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

2009 Annual Report for LNC08-303

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

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


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. Significant differences in flavor, texture, appearance, and culinary performance are being documented. The grass-based dairy products have a yellower color, a softer, creamier texture, and a flavor that has been described as ‘complex’. We expect these characteristics will be appropriate for some dairy products, and less appropriate for others and by the end of the study, we plan to generate recommendations for dairy processors on the use of grass-based milk for value-added dairy products.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Project Objectives: This project engages dairy processors, farmers and chefs in evaluating grass-fed milk for specialty dairy products. Specific goals and related activities are to 1) define the unique flavors & processing qualities of grass-fed milk and document seasonal variations, 2) assess the value of these unique characteristics for developing specialty dairy products, 3) determine the feasibility of establishing a premium market for grass-fed milk based on these qualities.

We spent most of the first year of the project working on objective 1 above. We assembled a project team from our collaborators to oversee and conduct data collection. This group includes Dr. Scott Rankin, UW Food Science Department Dairy Product Specialist; Dr. Dave Combs, UW Dairy Scientist; Dr. Ken Albrecht, UW Agronomist; Bob Wills, Master Cheesemaker and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese; Bert Paris, grass-based dairy farmer and co-owner of Edelweiss Creamery and Dairy Graziers Cooperative; Mike Gingrich, grass-based dairy farmer and co-owner of Uplands Cheese Company; Jack Kaestner, Executive Chef at Oconomowoc Lake Club, Leah Caplan, Chef and owner of Field to Fork Culinary Consulting; and Laura Paine, Grazing specialist for DATCP and project coordinator.

The project team met on 12/16/08, 2/19/09, and 4/30/09 to plan data collection for the 2009 grazing season. Goals of these meetings were to make major decisions such as when milk will be collected and from which farms and which products will be made and evaluated, as well as minor decisions on how forage samples will be collected and what other farm data will be gathered.

• The team decided to collect the milk from the five member farms of Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative to better simulate the potential variability that might be encountered when pooling milk from several farms (as opposed to milk from a single, farmstead operation.
• We decided to collect grass-fed milk three times during the grazing season to evaluate potential changes related to differences in pasture quality. The three times are spring flush, mid summer vegetative growth, and the fall regrowth that often occurs when weather gets cooler and wetter after the heat of late summer.
• We decided to make and evaluate four dairy products: whole fluid milk, butter, cream, and yogurt.
• Dr. Rankin agreed to conduct standard chemical and physical analyses (fatty acid profiles, melting point, colorimetry, etc.) appropriate to the different products. He is also responsible for organizing and conducting the consumer sensory evaluation of the products. We decided to test the milk and yogurt with consumers, but not the butter and cream at this stage.
• Chefs agreed to test the products in a variety of recipes and to record a descriptive evaluation of their observations.

Data Collection.
Data collection proceeded as planned. Team members Bert Paris and Laura Paine conferred about pasture stage of growth to ensure that we did the sampling during the prescribed timeframes. Milk collection times fell on the following dates: 5/20, 7/21, and 9/24. For each of these collection dates we collected approximately 2400 pounds of milk from the five participating grass-based dairies and made varying quantities of the four products. For the July sampling date, we also collected milk from one large conventional dairy and made the same products for side-by-side comparison to the grass-based dairy products. Products were then distributed to the two chefs for their evaluation. For each sampling date, we collected forage samples, samples of forage supplements, and information on feeding and grazing practices on the five farms.

Project monitoring.
Following each sampling date, the project team met, reviewed our activities, made any needed changes, and sampled the results of the chefs’ evaluation! The team has met twice over the 2009-2010 winter to plan 2010 data collection and activities.

