Beaver's cheese plant has slashed production and laid off about two-thirds of its employees in the past few months, and a company official said development and population growth along the Wasatch Front may be partially to blame.

Dairy Farmers of America Inc., the cooperative that owns the Beaver operation, laid off 21 people this month and six last month, leaving only 15 employees at the plant and retail store.Greg Yando, chief operating officer for DFA's Mountain Area, said April 8 was the last day for large-scale production of the Beaver plant's award-winning Colby longhorn and other cheeses.

"We've kind of been ratcheting it down (there) for some time now," Yando said Tuesday. "It's been a pretty difficult cheese to produce. . . . It's very labor-intensive, and it's been difficult to get the cost of the labor out of the marketplace."

He said the Beaver plant, which was built in 1953, was taking in 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of milk each day, and it could produce a pound of cheese for every 10 pounds of milk.

"Volume is kind of the name of the game these days," Yando said. "By today's standards, that's a pretty small plant."

He said the Beaver plant was further harmed by growth along the Wasatch Front, where many dairy farmers are selling their land to developers.

"It's a difficult decision to leave the farm, but we've had a lot of producers in the Brigham City to Provo corridor that have been taken out by development," Yando said. "So the state's milk production is headed down. And with the state's population increasing, more milk is going into fluid - into the bottle - and less into cheese."

Sheldon Jessup, foreman at the Beaver plant, said nine people still make some cheese curd, ice cream and other dairy products, which are sold by six employees at the retail store known as Cheese Chalet.

Yando said the store has a good location near Interstate 15.

"It seems to be very popular, particularly with the tourists that go up to the parks in the summertime," he said. "We also have an evaporator at that plant, and we take what milk is left in the area and run it through the evaporator. We make condensed skim milk primarily for the ice cream manufacturers we serve."

The Beaver plant and another in the Cache Valley town of Amalga both were part of the Western Dairymen Cooperative Inc. before it became part of DFA. Yando said production and staff have not been cut at the Amalga plant.

Linda Eyre, Cheese Chalet office manager, said she is confident the store will remain open. But she said the plant layoffs were a surprise to people in Beaver, a southwestern Utah town with a population of about 2,300.

The cheese plant was one of the area's largest employers, Eyre said, even after the recent arrival of Circle Four Farms' large-scale hog operation.

"I've been here for 22 years, so it was kind of a shock," Eyre said. "They've been giving hints. But we'd been thinking, if it did happen, it would be more in the fall."

Yando said the 4-month-old DFA, a dairy marketing cooperative with 22,000 members in 42 states, will close several plants under a consolidation plan. DFA has 330 Utah members.

"Our plan is to save the dairy farmer members of DFA $30 million over three years," Yando said.