A final report soon to be published by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture concludes something every cheesemaker and cheese enthusiast has suspected for years: that there are “quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes” between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, especially cheese and butter.
An upcoming report titled: “Growing the Pasture-Grazed Dairy Sector in Wisconsin,” is the conclusion of a four-year research project led by Laura Paine, grazing and organic specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Paine pursued grant funding for the project after research by Dr. Scott Rankin at the University of Wisconsin in 2005 showed pasture-fed cheddar cheese was creamier in texture and more golden in color than the same cheese produced from the milk of confinement-fed cows.
Research started in 2009, as milk was collected from five grass-based dairies in southwest Wisconsin three times during the grazing season for three years. Milk was collected from a confinement farm for comparison, and batches of two to four dairy products, including yogurt, butter and cheese, were made at the University of Wisconsin Food Science Department by Dr. Rankin and his staff.
The products were then compared side-by-side in three ways: analysis of chemical composition, evaluation of consumer preferences, and investigation of cooking qualities. Dr. Rankin also conducted testing to measure differences in chemical composition, including fat, protein, somatic cells, lactose and other compounds. Samples were provided to program partner chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan for evaluation in cooking.
While the research failed to identify a single compound or “smoking gun” to explain the differences the team found between pasture-fed and conventional milk, both the scientists and chefs noted “quantifiable differences” in color, texture and melting points. Dr. Rankin noted that pasture milk has a “grassy note.”
“This research proves something cheesemakers have known for years,” said Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, a project partner and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery. “We’ve always entered contests with cheeses made from grass-fed animals, and those cheeses have always won awards. We just didn’t tell anyone our secret.”
To view more comments from Wills, as well as insight from dairy farmer Bert Paris, cheesemakers Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich, and chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan, view the short video (produced as part of the research project), below.
According to the report, Wills’ cheesemaking “secret” can be pinpointed to three attributes special to pasture-fed dairy products. First, they are more golden in color; second, they are creamier in texture; and third, the flavor and aroma are different. Some describe flavors and aromas from pasture-fed products as “more complex” while others note “earthy, grassy” flavors.
However, the different flavors found in pastured milk can sometimes be perceived negatively by consumers, Dr. Rankin notes. In professional sit-down taste tests with consumers, most preferred the taste of conventional fluid milk in a glass, noting the grass-based milk tasted too grassy. On the other hand, almost all preferred the taste, appearance, mouth feel and aroma of unsalted butter and cheese made with pasture milk.
Anecdotal evidence shows similar results. At an October 2010 Grass-Fed Tasting Event, 60 participants tasted side-by-side croissants, cupcakes with butter cream frosting, bread with butter, and fish with sage-garlic browned butter sauce, each made with both conventional and pasture milk. The majority rated the pasture products higher than the conventional ones.
Rather than proclaim pasture-fed milk products to be better, the report focuses on how they are different. Nowhere is that more clear than in the results of a September 10, 2012 cheesemaking day at Clock Shadow Creamery, where research participants were invited to spend a day making two vats of identical cheese: one with pasture-fed milk, and the other with conventional milk.
Crafted on site by Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner, the cheeses were an experimental variety that Lehner had learned how to make just a few months earlier during a trip to Lichtensteig, Switzerland from famous Swiss cheesemaker Willi Schmid. During the visit (in which the Swiss Willi asked the Wisconsin Willi if he was a spy), Lehner learned to make a Tuggerbach Canton, a non-pressed cheese in the Gruyere family of Alpine cheeses.
“We visited Willi’s brother’s place, his Brown Swiss cows and the pastures,” Lehner said. “I got to smell the hay, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then I smelled the milk, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then, when we made the cheese, the same aromas were present. That was really the first time I made a connection between what cows eat and the cheese made from their milk.”
While the forages of Brown Swiss Alpine cows are no doubt different from the grasses eaten by southwest Wisconsin dairy cows, five months after making the Wisconsin cheeses at Clock Shadow Creamery, the same “grassy” aroma and flavors are present in the pasture-fed cheese made by Lehner.
In a side-by-side comparison of the Wisconsin cheeses (see photo below), the grass-fed cheese, on the left, is slightly more golden. The aroma is more earthy and fruity, while the conventional cheese on the right, simply smells clean and milky. The flavors are also distinctly different. The pasture-fed cheese is more complex with a lingering finish. The conventional cheese is more of a one-note cheese with a clean finish.
“When you taste the two side by side, there is no doubt a remarkable difference,” says dairy farmer Bert Paris, who farms using rotational grazing, and whose milk was used to make the pasture-fed cheese in September. “It validates everything we’ve been saying for years.”
So what are the next steps after the report is published? Paine says she’d like to organize grass-based dairy farmers to facilitate pooling milk, marketing efforts and branding, perhaps even developing a checkoff to generate funds for marketing. She’d also like to work with the industry to create a standard to ensure the integrity of a product marketed as “grass fed” or “pasture fed.”
“This project has been four years in the making,” Paine says. “The research shows the differences that processors and farmers have been noting for years in pasture milk and dairy products. Now it’s just a matter of how we move forward with that knowledge.”