Most milk comes from cows and we’d like to think they are all out on pastures eating grass. But are they? And if not, how can this affect milk?
Raising dairy animals on pastures depends on soil, sunlight, water and climate to grow the grass to enrich their milk. But not all grasslands are equal.
Not all pastures are equal
There are lush green pastures, high mountain seasonal pastures and dry grasslands bordering on deserts.
I've hiked in the drylands of Utah where it takes about 10 acres per cow, traveled throughout the high mountain pastures below the peaks of Europes Mountains where there are limited herds and flocks, travelled through the Cow Country of our American West where huge herds could be raised and now live near the lush green meadows of Vermont where moderate sized herds are able to thrive.
Traditionally these varying pasture conditions led to adaptations so dairy animals were able to fare well and prosper. Some regions were ideal for sheep and some for goats early on, but cows were less commonly seen. Over the centuries of raising dairy animals many breeds have developed with unique characteristics. It's these adaptations that makes certain animals better suited to the pastures and conditions of specific regions.
The evolution of modern day milk
As the centuries advanced and cows were domesticated, people began realizing that sheep and goats were often more work for the relatively small yield of milk they provided in comparison to cows. As a result, cows have become the dairy animal of choice for many farmers. Many herds became larger as the demand for milk rose, which meant the pastures had to increase in size as well. Unfortunately with modern times and higher economic expectations, the herds outpaced the amount of pasture available. The pastures were not adequate, so cows were moved first to the barns then cowsheds and finally to what we now call feedlots.
At first fresh grass was cut and brought to the cows, then stored hay, and finally grain and other nutrients were added.
On modern farms today, cows have been selected for higher production and feeding is adjusted for a higher yield. Many times the focus is on production and profit rather than focusing on a higher quality. The rich creamy pasture raised milk of yesteryear is often replaced by animals who are bred for production and fed mixed rations and concentrates for the highest yield.
How is milk different when animals graze on pastures?
A big difference is found with animals that are free to move and graze on open pastures verses a confined animal with a restricted diet to that which produces more milk.
The most immediate difference within milk is the lack of color in store bought pasteurized cows milk. Fresh pasture provides carotene which is trapped in the fat creating a rich cream to light golden colored milk. Secondly the flavor and creamy mouthfeel is also a noted and remarkable difference.
What you can’t see is the beneficial makeup of the milk. Most importantly a better ration of the beneficial Omega-3 over Omega-6 components and other healthy aspects.
How geography, climate and biology affect milk
This is the part that many folks overlook but it's one of the most important.
Thinking about where your milk comes from is important and often times overlooked. Of course it's obvious most of our milk doesn’t come from the desert. But we have lost sight of the fact that milk started out in very Nomadic conditions, desert like environs and dry grasslands. In many parts of the world where the land was too poor to grow much, the Shepard, with their mix of goats and sheep grazed the grasslands and rocky terrain for milk production. This can still be seen today in areas such as Spain where they maintain old Pastoral Highways as well as Southwestern USA. The Nomadic life still exists in places like Mongolia and the near and Middle-east regions.
Most of us can recall images of cows in lush grassy meadows. Unfortunately these images are often derived from images that have been created through large scale marketing. The reality is a diverse range in pastures that feed our modern herds.
Too few today, think much about where that carton of milk came from. Some pasture regions have historically been known for the high quality milk they produce, others are perhaps more marginal and some are just plain tired out fields with little nutrition left.
Have you ever thought about mineral and nutrient makeup in the soils or the biological and microbiological makeup of the soils that produce the grass and plants that feed the dairy animals. There is life below the grassland, it's our soil biome.
Soil is not a dead, inert substance. It is very much alive and dynamic. Some soils are alkaline and some are more acid making for very different plants. These differences affect the grass and plants that grow and the nutritional value of the milk.
High altitude is another factor which has been found to produce a higher quality milk even though there is a limited season for grazing. Some areas are wetter than others, this again changes what grows and the milks quality. Everything that comes before the milk matters and can make a difference in the cheese we're making.
Cultures, their advancements and how it affects milk
Advancements in cultures has played a huge role in the production of milk. Over time, men and women raising dairy animals adapted and changed their ways of storing and consuming milk, eventually creating a way to preserve milk as cheese.
Over the centuries milk as a fermentation product has moved from a golden crescent of the Middle East, to Greece, Italy and further westward as well as North into the eastern European Mountains. It then continued moving westward into northwestern Europe and Britain.
Eventually the low lying valley populations grew and moved into the higher Alpine regions of Europe where goats, sheep and cows were taken to pastures on a seasonal basis. Eventually traveling with early colonists, bringing their dairy traditions to the New World.
