Many consumers today are interested in “grass-fed” products that make claims about how livestock have been fed and, presumably, treated. The idea is that milk and meat should come from animals that have been treated humanely and allowed to express their natural behaviors in their preferred environments. And for most people, that evokes a pretty mental picture: happy cows grazing on lush meadows filled with grass, alfalfa and clover.

What you eat

Beyond humane treatment, fans of grass-fed products are often seeking the nutritional benefits of grass-fed. Research has shown that organic whole milk is high in healthy nutrients like omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid. Science points specifically to the fresh grasses and legumes that organic cows are required to have access to. Once dried, baled or pelletized, these nutrients diminish.

“'There is nothing better than organic dairy that comes from cows eating fresh grass and clover, as much as possible.'”

Another reason many are seeking grass-fed dairy products is flavor. Premium grass-fed dairy like butter and cheese is produced from milk that has seasonal variations in flavor. This is similar to the terroir of wine, by which the environment—soil, weather and sunlight—influences the flavor of particular grapes from a particular region and growing season. With different seasonal grasses on pasture, true grass-fed dairy has a rich flavor profile that many people like.

Under the label

A challenge for consumers, however, is to understand what it means when companies market their products as grass-fed. That’s because there’s no single standard or certification established for grass-fed milk.

FAMILY FARM: Four generations and two sides of the family, with help from friends and neighbors, contribute to the care of Becky and Tucker Gretebeck's 300 acres in Cashton, WI.

But USDA Organic certification is a guarantee that cows have spent at least 120 days per year grazing on pasture. That is a requirement, verified by third-party certifiers, that all organic farmers must meet or else they can lose their certification.

Dear dairy

“Grass is what cows are built to eat, and they really love to be on fresh pasture,” says organic dairy farmer Tucker Gretebeck, who farms in Cashton, Wisconsin with his wife Rebecca and their two children. “There is nothing better than organic dairy that comes from cows eating fresh grass and clover, as much as possible.”

Gretebeck’s herd of 150 cows is 100 percent grass-fed. They are on pasture throughout the growing season and are never fed corn, soy or oats. In winter they are fed dried forage and grain-free silage. In his estimation, consumers who want premium, authentic grass-fed dairy should look for two things on a label: that the product is made with the milk of 100 percent grass-fed cows, and that it’s USDA Certified Organic.