Grass-Fed Milk Is Taking Off With Health-Conscious Shoppers
At Almost $6 a Half-Gallon at Whole Foods and Other Stores, Milk From Cows That Don’t Eat Grain Is Considered Healthier Than Organic
By Sarah Nassauer
For some shoppers, organic isn’t enough. They want grass-fed milk. The pricey milk isn’t only organic. It comes from cows fed mostly grass, and never corn and soy.
Organic Valley whole milk from grass-fed cows is now the company’s best-selling item at Whole Foods stores nationally, says George Siemon, chief executive of the La Farge, Wisc., organic dairy cooperative. Branded Grassmilk, it has cream on top and is lightly pasteurized with heat, on-trend attributes for shoppers looking for food in its nearly-natural state. A half-gallon sells for close to $6, more than a dollar more than the average price of organic milk and more than double the price of traditional milk.
Demand is booming for organic milk from cows that eat only grass. But convincing farmers to feed cows only grass is tricky. WSJ’s Sarah Nassauer reports on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero.
Many shoppers buying Grassmilk “have almost an intuitive sense that grass is better” because it feels more natural, Mr. Siemon says. Some research shows that milk from cows that graze on pasture contains more healthy omega-3s than milk from cows fed mostly feed.
Regular organic milk is still Organic Valley’s overall top seller nationally by far, Mr. Siemon says. Most large mainstream stores don’t yet carry Grassmilk, he says.
But grass-fed milk’s niche market is notable because it reflects the shifts in consumer tastes that are transforming the food industry. Shoppers are flocking to premium products with a perceived or real health benefit. As traditional milk continues its decades-long sales slide, sales of organic and plant-based milks made from soy or almonds are rising. Organic macaroni-and-cheese in a box and organic chips are wooing some shoppers away from the nonorganic versions they bought for decades.
While the market for $6 specialty milk is tiny, executives at big food companies say even mainstream shoppers are drawn to foods they feel have simpler ingredients, prompting the companies to retool their products or invent new ones. Kraft Foods Group Inc., General Mills Inc. and others have recently reworked food recipes to cut some artificial ingredients. Last week Campbell Soup Co. announced plans to make its first Campbell’s brand organic soups. Campbell’s chief executive Denise Morrison told analysts the company needs to adapt to “profound transformation” in food buying.
Kelli Katch, a 34-year-old who lives in Stamford, Conn., hopes spending more on grass-fed organic milk and yogurt helps her family spend less on medical bills. “We are hoping it will pay off long term” because grass-fed dairy and beef has healthier fat, Ms. Katch says. She buys whole Grassmilk for her toddler son and full-fat Maple Hill Creamery grass-fed organic yogurt for herself, she says. “That fat is so good for you that it would be a shame to take it out,” she says.
Not all brands are getting on the grass-fed milk wagon yet. Grass-fed milk “hasn’t reached the point for us where I would say, ‘I think we need to be in this business,’ ” says Mike Ferry, president of Horizon Organic, the largest U.S. seller of organic milk and a unit of WhiteWave Foods Co. Regulatory and farming concerns remain, he says.
There is no federal regulation of the term “grass-fed” for dairy products. The USDA sets standards for grass-fed beef and certified organic food.
Conventional dairy cows are efficient milk producers in large part because their energy-packed diet of feed includes grain, corn, soy, vitamins, minerals and other ingredients. The USDA requires cows producing certified organic milk to graze on pasture a minimum of 120 days each year, getting at least 30% of their diet from pasture. They usually produce less milk than conventional dairy cows.
Organic Valley’s grass-fed cows graze when weather allows, eating grasses, clover or alfalfa. Farmers are encouraged to add mineral fertilizer to soil to boost the nutrients in grass, among other natural measures, Mr. Siemon says. In winter, cows eat different types of hay and sometimes molasses for extra energy, he says. They are never given corn, soy or other grains. Some dairy brands labeled “grass-fed” do allow their cows to eat grain if other food is scarce.
Katy Christianson, who, with her husband Cheyenne, has owned an organic 100% grass-fed dairy farm for 15 years in Chetek, Wisc., sells milk to Organic Valley. Instead of feeding their dairy cows grain, the couple works to keep the soil healthy and grass nutritious, sometimes buying hay when weather doesn’t cooperate, Mr. Christianson says. “Grain is a buffer,” Ms. Christianson says.
Maple Hill Creamery, a Stuyvesant, N.Y., organic grass-fed yogurt maker, first sold full-fat yogurt in local grocery stores, then expanded to most Whole Foods nationally in 2014. In April, Kroger Co., the largest U.S. supermarket chain, started selling the yogurt brand, and it is now in about 1,400 stores.
“It’s not the organic, it’s not the non-GMO, it’s the grass-fed” label that draws in customers, a Maple Hill Creamery spokeswoman says. The company is searching for more local grass-fed dairy farmers to boost supply, says Tim Joseph, president and founder of the company. He started as a conventional dairy farmer, then sold organic milk to Organic Valley and then turned to grass-fed yogurt.
Maple Hill also plans to start making grass-fed organic butter and Greek yogurt because non-grass-fed versions of those products are selling well, Mr. Joseph says.
Whole Foods began urging Organic Valley to sell grass-fed milk about five years ago as more shoppers asked for it, says Errol Schweizer, global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market Inc. At the time, Organic Valley’s Mr. Siemon says he worried that farming style could harm cows in cold climates. “I’ve been proven wrong,” he says. Organic Valley started selling Grassmilk at Whole Foods nationally last year after recruiting farmers.
Now Organic Valley is selling Grassmilk organic cheddar cheese. Other Grassmilk products would probably sell well too, says Eric Snowdeal III, milk and cream brand manager, “but the whole milk is selling so well we don’t have any cream left over for butter or half and half.”
Write to Sarah Nassauer at firstname.lastname@example.org