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Cheese from the pasture a hit with consumers

Consumers can taste a difference in cheese made from the milk of cows that graze on pasture, and they like what they taste, according to a study by two University of Wisconsin-Madison professors.

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, recently completed a three-year research project to explore the differences in flavor and other characteristics of pasture-fed cheese. They made and analyzed Cheddar 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 cheese 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. Forced to say which of the three they liked best, 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. There was also a marked difference in color: The mixed-ration cheese was whitest, while the cheese from cows fed pasture plus grains was the most yellow. Pasture-based cheese was also consistently softer than cheese from the other two treatments.

Rankin says pasture-milk cheese may not be an option for many cheese makers, because milk from pasture-fed cows isn”t available year-round, and it”s likely to vary according to differences in weather and growing condition.

“Most cheesemakers are looking for absolute consistency in the milk they use, because they are producing for a market that demands a very consistent product. 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 findings show that using milk from grazing cows can yield a product with added value.

Rankin says the idea of developing distinctive pasture-based cheese marries the state”s strong interest in managed grazing with its marketing strength – novel, fine-tasting cheeses.

“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.”

The study is summarized in Research Brief 73, “How is cheese from pastured cows unique?,” available online from the UW-Madison”s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at www.cias.wisc.edu or by calling CIAS at (608) 265-3020.

Funds for the study came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.