The Best Butter Comes From the Best Milk

1 - Superior Butter

In a word: grass. Why is this important? Well, 4 basic facts help to spell it out:

  • Basic fact #1: cows eat grass. They are ruminants, which means that they forage for grass, chew it, digest it, spit it up, chew it again, digest it again, and eventually extract all of the nutritive value out of the grass. Which they then secrete in their milk. Fast-growing grasses are preferable, but cows will chow down on whatever grass happens to be growing out of the ground when they trot on over. Higher quality grass leads to milk which is higher in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2 and conjugated linoleic acid.
  • Basic fact #2: in most parts of the world, grass does not grow throughout the whole year.
  • Basic fact #3: if they don’t eat something, cows – like all living things – will get skinny, lethargic, and eventually dead.
  • Basic fact #4: dead cows don’t make milk, and farmers who own dairy cows greatly prefer that they make milk, rather than die.

So, when the grass stops growing on its own, what do you do? Feed the cows something else. See, cows prefer grass, but they’ll eat pretty much any vegetable matter at all, including a variety of grains like corn, wheat, and soy beans.

Now, most commercial butter comes from milk made by cows who are mostly or entirely grain-fed. And the reason for that is money: grain is cheap, easy to grow and, more importantly, easy to store almost indefinitely. It stacks well, is a very compact source of nutritional value, and doesn’t spoil. You don’t need acres and acres of open fields for the cows to graze in – you just dump some corn or wheat in a trough next to the barn, and the cows come out and chew it.

A picture of 7 cows reaching through a gate to reach a trough of corn silage.
Cows eating corn silage. They’re not picky.

But what if you’re a farmer who’s genuinely dedicated to raising cows in as close to a “natural” environment as possible, and letting them eat what they prefer – but you happen to own a farm in a climate where grass doesn’t grow all year round?

Well, you have two options: you can purchase supplemental feed like corn, wheat and soya beans, and feed your cows that in the winter months (or when they’re nursing calves and need the extra nutritional supplementation.) Or, you can set aside a portion of your pasture to grow, cut, dry and bale hay, and then store enough hay in your barn to keep the cows fed through the colder months.

Guess which option most farmers choose?

Supplementing with grain is almost a no-brainer. It’s cheaper (someone else is growing that grain anyway); it’s more reliable (grain stores better for longer periods of time); it means you can use all of your pasture for raising cattle (nothing to set aside); If your cows eat grass otherwise, you can still call them “grass-fed”, because there is no official designation or standard for what constitutes grass-fed cows.

How do I know this? Well, I took a year looking for grass-fed butter from which to make fatCoffee, and thought the solution was easy: just buy Kerrygold butter, right? Except, Kerrygold butter isn’t 100% grass-fed, as even they will tell you.

This isn’t an indictment of the way most farmers choose to raise their dairy cows – it is a perfectly reasonable, rational choice, and it’s not terribly out of line to call a product “grass-fed” when it’s coming from cows that are eating grass as much as is practical in the climate in which they’re raised. And when it comes to nutrition, and getting the most out of the food that you’re eating, I’m really not going to tell you that 80% grass-fed isn’t any better than 0% grass-fed. Clearly it is.

But it wasn’t good enough for the product I wanted to make. I wanted butter made from cows that were 100% grass-fed. So I searched, and searched, and eventually found a cooperative right outside Philadelphia where I make fatCoffee. The cows are 100% grass-fed; they eat haylage in the winter, and nothing else. Period.

Photo of 7 cows grazing on an open pasture against a blue sky in the background with a few whispy clouds
Cows eating grass. This is serious business, as you can see.

Then, I worked with the fantastic folks at Simply Ghee, who take the butter and make ghee from it.

When farmers choose to raise their cows completely on grass, they are making some very specific choices about what sacrifices they’re willing to make: they are sacrificing yield – more land devoted to growing extra grass means less land for grazing and thus, less land for cows. They’re giving up the ability to produce more milk in a shorter period of time, which means less money in a given year.

But they’re also choosing to focus on herd management techniques which are finely tuned with an eye towards optimal animal welfare, and a higher quality milk product. And that shows through in the price which they are able to charge for their product.

The ghee I buy to make fatCoffee costs about 4 times more per pound equivalent than what you’d pay for even a very high quality grass-fed butter like Kerrygold. And even then, we often can’t get as much as we’d like.

When you purchase fatCoffee, you’re purchasing access to a superior product made with exceptional care.

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