating but the process to design and obtain the equipment took longer than Gallenberg wanted.

He noted that the architect was hired in 2015 but the project wasn't bid until 2018.

When the bids were opened in March 2018, they were $1 million over budget. The State Building Commission added $1 million to the budget in April 2018. Then, last month, the Commission added another $500,000 to the budget in order to accommodate larger donated equipment. The additional funds are being used for larger doors, more sophisticated electric controls and replacing the building's transformer.

Gallenberg said he is confident that the budget is larger enough to complete the project.

Space was taken from the fruit/vegetable pilot plant to enlarge the dairy pilot plant as the college is currently more active in dairy and meat science curriculum. While the dairy plant is taking space from the fruit/vegetable plant, there is a commitment to that program which includes renovating space for it "down the road," Gallenberg said.

Freddie's Dairy Bar, which features ice cream and cheese made on campus, is being relocated to the second floor of the Agriculture Science Building. It's a more accessible space, said Gallenberg, who sees the retail store playing a bigger role in sales of dairy and meat items the university calls, Falcon Food Products.