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A Touch of Grass

CONSUMERS CAN TASTE a difference in cheese made from the milk of cows that graze on pasture, a recently completed study by two CALS professors has found. And they like what they taste.

That’s good news for Wisconsin, where many cheesemakers are betting their futures on distinctive artisan cheeses, and where roughly one quarter of the dairy farms use a managed grazing system.

Scott Rankin, an associate professor of food science, and David Combs, a professor of dairy science, made and analyzed Cheddar cheese from milk produced under three feeding systems––cows fed exclusively on pasture, cows fed on pasture plus grain, and cows fed on a mixed ration of grains, minerals, vitamins and protein supplements, and alfalfa silage. Each cheese was aged two to four months and then sent to North Carolina to be tasted by a panel of expert evaluators, as well as a consumer taste panel.

The consumer panel tended to give the pasture-plus-grain cheese highest marks for flavor, texture and overall liking. When asked to pick a favorite, 60 percent chose the pasture-plus-grain cheese.

The expert tasters noted a significant “grassy note” in both pasture-based cheeses, especially in the pasture-only cheese. The mixed-ration cheese had a more buttery flavor than the pasture-only cheese, according to the study.

Because grazing is a seasonal venture, milk from pasture-fed cows is likely to vary according to differences in weather and growing conditions. For that reason, Rankin says pasture-milk cheese may not be an option for many producers. “If you have 30 trucks coming in and you need to make a consistent product for a national pizza chain, the milk has to be the same today as it will be a year from now,” he says.

But for specialized cheesemakers, who often produce cheese in smaller scales for epicurean markets, the new findings show that using milk from pastured cows may pay off with consumers.

“Other states may out-produce Wisconsin in terms of mass production of cheese, because it’s less expensive to produce milk elsewhere,” Rankin says. “We can’t win the battle of mass production. We can win the battle on quality.”