Objective #2. We began assessment of the value of these unique characteristics for developing specialty dairy products by conducting an informal market survey. Leah Caplan lead this effort and summarized her findings in a report detailing her interviews with consumers, chefs, and dairy processors. Her preliminary findings are as follows:

• Aged cheese and butter would be the best products for market entry based on flavor, shelf life, and potential to warrant a premium price.
• Consumers and chefs generally do not recognize that conventional and organic dairy is not grass-fed. Thus an extensive education/marketing campaign is needed to boost customer demand for the products that producers and processors are poised to make.
• Environmental impact, flavor, and animal lifestyle were consistently cited as desirable attributes of grass-fed dairy.
• Non-traditional markets and packaging would help convey that these products are different.

Additional market research will be conducted as the project progresses.

We did not begin addressing our third objective, to determine the feasibility of establishing a premium market for grass-fed milk based on these qualities.


Report major results and accomplishments by objective. What work has been accomplished to date and what work is left to do?

We successfully completed our first year of data collection and are working on summarizing the data and planning for the second year. The chemistry data is not as clear-cut as we had expected. There are a dozen CLAs that occur in milk and several Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids as well as many other saturated and unsaturated fats (a total of 45 different fatty acids are tested for). There is unlikely to be a clear story from these data, but there are clear differences in physical structure and characteristics that we will be able to report on after a second year of data collection. The chefs are working on formats for reporting their findings as well.

Our conclusive findings to date are that the grass-fed dairy products are significantly different in flavor, color, and texture, and that they perform differently when used in cooking. The flavor difference has been described by project participants as a ‘clean, simple’ flavor for the conventional milk versus a ‘complex’ flavor for the grass-fed product. The value of the flavor ‘complexity’ we are observing varies with the type of product. In the consumer panels, participants preferred the flavor and aroma of the conventional milk to that of the grass-fed. However, in the case of yogurt there was a slight preference for the grass-fed flavor. The differences appear to originate with the fat fraction of the milk; they are most noticeable in the butter. Although consumer panels weren’t done on the butter, participants in our informal ‘tasting’ there was a marked preference for dishes made with the grass-fed butter with comments such as “Herb flavors come out more in the grass-fed” and “flavor difference is remarkable”.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

We have begun to gain an understanding of the unique qualities of grass-based milk and are gathering data on seasonal changes that will improve our ability to manage seasonal changes in milk flavor and physical properties to improve processing quality. At least one more season’s data collection will be needed to establish some average characteristics for grass-based milk that will enable us to compare and contrast with conventional milk.

We have already begun to increase awareness among processors of the opportunities and appropriate uses for grass-fed milk. Our publication, Grass-Based Dairy Products: Challenges and Opportunities ( has generated a great deal of interest in the dairy processing community and we had good attendance and good publicity for our ‘tasting event’ (see attached newspaper article).

Our third objective, developing a strategy for establishment of a premium market for grass-fed milk, will need to wait until we’ve completed data collection.


Steve Young-Burns
General Manager
PastureLand Dairy Cooperative
26889 County 9 Boulevard
Goodhue, MN 55027
Office Phone: 6123319115
Leah Caplan
2115 E Dayton Street
Madison, WI 53704
Office Phone: 6082429309
Bert Paris
Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative
W3443 County Road W
Belleville, WI 53508
Office Phone: 6084246396
Mike Gingrich
Uplands Cheese Company
5023 State Road 23 North
Dodgeville, WI 53533
Office Phone: 8889355558
Bob Wills
Cedar Grove Cheese
PO Box 185
E5904 Mill Road
Plain, WI 53577
Office Phone: 8002006020
Dr. Ken Albrecht
UW Agronomy Department
1575 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706
Office Phone: 6082622314
Jack Kaestner
Executive Chef
Oconomowoc Lake Club
4668 Lake Club Circle
Oconomowoc, WI 53066
Office Phone: 2625674934
Jack Kaestner
Executive Chef
Oconomowoc Lake Club
4668 Lake Club Circle
Oconomowoc, WI 53066
Office Phone: 2625674934
Dr. David Combs
UW Dairy Science
1675 Observatory Drive
Madison, WI 53706
Office Phone: 6082634844
Dr. Scott Rankin
UW Food Science
A203b Babcock Hall
1605 Linden Dr
Madison, WI 53706
Office Phone: 6082632008