by Sally Colby

Consumers want the products they purchase to be consistent, especially if they’ve paid a premium price. With a stable group of consumers willing to purchase milk from grass-fed cows, product consistency is critical to maintaining customer loyalty.

However, there are notable flavor differences in grass-fed milk, both between brands and among brands. Roy Desrochers, University of Vermont Northwest Crops and Soils, said evaluating milk flavor begins with the consumer.

With 100% grass-fed milk, Desrochers said it’s a matter of figuring out what dairy farmers can control to consistently deliver a desirable milk drinking experience. Price is an important factor – if you can deliver it but it isn’t the right price, consumers will purchase their second choice. “The trick to success in the market is delivering things consumers want to eat, drink and use – and do it often,” he said. “We call that repeat purchase.”

Desrochers explained a large study that began with asking consumers what they want to drink and what quality means to them. “We want to develop a quality index and help farmers think about quality – it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think is best-tasting,” he said. “From the manufacturing standpoint, what aroma and flavor targets do farmers need to hit and how do they talk with customers? At the farm, it’s ‘what factors are under my control that affect milk quality the consumer defines, and is there an opportunity for me to do something at the farm to improve quality in a way that my customers will enjoy the milk more, buy more often and drink more of it?’”

The grass-fed farm-to-glass project involved five steps: benchmarking the sensory quality of 100% grass-fed milk in the market, assessing the sensory quality of grass-fed milk from individual farms and collecting data on each farm’s practices, determining milk drinker needs, developing a milk flavor quality index and correlating individual quality index with corresponding farm data.

The same every timeDesrochers said it’s important to understand what the end user (the milk drinker) expects milk to taste like. “Most people can tell you ‘I like this or I don’t like this’ but they have a difficult time telling why,” he said. “We need a way to listen to consumers and collect data that we can actually go back and find out what’s driving it … Not from a ‘like, don’t like’ but measuring milk flavor and aroma – is it consistent or is there a lot of variation?”

To evaluate samples, the study employed trained tasters who used descriptive sensory analysis to obtain objective measurements for samples. Three brands of grass-fed milk were used for benchmarking. The concept involved using brands screened with the trained panel to represent different flavor profiles. Samples of branded grass-fed milk were collected in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York as well as some Midwest and Western states. The trained panel used a scoresheet to evaluate factors such as total intensity aroma, balance and fullness, complexity, dairy intensity (milky, creamy, cheesy), barny, sweet, bitter and mouthfeel. One of the most important factors was aftertaste, which is an indicator of overall appeal and consumption.

Aftertaste is an important flavor trait – it’s the flavor left in the mouth for up to three minutes after consumption, and it also includes off-flavors. Desrochers’s research showed the flavor of grass-fed milk currently on the market varies in both aftertaste and milk identity.

The research goal was to determine what combination of milk flavor characteristics help differentiate marketability. “We found three dimensions helped differentiate grass-fed milk in the market,” said Desrochers. “The first is that grass-fed milk absolutely has a different aftertaste. Sometimes it’s stronger aftertaste one minute after swallowing, sometimes it has more barny or chemical flavor. The second thing that differentiates grass-fed milk in the market is richness – does it taste like water, cream, butter – how much dairy identity is there? The third is cleanness, which is focused on off-notes and balance of flavor.”

The study showed that differences in sensory quality of the market purchased brands were primarily in aftertaste and off-notes. Significant differences in expected product performance drive emotion – consumers may not like the product, may call the company to complain or will no longer purchase the product.

“There’s a range of grass-fed flavor, even within a brand,” said Desrochers. “We see differences from summer to spring to winter and from East to West to Midwest. There’s lots of opportunity to get consistency and figure out where on the flavor map we want to be because at this point, the instrument (trained tasters) is telling us there are differences, but not telling us where on this map consumers want milk flavor to be.”

The study tracked data including how many milkings per day, odors (barn, parlor, milk house), pre-dip, post-dip, milking system, sanitizers, ketosis, mastitis, SCC and MUN (milk urea nitrogen). “If MUN is between 11 and 13 in the sensory quality index, we’re in the sweet spot we know consumers like,” said Desrochers. “As MUN drops, consumer liking drops off to the point they really don’t like it.” MUN in that range also indicated good herd health, and managing MUN levels is one of the things dairy farmers can do to produce desirable milk for the end user.

“We learned that the grass-fed milk on the market now has some issues,” said Desrochers. “When you go across the country, it tastes different. Certain brands taste different; some taste different in winter, and some taste different between brands. We know they taste different because of the aftertaste that can be measured by a trained panel and because of dairy identity (balance, fullness, dairy intensity). We know milk that comes directly from the farm has the same issues due to aftertaste and dairy identity, and we know what it means to consumers.”

Desrochers said producers strive to provide a product that serves the needs of the biggest segment. “If I were a grass-fed milk producer, I would like to be the one who best meets the needs of the biggest segment of consumers, so I need to understand what that is,” he said. “But there is always value in having something that tastes unique and having a segment that likes the unique ‘thing’ that isn’t as competitive, and you can value price it.”