Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Spring Flush - It's All About The Grass

“Spring Flush”.  If you are not in the dairy industry, it’s a phrase that conjures up the face of an embarrassed young girl or an April plumbing incident.  For me, hopelessly engrossed in a new business that’s rooted in traditional dairy, its living proof that our cows and goats do in fact eat grass.

It’s early June and our plant is full.  Totally full.  That means we have lines of trucks waiting to unload, staff that hover over our processing facility making constant adjustments to maximize our throughput, a drier that’s running 24/7, and people who have worked 7 days a week for several weeks.  Eight weeks ago, we were nowhere close to full.  Wiser people who have been around a while said, just wait until June.  I thought that meant we would see a bit more whey from each of our plants.  I had no idea how much more whey we could get…

And it’s not just more whey, it’s different whey.  Some of our cheese plants only make certain types of cheese in the spring.  That’s because their cows and goats and sheep are eating loads of fresh grass in the spring, and fresh grass has different components in it than mature grass or late season grass.  To a cheese maker, different components mean different flavors in their cheese.  Old time cheese makers tell me that the differences can be so pronounced that they change their starter cultures in the spring to enhance the natural flavors and ward off the bitterness that can occur in cheese made from spring milk. 

This is in stark contrast to confinement systems where cows are fed the same rations day in and day out all year.  No variation in feed means no variation in production volume, less variation in flavor, and no need to change cultures or make a different kind of cheese.  Great if what you want to do is produce the same cheese day in and day out; not good if you want distinctive flavors, believe that cows should be allowed to exercise their natural behavior and graze, and are interested in having dairy products with all of their constituent health benefits.

This is all possible because the amazing stomachs of cows change when they graze.  Their guts become huge as the villai expand to break down the grass, so much so that they can look a bit like a cow in one of those 18th century Dutch paintings with tiny legs and a huge girth.  When their guts digest the grass, they extract nutrients, which end up as biochemical components in the milk and the products made from the milk.  The most commonly understood difference between grass fed milk and silage fed milk is the CLA level.  CLAs are a fatty acid that has been shown to have health benefits for people.  Less well understood are a huge range of trace vitamins and minerals that come from the soil, feed the grass, and are consumed by grazing animals.  I just read an amazing book called, “ Soil, Grass, Cancer” that was written in the 1950’s by a French Veterinarian.  In it he discussed the scientific evidence that existed at the time of how depleted soil produced depleted grass which grazing animals then converted into nutrient deficient tissue and milk that was in turn eaten by humans.  The author then went on to cite studies that linked a nutrient deficient diet to cancer.  Not calorie deficient but nutrient deficient in trace minerals like copper.

What I found most concerning about that book was it was written in the 1950’s in France, a time that predates a lot of the worst modern agricultural practices and place that has banned GMOs and still practices relatively traditional farming and values its local and regional food culture.  If the data from the 1950’s showed enough soil nutrient depletion to cause problems for both grazing animals and humans, imagine what we are exposing ourselves to when we eat food produced on severely depleted soils in an industrial food system.

For good reason, people often ask me if our whey is grass fed.  Then they ask if we’ve tested for CLA’s.  What I tell people is that the CLA’s, as fatty acids, follow the cheese not the whey.  Which means that testing our whey for CLA’s will not help us understand whether our cows eat grass.  Beyond there, the component differences are small, but as the book convincingly demonstrates, even small differences in trace elements can make a huge difference.  In our goat whey, for example, the ratio of alpha to beta lactalbumen changes throughout the lactation.  I bet if we tested our cow whey across the season, we would find similar but less consistent variations.  Goats are milked seasonally in this part of the country so they are all hitting their lactation at a similar time and are therefore all in the same stage of their lactation together.  Cows have a longer lactation and milk all year round, so they don’t tend to be as close in their lactation stages unless it is a seasonal dairy.

So it turns out that, even in this world of high tech scientific analysis, the best way for us to tell that our whey comes from animals on pasture is still the Spring Flush: the fact that we have one, the fact that our components vary from month to month, and the fact that we have trucks lined up in June and not in February.  That and driving through the countryside tonight and watching cows literally lope down a grassy field just for the fun of it on an early summer evening...

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