Four-year research project identifies opportunities, challenges for niche market
The vast majority of U.S. dairy cattle never get to be outdoors while they are lactating; over half of the milk produced in this country comes from just 1,750 large farms - mostly in California, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas, according to data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture.
Bucking that trend to some extent, is Wisconsin, where about 22 percent of the state's dairy farmers use managed grazing - pairing their dairy cows with managed grasslands.
Laura Paine, the organic and grazing specialist at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has headed a project to track whether or not the features of milk from grazed cows are unique enough to constitute a niche market.
Paine and other grazing researchers in the state believe that in terms of environmental performance and profitability, grazing farms can excel.
As a number of farmstead processors have found, the milk from pastured cows is different from what is called "conventional" milk - that produced from stored, often fermented feed.
The just-released report "Growing the Pasture-Grazed Dairy Sector in Wisconsin" summarizes the results of a four-year study investigating the properties of the milk from pastured cows which was conducted from 2009-12.
One of the reasons behind the research study was that while Wisconsin and the North Central region of the United States still have strong dairy sectors - with seven of the top 10 states in numbers of dairy farmers - the dairy industry in this region has struggled to compete globally with regions that have high-volume milk production.
One strategy for this region may be to capitalize on its strengths in value-added artisan products, including pasture-based dairying.
Paine says the milk coming from pastured cows yields softer products, is yellower and has a more complex flavor with a "grassy, earthy note" in its flavor profile.
The chefs who worked on the project felt there was a value-added opportunity in these kinds of dairy products.
A research grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) North Central Region provided $148,000 over four years to work on this project. Participants included farmers, dairy researchers, consumer panelists and chefs who made products from the grass-based milk and then analyzed them.
"The chefs did research on the culinary performance of these kinds of dairy products compared to others," she said.
Chef Jack Kaestner, who participated in the project and who is quoted in the report, said he was "quite amazed when working with the pasture products. It seemed like a completely different substance at times."
The project collected milk from five pasture-based dairy members of the PastureLand Cooperative (formerly Edelweiss Graziers) three times during the grazing season in 2009, 2010 and 2011. All the farmers provided the majority of their cows' feed from pasture and fed small amounts of grain, but no silage.
One of the conclusions reached by the project is that cows should not be fed silage if their milk is to have the best "grassy notes."
The samplings were done in May, July and September to capture different stages of the grazing season - the spring flush, mid-summer after pastures had been clipped and the cooler, moister conditions of fall.
The products from these milk collections were compared with "conventional" milk and were analyzed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Food Science Department lab by Dr. Scott Rankin and his staff.
This analysis compared chemical composition of the dairy products side-by-side, including fat, true protein, somatic cells, lactose and other compounds that contributed to milk processing quality.
Testing was also done on physical properties like texture, melting temperature and color.
Consumer taste panels evaluated the products and chefs were then given the products to compare how or if these products had different culinary performance.
"Our group found that the color, texture, aroma and flavor of grass-based products were different from conventional dairy products," said Paine. "Through formal and informal evaluations of the products, their performance and consumer response, we were able to make recommendations."
Kaestner, a chef who has been involved in the project since it began, noted that in the spring, the pasture-based milk had a sort of "oniony" flavor, which didn't produce the most flavorful milk for drinking but produced "phenomenal" flavors in cooking.
The complex flavor combined well with soups, sauces and other savory foods.
"When I was just starting out in my career as a chef, I wondered what the big deal was about simple French dishes like Chicken Kiev, but when I use pasture butter in the simple sauces for such dishes, I understand how they gained their prominence in the culinary world," he said.
The study found that the differences between pasture milk and that from conventionally produced milk seems to be concentrated in the butterfat and much of the research study focused on unsalted butter for that reason.
The chefs found that the pastured-based dairy products, including unsalted butter and cream, tended to enhance and complement the herbal, vegetable and fruit flavors of many recipes.
The report just released by Paine's group includes results of the various testing protocols, marketing and product positioning, focus group results and restaurant perspectives.
Paine says that developing a pasture dairy brand means differentiating that product from others that are already on the market. But panelists in focus groups were concerned about the need to draw comparisons between their grass-based milk and milk from conventional systems.
For a number of commodities, there is a "we're all in this together" approach that precludes organizations like the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board from providing support to specific "niche" products, the report noted.
This is true even if those products have the potential to develop into major markets for Wisconsin dairy.
Grass-dairy producers may need to establish their own marketing organization to promote their products, similar to the Organic Trade Association or other niche market organizations, the report concluded.
"With the state's tradition of artisan and value-added dairy production, it made sense to build on this foundation and explore the opportunity for grass-fed milk products in the marketplace," Paine said.
The four-year research project, she said, showed the way to opportunities in the marketplace for grass-based products and also identified the challenges. "By sharing the findings we will be able to move the industry forward."
A market research report and video were also created as part of this project. The industry needs to create a standard that ensures the integrity of grass-based products and come to a consensus on "how to label these kinds of products and what terms to use," Paine said.
A complete summary of the project is available at http://datcp.wi.gov/Farms/Grazing/Grass_Fed_Market_Development.
The 26-page document gives an introduction to the project, background information, findings, consumer response, marketing positioning and recommendations for industry's future.
"From Pasture to Plate," the video produced through the project, features the farm of Bert Paris and provides an overview of grass-based dairying.
Cheesemakers Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company and Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese discuss the process of taking fresh, quality milk from grass-fed cows to make award-winning cheeses.
Two chefs - Leah Caplan of Metcalfe's and Jack Kaestner of Oconomowoc Lakes Country Club - share their experiences using grass-based dairy products in cooking.
To access the 12-minute video, that follows the milk from the farmer's pasture to the chef's kitchen, visit youtube.com/widatcp.
For more information, contact Paine, at 608-224-5120 or firstname.lastname@example.org,
or visit the website at http://datcp.wi.gov/Farms/Grazing/.