All of this moving around manifested very different qualities in the animals, milk, and eventually cheese they produced.
Humans didn’t always drink milk from other animals. As a matter of fact it's fairly recent in our own timeline that we have been consuming milk past infancy and eating cheese.
Initially it was simply fermented milk because that's what milk does when left on its own with wild yeast and bacteria, it ferments the sugars. Some call this spoiled milk, some call it clabbered milk. The milk is naturally fermented by what are now known as good lactic dairy bacteria.
Since fresh milk has a large amount of milk sugars, it will quickly go ‘off’ from whatever bacteria got to it first. This can be bad or not so bad and at times quite good. If it's bad the product is lost but if it's good the milk is drinkable for longer, this is the first stage of keeping or storing milk. What we consider today as good dairy bacteria have found their way to become lab produced cultures that we know and and use today for cheese making.
When the fermentation goes well, the milk sugars are reduced to a pleasant acid flavor and become drinkable for a longer period of time as a tangy beverage such as buttermilk. This was our primitive way of making fresh milk last longer.
The evolution of cheese
Over time these regional cultures discovered better means for preservation. Yogurt was probably the first of these methods discovered by heating the milk and extending the ripening time of milk at warmer temperatures for much higher acid development. Cottage cheese may have been another when milk developed a little sourness.
The cultural lightbulb was discovering the use of the cows ability to produce rennet in one of its stomachs and the fact that milk solids and liquid could separate with the use of rennet.
Draining and pressing curds was the next development which in turn created the first primitive cheese that could be dried and stored for longer periods of times. This was possible because the milk sugars and moisture were removed and allowing milk to be preserved as cheese without going rancid. Salting the cheese was another tool used to remove extra moisture and act as an anti-mold/bacterial, especially in the warmer Mediterranean climates.
Over the next few centuries milking and cheesemaking advanced with unique types of cheese made to suit specific regions such as Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, British, etc. Other cultural changes also took place such as faster transport, industrialization, refrigeration and additional examination of bacteria and Pasteurs development of pasteurization. These made milk easier to get to market in good condition and made the cheese making process more productive and faster. Then there was a need for more milk.
Is there such thing as too much cultural advancement?
Moving into and through the 19th century and into the early 20th century the progress of milk improved until we reached a point where we needed too much too fast.
First of all, sanitation was not keeping up with the production of milk and milk borne diseases caught up with us, not that they weren’t already around. Cultural advancements cleaned this up with pasteurization but today that has gone to an extreme with Ultra-Pasteurized and high temperature treatment. This is when fresh farm milk got a 'bad rep.' Raw milk became a bad word in America, however this was not as extreme in Europe.
We’ve even developed a process to prevent cream from rising to the top of the milk, homogenization, this is in most cases unnecessary yet has become standard on store shelves today.
Also during the early 20th century industrialization moved both milk and cheese production from small family focused production to large scale factory operations. Advancements became more profit motivated and quality some times took a back seat.
As all of this happened here in America, our wonderful pantry of unique cheeses of high quality began to disappear. Diversity was lost and we were dominated by Cheddar, Gouda, and Feta look a-likes.
Lastly and definitely not least we consider what Dairies do to milk once it leaves the cow and the Farm. We pump it, truck it long distances, store it in big tanks for good lengths of time, cook it sometimes to high temperatures in Pasteurizing, Ultra-Pasteurizing, and UHT processes that are often not necessary.
Granted, some of this is needed to move milk in our modern retail chain but the extremes we see today often leave a 'dead milk' product. It goes without saying in America that Raw, unprocessed milk is often hard to find and even illegal in some states.
Even with all of the modernization, there are still great sources for high quality milk pasteurized with reasonable times and low temperatures. In addition to raw milk when available.
The quality of milk today and how it's getting better
Although the late 19th and early 20th century showed a downward trend in dairying quality, it seems today to have been noticed by enough customers, many of whom are now asking for better milk. The focus has gone in the direction of quality to some degree. People now seem to be looking past the dairy aisle and beyond the back door of the grocery stores asking for better quality milk and more moderate dairy processing.
Today we have options as we look for better quality milk for cheesemaking. More local farms have been starting up with better and higher quality milk. Milk is being processed at more moderate conditions and even Raw milk is becoming more available in many areas.
For many years now we have been building our Good Milk List here at cheesemaking.com. This is a fantastic resource filled with locations to find good milk around the world. This list has grown through recommendations from home cheese makers like you and small scale farms looking to share their milk.