There are around 100 Jersey, Guernsey and Brown Swiss cows who are responsible for the artisan cheeses, yogurts and butter on the shelves at Farmhouse Natural Cheeses in Agassiz.
Those cows spend most of the year grazing in the pasture, and Farmhouse’s wholesale manager Dana Dinn says you can tell the difference in their milk when they aren’t.
“When the cows are outside eating the lush grass, you can see the colour in the milk,” she explained. “It goes more yellow from the beta keratin in the grass.”
When the cows are in the barn for the winter, their milk is significantly more pale. But, because they are being fed on a mixture of hay and grain rations, it is also creamier.
“Picture them eating on strictly grass,” Dinn said. “It’s like eating a salad.”
The grain, on the other hand, “boosts the production a little bit, and the butterfat content.”
For cows, the old adage is definitely true: you are what you eat.
That is why consumers have taken to social media after Dalhousie researcher Sylvain Charlebois and food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal separately pointed to palm fats being the potential culprit behind firmer butter.
On Feb. 15, after Charlebois and Van Rosendaal had posted about firm butter but before it took off in the media, agricultural news organization Real Agriculture published an article on the use of palm oil in dairy diets responding to #buttergate.
Palm oil is an approved feed ingredient in Canada, and has been used for years to increase the butterfat content in milk because it acts as a bypass fat.
As Lactanet COO Daniel Lefebvre explained in his interview with Real Agriculture, palm oil naturally contains a lot of palmitic acid, which is a type of saturated fatty acid, as well as other fats. Some of the products used in cow feed contain a purified kind of palm fat, which has more palmitic acid.
“That create a fat that is very inert, and doesn’t affect cow digestion,” Lefebvre explained. The saturated fat can pass through the cow’s rumen — the first stomach, which partially digests food with the help of bacteria — without impacting how the food is digested. The fat is later picked up in the intestines, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream and used to make butterfat.
Lefebvre said that there is no way to tell by a spot test whether a particular herd is being fed palm fat or not, because the increase in butterfat from the supplement is within the normal fluctuation for palmitic acid in Canadian dairy cows.
“There’s other herds that are not feeding any palm based supplements that have even higher palmitic acid content,” he said, as butterfat content can be impacted by their feed, genetics and other factors.
Kent councillor and long-time dairy farmer Duane Post does feed palm fat to his cows, which his family has been milking on his Agassiz farm since the 1960s.
Post’s cows are fed mainly from the grass and corn he grows on his farm. He supplements their meals with soybean meal, canola meal, a vitamin and mineral supplement, and a small amount of certified sustainable palm fat, less than one per cent of their total rations.
Post works with his veterinarian and nutritionist to come up with the feed package his cows are given, and they meet at the farm every two weeks to review the cows’ health.
Not every farm uses the same mixture of grain, forage and supplements in their feed — and Post said that’s one of the things he appreciates about the industry.
“That’s one of the things I like about dairy farming,” Post said. “There’s 450-some-odd farms in the province, yet each one is individual in the decisions they make on their farm.”
Despite the individuality, certain things are universal: all supplements have to be FDA approved, and nutritionists are always involved. Although production is how farmers make their money, it can’t happen without a concern for the herd’s well-being.
“We strive, first and foremost, to have healthy cows,” Post said. “Without a healthy cow, you’re not going to achieve any production goal, it doesn’t matter … how you feed your cows. It’s healthy cows that will perform. And that’s no different than any other animal.”
The supply management system means that each dairy farmer in Canada is responsible for supplying a portion of the milk used to create products like cheese, ice cream, skim milk and butter. But rather than being given a quota based on litres of milk, the dairy farmers are given their quota based on kilograms of butterfat.
“When we have to manage how much our cows produce, it’s based on how much butterfat each cow produces each day,” dairy farmer Julaine Treur explained.
Treur’s herd of Brown Swiss cows at Creekside Dairy are pastured in the summer, and also fed on farm-grown forage and ground peas, with a vitamin and mineral mix. As an organic farmer, she isn’t allowed to use some of the supplements like palm fats which help increase butterfat, although the breed of cow helps make up for that.
“You always are aware of what your cow’s butterfat percentage is based on their production, so then we know if we are falling within or without of our quota,” she said.
Canadian demand for butterfat has been increasing every year, and when demand goes up, farmers need to increase their production too.
“Every dairy farmer in Canada has a little piece of the Canadian dairy market,” David Weins, vice-president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada said. “We all work together.”
“When there’s a strong demand for milk and dairy products, it will ultimately be reflected in how much milk needs to be produced,” he explained. “We’ll all increase our production across the country to increase that amount so the market has enough milk to meet those demands.”
When COVID-19 hit, Canadians began using more dairy products at home. People like Charlebois wondered if that was driving more farmers to use palm oil supplements in their feed to try and meet that demand.
Check out the Agassiz Harrison Observer next week to learn about how supply management in Canada’s dairy industry was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and what the next steps are in the #buttergate saga.