Cheese Market News reported the results of four years of research on the dairy products of pasture-grazed cows. The findings? Milk from pasture-grazed cows has complex characteristics that make better dairy products, but the trick is trying to communicate that message to consumers.
Report Looks at Opportunities in Marketing ‘Pasture-Grazed’
February 8, 2013
MADISON, Wis. — Dairy products made from the milk of pasture-grazed cows hold unique properties that could help boost value-added sales of dairy in the North Central region of the United States, according to a new study expected to be published early this year.
A preliminary draft of the report details the results of four years of research investigating the challenges and opportunities of a pasture-based dairy market, including a comprehensive investigation of the chemical and physical properties of pasture-grazed milk when made into cheese, butter or other products. It also explores marketing and positioning of such products through focus group discussions and consumer taste testing to assess consumer demand.
The project is a collaboration between pasture dairy farmers, processors, chefs and researchers, coordinated by Laura Paine, grazing and organic agriculture specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. In addition to Paine, other report authors include chefs Leah Caplan of Metcalfe’s Market and Jack Kaestner of Milwaukee Area Technical College; producer-processor Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Co. Inc.; producer Bert Paris of PastureLand Cooperative; and researcher Scott Rankin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Food Science Department.
The authors received a USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant in 2008 to explore pasture-based systems as a source of specialty milk for value-added dairy processing. The project builds on preliminary research by Rankin in 2005 that showed pasture milk produces Cheddar that has a creamier texture and a natural golden color that was preferred in consumer taste testing over cheese from confinement-fed cows.
• Complex characteristics
Preliminary results suggest the chemistry of pasture milk is complex, and a single compound that would explain how it is different from conventional milk is not likely to be found.
Information from laboratory analysis of products, chefs’ evaluations and other observations indicated differences in color, texture, flavor and aroma of products made from pasture milk.
Kaestner says that generally a more intense color was noted in all pasture milk products when compared to conventional products, with color intensity increasing from milk, yogurt, cream and butter.
Although not documented through testing, the chefs observed that the pasture butter maintained a more stable texture and consistency over a broader range of temperatures than conventional butter, making it easier to work with.
The chefs also observed a unique aroma when working with pasture milk products, describing it as more of a dairy smell, creamier and a more buttery smell. Finished items, such as pancakes, cookies, pastries and pie doughs, also seemed to carry an enhanced “dairy” smell.
Probably the most significant difference observed between the pasture milk products and conventional milk products is flavor, the authors say. Tasters observed a more complex flavor compared to a simple, cleaner flavor for conventional milk. Chefs noted a flavor-enhancing effect in items where pasture butter was incorporated into a food product.
Occasionally, especially in the spring sampling times, the fluid milk that was collected had an “oniony” flavor which wasn’t pleasant for drinking but worked well in cooking. Conventional butter and cream tended to mask other flavors when used in cooking, while pasture dairy products enhanced and complemented the herbal, vegetable and fruit flavors of many recipes.
• Consumer feedback
The authors looked to several sources for insights into consumer interest and attitudes toward pasture dairy products. Among these was a 2009 survey Caplan conducted of 35 customers of Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wis., which supports the conclusions of other surveys and digs deeper into consumer motivations and preference. Among the survey’s findings were the following:
• The vast majority of consumers believe that all milk is from cows on pasture, creating a challenge in differentiating pasture milk.
• Consumers did not express willingness to pay more for pasture dairy products than they would for organic products.
• In order of importance, purchasing considerations for pasture-based dairy were: environmental impact, humane treatment of animals and nutrition; prices, locally sourced; taste; and brand, seasonality, color and appearance.
• When asked which pasture dairy products they would like to have available for purchase, consumers responded milk, butter, yogurt and artisanal cheeses, based on their current purchasing habits.
• Marketing opportunities
The authors note that an industry-wide approach to marketing dairy products may preclude organizations like milk marketing boards from providing support to help differentiate specific “niche” products. Therefore, grass-dairy producers may need to establish their own marketing organization to promote their product, similar to the Organic Trade Association or other niche market organizations.
As the pasture-grazed dairy industry scales up, protocols for grazing practices and consistency in milk will become increasingly important, the report says. While a diversity of small processing plants is a benefit for this young industry, diversity among producers may create problems. For example, pooling larger numbers of farms will reduce variability from batch to batch. Having one or more large “anchor” farms in the pool could help offset this concern.
Some of the most successful products to date have been in the cheese category, since its character fits with the complexity of flavors in pasture milk and the aging process seems to enhance this synergy, the report says. Milk and other more perishable products may be challenging, as milk is not only highly perishable but also very price sensitive.
Butter was the product most prized by the chefs in the study, though its logistical challenge is that it only utilizes part of the milk, leaving by-products to sell or dispose of. Developing a product mix that fully utilizes the milk is a key to success, the authors say.
Other products such as yogurt and ice cream also could be considered but with caution, the report says. The small-batch production characteristic of this early stage of development argues in favor of high-value products with longer shelf lives, the study adds.
The authors recommend the following for building a pasture-based dairy industry in North Central states:
• Organize grass-based dairy farmers to facilitate pooling milk, marketing efforts and branding.
• Generate funds for marketing, such as developing a checkoff.
• Work together to create a standard that ensures integrity of the product and ensures that the milk sold as “grass-fed” will have documented unique qualities.
• Come to a consensus on what terms will be used to describe pasture milk.