Taking ‘Grassfed’ to the Dairy Aisle

If you buy beef that’s fed on pasture, you can now get milk from cows raised the same way.

One of Jim Regli's grassfed Jerseys. (Photo: David Nevala)

Jun 27, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

Nestled near the southern end of California’s Humboldt County, Ferndale, California, is known for its grass—but not the kind that might immediately come to mind. The valley surrounding Ferndale is carpeted in pastureland, and dairy farmers have been tending to the grass there, and the cows that graze in it, day in and day out for generations.

So when Organic Valley—the large Wisconsin-based dairy cooperative—decided to start selling an all-grassfed milk, it’s no surprise they looked to the farmers of Ferndale. With grazing potential almost all-year long, most dairy cows in the area already eat much more of this green living food than average. But now their grassfed milk—and other milk like it—will have the chance to stand out to consumers.

If you’ve heard of grassfed meat, then the idea of grassfed milk probably won’t surprise you. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find.

Most dairy cows graze on pasture at least some of the time, and since 2010 all organic dairy cows must spend at least 120 days, or a third of the year, grazing.

But it’s widely believed that the most affordable and most efficient way to get a lot of cows to produce a lot of milk is to supplement their diets with corn and soy-based feed. (As of 2011, only about four percent of all the dairy sold in the U.S. was organic.)

That’s why the three farmers going grassfed in Ferndale (along with two other Organic Valley-member farms in the Midwest) are important. They’re not the first or only dairy farms out there avoiding grain-based feed—for example, Georgia’s Dreaming Cow yogurt, New York’s Maple Hill Creamery, and Wisconsin’s Grass Point Farms are all marketing similar, if often less strictly defined, products regionally. But thanks to the larger Organic Valley umbrella, which now includes over 1,700 farms in 33 states, this will be the first brand to distribute a 100 percent grassfed product nationally. The company is calling it Grassmilk, and if it takes off, it could open up a much wider market for those looking toward pasture-based foods as an alternative to mass-produced animal products based on confinement systems.

While consumers gravitate to grassfed products’ health attributes—namely more omega-3 fatty acids, and more of another type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA—there are environmental and social reasons to consider grass-based foods as well.

Jim Regli could tell you about many of them. He’s a fourth-generation Ferndale farmer who switched 80 of his 350 cows over to an all-grass diet last year. Regli’s Jersey cows look well fed and content as they browse for bites of green in one fenced-in stripe at a time down the length of a long buttercup-speckled pasture. Bordered on one side by a creek, the grass is alive for most of the year. The cows, which exhibit more personality than they might in a more contained system (some are just plan ornery, while others are good natured), are herded through a small milking barn twice a day.

After watching grain prices go up over the last few years, Regli was approached by Organic Valley and figured it was worth it to experiment with grassfed milk. “We asked ourselves: How can we get more out of what we have here?,” he recalls. The shift takes part of the herd back to the days before his grandfather started feeding the cows grain in the 1960s—but Regli doesn’t see it as a step backward. On the contrary, he’s had to hone in on the science of pasture-management in news ways, as he rotates the animals around the land, fencing off a new portion every day, allowing the cows to graze it down part way, and moving them down the acreage before it gets too short. He’s also planted a variety of forage (grasses and other plants cows like to eat like Italian rye and plantain grasses).

In addition to keeping the land healthier, pasture managed this way is known for its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the tops of the grass get munched, the roots extend themselves lower into the ground and die, taking CO2 with them.

“Talk about lawn care,” Regli says, chuckling a little. “Pasture has taken on new meaning.”

At Regli Farm they still supplement the cow’s feed, but now they use alfalfa pellets—essentially another form of grass—rather than corn and soy-based feed. And in the winter, when the rains come and the cows are moved inside, the farm supplies them with hay and fermented grass, or “hayledge.”

Milk production on the farm went down around 10 percent after the switch. But since alfalfa costs less than grains, Regli says he’s still able to keeping business “stable”—something not all small-scale milk producers can say.

Of course, not everyone cares about their milk coming from grassfed cows. But Mike Griffin, California Pool Manager for Organic Valley, points out that conventional dairies have surprisingly few rules governing the feed they use. And they’ve gotten awfully creative in recent years to avoid high grain prices.

“Most of them have a feed wagon, which is essentially a giant blender, and they throw all kinds of things in there, including whatever cheap industrial byproducts they can get their hands on.” If you read about last year’s candy-as-feed incident, you might have an inkling of what he means.

Grassmilk is available through a partnership with Whole Foods (which originally approached Organic Valley with the idea and had an exclusive deal for the first few months), but this grassfed milk is now available in a variety of other stores around the West Coast, and will be showing up more widely on the Midwest and East Coast later this summer.

Unlike most milk, which tends to taste the same all year long, the subtle flavors of grassfed milk vary over the course of the year, as things like moisture content and butterfat shift. Folks buying it on the West Coast may even detect a hint of vanilla in the milk, according to Ferndale farmers.

“It’s like a fine wine,” says Griffin. “It changes with the year and the season.”