Wednesday, December 8, 2010

NCR-SARE Project Creates Value Around Grass-fed Milk

Source: Ag Weekly

Is there a way to “create value around grass-fed milk?”

Scott Rankin, a UW-Madison food scientist, asked that question last week during a “grass-fed dairy tasting.”

It was the second annual event, and it drew several dozen invited guests to the Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Guests heard informational presentations and participated in side-by-side tastings of foods made with “conventional” milk and that made with milk from cows that had primarily been grazed.

The 36-month project has a year to go. It’s funded with just over $148,000 from a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Grant.

Laura Paine, the Wisconsin agriculture department’s grazing and organic agriculture specialist, said the project has four goals. The first goal is to “develop a definitive understanding of the unique physical, chemical and flavor qualities of grass-fed milk.”

The second goal is to “gain an ability to manage seasonal changes in milk flavor and physical properties to improve processing quality,” she continued. Goal number three is to “create an increased awareness among dairy processors of the opportunities and appropriate uses for grass-fed milk.”

Goal number four, said Paine, is to figure out how to establish a premium price for dairy products made from the milk of grazed cows.


Beginning last year, milk was collected from grazed cows on the farms of the five members of Edelweiss Graziers’ Cooperative. The co-op requires that at least 60 percent of members’ cows feed is fresh forage during the grazing season, said Bert Paris, Belleville, an Edelweiss member.

Milk was collected three times during each grazing season n during the spring “flush,” in midsummer, or June, and again during the fall. That was done, said Rankin, to see if the time of year influences the milk, and also the products made from it. In addition, pasture samples were collected for testing right before the milk was processed.

Project partners turned to the UW-Madison’s Babcock dairy plant to make the milk into finished products. Last year the milk was processed into fluid milk, cream, yogurt and butter. This year the research has concentrated on butter and fluid milk.

Rankin evaluated the products on their color, fatty acid content, texture, melting point and other characteristics, both chemical and physical. For a comparison, the same kinds of products were made with conventional milk from cows on a farm that used stored feed.

“The evidence so far,” said Rankin, “suggests that the unique features of grass-fed milk are concentrated in the butterfat.” He offered some “preliminary observations about the milk and dairy products that were made from the milk of the grazed cows.

The Babcock plant made six samples of each of four products from the grazing milk, and two samples of each product using the conventional milk. Products made were fluid milk, butter, heavy cream, and yogurt.

Rankin explained that project members decided the milk should be pasteurized, and that for the fluid milk sample it should also be homogenized. Then they conducted sensory tests on the UW-Madison campus.

People involved in the tests were asked, “’How much do you like this product?’” Rankin explained. “Generally,” they liked the conventional milk more.

One-hundred people said they preferred the milk from conventionally fed cows, while 50 said they preferred the milk from the grazed cows. On a scale of 1 to 10, the conventional milk outscored the “grass-fed” milk 6.3 to 5.8.

“Is this a fatal flaw?” the food scientist asked. “These numbers are pretty close.”

The milk from grazed cows had a “very distinct, unique flavor,” Rankin added. But he hinted that perhaps more people would like it as they become “educated” about it.

Paine, the grazing specialist, pointed out that the study’s aim is “not to validate” what graziers “think is good.” It might turn out, she said, that milk from grazed cows is not the best to be marketed as fluid milk.

Perhaps, she said, this milk might find more consumer acceptance as butter and cheese. The people involved in the study would like to be able to make recommendations to milk processors, Paine added.


Butter made from the milk of the grazed cows fared better when it came to a health factor. Rankin said this butter tested about 5 percentage points lower in saturated fat than butter made from the conventional milk.

Butter made from the milk of the grazed cows was also more yellow. Rankin noted that yellower butter is often perceived as being “more healthful.”

Turning to butter hardness, the food scientist said the results varied. Butter made from the milk of grazed cows could be harder or softer than butter made from conventional milk, depending on the time of year the cows grazed.

As for the cream, that from milk of grazed cows was thicker. It scored 47.73 in viscosity tests, while the cream from conventional milk scored 38.13.

When it came to yogurt - unflavored and unsweetened n that made from the milk of grazed cows almost matched that made from conventional milk, in terms of preferences. Tasters scored yogurt made from conventional milk an average of 4.83, while they scored yogurt made from the milk of grazed cow 4.73.

Commented Rankin, “As we build complexity in a product, these (preference) differences start to go away.”

Still to go in this project is work comparing the two types of fluid milks and butters, along with a more-in-depth look at the beta carotene content of the butters. Rankin said he also plans to examine the color and texture of the two kinds of butter.


The project has tapped the expertise of two chefs to see how products made from the milk of grazed cows compares to those made with conventional milk when it comes to cooking. Leah Caplan, Field to Fork Culinary Consulting, Madison, and Jack Kaestner, a chef at the Oconomowoc Lake Club, Oconomowoc, prepared several items for people at the tasting to sample and compare.

Kaestner said he serves some dairy products made from “grass-fed” milk to customers at the Oconomowoc Lake Club. When it comes to the butter, he said an oft-uttered comment is, “Oh, that’s what butter used to taste like!”


Next year’s phase of the project will focus more on outreach to farmers, processors and consumers, said Paine. And the sampling and testing will continue.

For more information on this SARE project, visit the SARE reporting website at:

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