Researcher Rick Kersbergen, holds a sampling of grasses from a meadow at Balfour Farm in Pittsfield.
"Organic" is a powerful brand for many consumers, but there are still lots of negative media messages about fat. Two years ago, organic milk producers took part in a series of focus groups, and raised concerns about the marketablity of their products.
But rather than try to improve those products through processing, they're looking at what goes into the cows. On this farm in central Maine, 14 cows are munching away in a roped off, half-acre patch of mixed grasses. Tomorrow they'll move to a different patch and hopscotch their way around the whole field.
According to researchers, this is exactly how it should be done. "They go out and get it, and for five to six months it's a really cheap way to feed your cows if you manage it correctly," says Rick Kersbergen, one of 12 researchers involved in a multi-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"And then really what we're looking at is trying to decipher what forages and what pasture mixes might change the butter fat composition to a more healthier composition--one that contains more linoleic acid, or conjugated linoleic acid, which is considered the good fat in milk," Kersbergen says.
For more healthful milk, dairy cattle like these should eat more grass and less grain, research indicates.
The study has two phases. For the first two years, the focus will be on grasses and grass mixtures to see how they affect the percentages of so-called good fats in the milk, with some special attention being paid to perennial ryegrass cultivars.
"And then the second two years, we're really trying to influence what canhappen in the barn during those six or seven months, when the cows are fed stored feed," Kersbergen says.
In that phase, the herds will be fed flax seeds during the winter months, something of particular interest to cold weather farmers in the Northeast who must rely on more winter feed mixtures than their warm weather colleagues. Flax seeds are known to be high in beneficial fats, and some Maine farmers are hoping that those fats will be reflected in the winter milk production as well.
"There's a lot of interest now in the compnents of food and what makes that healthy or not," says Heather Donahue, who owns Balfour Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, along with her husband Doug. She disputes the notion that butterfat is bad in the first place, but says that the study has the potential to make a good product better.
"And I thought that this was a really interesting approach in changing the components in a good way by feeding the cows differently and seeing if that makes the difference, rather than processing the food in a different way," Donahue says.
Farmers like Donahue are also hoping that by capitalizing on the feed-to-fatty-acid connection, organic milk will be able to fetch better prices than non-naturally raised milk, which she says will be good for a growing, small-scale, family farms movement.
So far, the study only involves organic dairies. But researchers say the results could be of interest to the industry as a whole, as it could demonstrate how properly managed grass feeding can be the cheapest way to sustain dairy cattle.
Photos by Jennifer Mitchell.