Working with Farmers, Dairy Processors and Chefs to Build a Market for Grass-Fed Milk

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $148,133.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Laura Paine
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational, winter forage
  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, market study, new enterprise development, value added
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, soil chemistry
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, social capital


    This study explores the physical, chemical and culinary differences between dairy products from the milk of pastured cows versus those made with milk from conventionally fed cows. Based on prior research and the experience of several successful pasture-based dairy marketers, we know that there are significant differences in flavor, texture, appearance, and culinary performance in these products. The pasture-based dairy products have a yellower color, a softer, creamier texture, and a flavor and aroma that has been described as ‘complex’. This study has taken a broad, ‘supply-chain’ approach to investigating these unique chemical and physical qualities. Over the last four years, our team of farmers, processors, chefs, and food, dairy, and plant science researchers compared side-by-side, products made from pasture milk versus conventional milk, documented the differences we found and explored their potential in the marketplace. Key research activities included: Three years of research by chefs and University of Wisconsin scientists on the chemistry and culinary performance of grass-based products, a series of interviews with grass-based dairy marketing startups, summarized in a publication titled: Grass-based Dairy Products: Challenges and Opportunities (2009), consumer taste panels conducted by UW Food Science, two informal ‘tasting sessions’ with self-selected grass-dairy enthusiasts, a professional focus group conducted by AdyVoltedge Marketing Consultancy, a market research report created as part of this project (Caplan, 2009), and a “Discovery Session” that brought together a group of 25 individuals from across the specialty dairy supply chain for a discussion on how to move the industry forward. This report summarizes our results and recommendations for building a pasture-based dairy market.


    The North Central region of the United States has long had a strong dairy industry and is still home to seven of the top 10 states in numbers of dairy farmers. In today’s global marketplace, the dairy industry in this region has struggled to compete with other regions that have advantages in high volume milk production. A good strategy for this region may be to capitalize on our strengths in value-added artisan products and grass-based dairy.

    A cow on pasture has become a rare thing in the American dairy industry. The vast majority of dairy cattle in the United States never see the outdoors while they’re lactating. Over 50% of the milk produced in the US comes from confinement farms with more than 1000 cows. All of this milk is produced on a total of just 1750 farms, primarily in California, Idaho, New Mexico, and Texas (Census of Agriculture).

    In contrast, about 22% or more than 3000 of Wisconsin’s roughly 11,000 dairy farmers use managed grazing as their system for providing the bulk of feed for their cattle (Paine and Gildersleeve). In terms of environmental performance and profitability, these farms can excel. And as a number of farmstead processors have found, the milk from pastured cows is different from what we’ve come to consider ‘conventional’ milk.

    Can the unique features of this milk contribute to the resurgence of an artisan dairy tradition focused on high-value, specialty products? The existence of several companies in the region that are successfully marketing grass-based products suggests that this is a good opportunity. One key to supporting growth in this sector is to identify the unique properties of the milk from pasture fed cows and explore the potential of developing premium products from this milk, which we will refer to as ‘pasture milk’ throughout the report (as compared to ‘conventional’ milk from confinement-fed cattle).

    Wisconsin has a tradition of artisan, value-added dairy production. As a national leader in specialty cheese, producing 48% of the specialty cheeses in the U.S., it makes sense to build on this foundation. Our longstanding pasture-based family farming tradition and existing relatively small scale, regional dairy processing expertise and infrastructure can support this goal.

    Preliminary research by Dr. Scott Rankin in 2005 showed that pasture milk produces cheddar cheese that has a creamier texture and a natural golden color that was preferred over cheese from confinement-fed cows in consumer taste testing. This project seeks to build on these initial results. We brought together pasture dairy farmers, processors, chefs, and researchers to take a broad, value-chain approach to explore this opportunity. Guided by this team, we have conducted a comprehensive investigation of the chemical and physical properties of this unique milk when made into cheese, butter, or other products. In addition, we explored the marketing and positioning of such products, conducting focus group discussions and consumer taste testing to assess consumer demand.

    One thing we did not focus on was the so-called ‘healthy fats’ that have been associated with pasture based meat and dairy products. Recent research on these fats (conjugated linoleic acid or ‘CLA’ and omega 3 fatty acids) has shown health benefits from their inclusion in the diet. Several studies have shown that milk and meat from animals grazed on fresh pasture have higher levels of these fats than those on a stored feed diet that is high in grain. This could be a positive feature of pasture-based dairy products if the research eventually confirms a link between consuming pasture based dairy products and healthy outcomes in humans (this has not yet happened). In the meantime, we feel that the flavor, color, and texture of milk from pastured cows have great value in the production of artisan products and in the long run, will have a greater ‘staying power’ in the marketplace. Thus, we focused our research on understanding the qualities of this special milk.

    Project objectives:

    Project Objectives: The overall goals of the project were to develop 1) a definitive understanding of the unique physical, chemical, and flavor qualities of grass-fed milk and 2) an ability to manage seasonal changes in pasture milk flavor and physical properties to improve processing quality. Over the long term, we seek to create 1) an increased awareness among dairy processors of the opportunities and appropriate uses for pasture milk and 2) a strategy for establishment of a premium market for pasture milk products.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.