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It’s still in its infancy, without a government-mandated definition and generally flying “under the radar” compared to the organic industry (to mention just one related market), but the future of pasture-based or grass-fed milk and dairy products looks very bright indeed.
As explained in a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, pasture feeding is an alternative to conventional livestock production systems that allows cows to roam on pastures, eating grass and other forages rather than grain such as corn.
The UCS study found, among other things, that milk from pastureraised cows tends to have higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA , and consistently higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA (for more details, please see Milk From Cows Raised Entirely On Pasture Has Higher Levels Of Beneficial Fats: Study , on page 11 of our March 10 issue).
Pasture-raised or grass-fed milk is already popular at the producer level, at least in some areas. A recent University of Wisconsin study found that, in 2003, managed grazing (in which farmers rely on pasture as the primary source of forages for their milk cows) was practiced on about 23 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms.
Unlike organic milk, which maintains its identity from the farm to the market, pasturing tends to remain “down on the farm.” But that is likely to change in the future, and indeed there are at least a couple of reasons why pasture-raised milk and milk products will begin to gain popularity and visibility in the marketplace.
The first has to do with health claims. Currently, neither organic nor grass-fed milk products can make such claims, but that could change for grass-fed in the future.
As far as organics and health claims are concerned, some experts point out that organic foods are no more healthful than are “mainstream” foods. Just to cite one example, the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter recently reported that the evidence is “not clear” as far as whether organic foods are higher in nutrients than conventional foods.
The UCS report, meanwhile, pointed out that no nutrient content claims about omega-3 fatty acids or CLA can currently be made, but as more is learned about the health effects of these substances, new standards may be issued that would allow some milk and cheese from pastureraised cows to be labeled a “source” of ALA.
Until scientists agree on the role fatty acids play in maintaining health, a specific dietary intake cannot be recommended, the UCS report pointed out. But there’s at least the potential for such a claim on pasture-fed dairy products.
Another potential advantage pasture- raised milk has over organics is producer entry into the business. As noted earlier, about 23 percent of Wisconsin ‘s dairy farms practiced managed grazing in 2003. That same year, by comparison, Wisconsin had about 25,000 certified organic milk cows, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Getting into the grazing or pasture- based dairy business doesn’t take as long as becoming a certified organic producer, which would seem to point to faster growth for the latter in the future. It takes three years to translation land to organic and one year to transition cows to organic. With some research, our guess is that farmers could transition land to pasture in a year or less and cows to pasture in less time than that.
Technically, there is a proposed voluntary standard for a grass (forage) fed marketing claim, but as proposed by USDA it applies to the feeding of ruminant animals that are destined for meat products, not milk products. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is in fact accepting comments on that particular proposal through August 10.
One final potential advantage for pasture-based milk products concerns product quality. This isn’t meant to take anything away from the quality of organic foods in general and organic cheeses in particu lar, but unlike those relatively new products, pasture-based cheeses have a long history both in the US and in other countries.
A historic example of these cheeses in the US would be “June Daisies,” which were Cheddar cheeses made after cows returned to pasture feeding in late spring and early summer. The most famous current example of this in the US is the acclaimed Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company, which describes the importance of pastures on cheese quality as follows:
“The unique flavor of Pleasant Ridge Reserve is due to the combination of pasture-produced milk, the adoption of time-proven methods of cheese production, and a hand-crafted ‘old world’ aging technique. We only use a portion of the milk we produce to make cheese, so we select milk for cheesemaking based on quality and variety of flavor. We begin producing cheese in late spring when the cows are fully adapted to a diet of pasture forages and we stop production in the fall as soon as the pastures start to go dormant for winter. During the grazing season we only make Pleasant Ridge Reserve when the pastures are at their best.”
Despite having some pretty nice advantages going for them, pastureraised dairy products are most certainly not going to become an overnight sensation, for at least a couple of reasons.
Without a regulatory structure defining a phrase such as grass-fed (specifically for dairy) or allowing claims, pasture-based products and claims about them are operating in a somewhat murky labeling and regulatory environment.
Also, there appears to be considerable research still needed before any sort of nutrient content claim can be made. Finally, at least in locations such as Wisconsin , grazing is a seasonal undertaking while milking is a year-round venture, meaning “grass-fed” is only a seasonal niche (from a production standpoint) rather than a year-round one.
Still, several factors add up to considerable potential for grass-fed dairy products in the future.