Milk: A History of Tasting What Cows Eat

Everybody since the dawn of time has had to eat — for once, that’s a sentence construction that no professor or teaching assistant can take umbrage with. Today we are pleased to bring you the first essay in our new series Bites of History. From diets meant to treat medical issues to the founding of domestic science, from agricultural histories to historical perspectives on “hangriness,” we hope this series will help to connect the histories of food, nutrition, and diet to the medical history we more regularly feature.

In 2004, many moviegoers were first introduced to Future Farmers of America (FFA) milk tasting competitions with an awkward scene from the cult-classic film Napoleon Dynamite. Jon Heder’s titular character is seen sitting at a table, gulping milk from glass jars and announcing each jar’s “defect.”

Napoleon: This tastes like the cow got into an onion patch.

FFA Judge: Correct.

Napoleon: Yesssssss.

The practice had become so obscure to the greater public that magazines and blogs covered the film’s scene alongside real milk tasting contests, calling the event “a moment of weirdness,” “a new trend,” and a practice that just “sound[s] silly.” Well, this “weirdness” has been around for a very long time and continues to linger in our perceptions of milk today.

As agricultural extension schools developed in the United States in the 1880s, milk tasting was not just an art but a science.1 It also became an important educational tool for up-and-coming farmers to learn how milk taste was sensitive to a number of factors. One of these factors, as the Napoleon Dynamite scene suggests, included what the cows were eating. When animal nutrition science encouraged new types of feed for animals, taste testing the milk produced from these feeds was an important part of the new menu’s larger evaluation process.

New Feed, New Flavors

Farmers have long understood that certain foods fed to cows can alter the taste of their milk.2 However, milk tasting experiments and competitions became particularly important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the popularization of fermented feeds for dairy cattle. This included “silage,” fermented feeds named for their processing and preservation in silos. Though silage was being produced in the U.S. since the 1870s, the feed was only deemed marketable in the first decades of the twentieth century. At this time, experiment stations showed that silage was an exceptional feed for dairy animals.

Milk production values were much greater in silage-fed cattle when compared to pasture and dry feeds. Couple this with the fact that it was comparatively cheaper in the long-run, scientists and farmers thought silage was the perfect food for cows to make “nature’s perfect food”: milk. However, through the 1910s certain companies (including Borden’s) refused to buy milk from farms that fed their cows silage because of its effects on the milk’s taste.3

The Milk Dealer published Johnson’s thoughts on milk grading and silage. (University of California/Google Books)

Between 1890 and 1920, experiment stations conducted dozens of taste tests to account for silage altering the taste of milk. Some experiments claimed consumers preferred “silage milk.”4 Others wrote how silage could potentially destroy the dairy industry. It became such a hot topic that silage began popping up outside the lab and in newly minted national milk judging contests. One of the first contests hosted by the International Milk Dealers Association was held at the National Dairy Show in St. Paul in 1921.5

The winner, Marvin Johnson of Arkansas, described silage as one of a few different foods that produced milk with a “bad taste and odor.”6 Being able to detect such “feed” flavors became a standardized practice for 4-H and later FFA milk tasting competitions by the 1930s.

As Kendra Smith-Howard notes in her history on milk, silage became less controversial over the course of the twentieth century, particularly as new technologies (including barn construction) emphasized consistent feeding methods for consistent production values.7 But even before these trends, consistent milk tasting results found a simple solution to the silage problem. It wasn’t a matter of what cows were eating, but when.

Consensus was reached that milk from silage-fed cattle tasted fine as long as it was fed after milking time. Even though silage became less provocative over time, milk tasting remained an important part of agricultural education. 4-H and FFA programs continued to host contests, with tasting an important part of understanding not only the demands of dairy consumers but the care that needs to be taken when choosing diets and feeding methods for cattle.

A 4-H club from 1932 creates an exhibition on milk quality, which includes a focus on taste. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Google Books)

An Ethical Aftertaste

Though silage has been more or less fully integrated into the diets of our cows, these grain-based menus remain a subject for debate for milk consumers and critics today. Not only have popular food documentaries like Food, Inc. (2008) and related foodie books by Michael Pollan pressed the issue, but movements away from grain have recently gained momentum as a milk marketing tactic.8 Organic grass-fed milk, yogurt, and cheese are sought-after products for “conscientious” consumers, and unsurprisingly campaigns have been focused on, you guessed it, taste.

Tasting experiments, much like those from the early twentieth-century experiment stations, are being reproduced by media outlets to address the organic and grass-fed trends. Huffington Post, for example, conducted a taste test between organic and conventional milks, with the staff remarking that organic milk can taste “richer” and “thicker” than conventional brands.9

Organic Valley’s “Grassmilk” comes in different milk types and dairy products. (Organic Valley)

But for grass-fed milk consumers, taste is just one of a number of factors that sets grass-fed apart from conventional milk products. Grass-fed has been considered healthier for human milk consumers. It is considered better for the environment. It is also advertised as more attentive to issues in animal welfare, claiming to be a better option because the diet is “more natural” for the cattle.

Some farmers and scientists disagree with this “natural diet” argument. While some cattle may do better — in health and production — on pasture, others will always need grain in their diets to stay full and healthy because of their genetics. These debates over pure-pasture and grain-fed diets are equivalent to arguments over the human paleo-diet. Sure, we could eat like our ancient ancestors. But, do we really want to? And, is it really best for our bodies as they are now?

The same questions we ask about our own nutrition are asked by farmers when deciding which foods to feed to their animals. Their answers consider economic restrictions, marketing opportunities, and their personal reflections of what counts as a “healthy” menu for their cows based on the latest scientific research.

Considering these ethical questions about the environment and animal welfare, we may be reaching a final frontier for milk tasting with the up-and-coming animal-free milk market. That’s right: animal-free synthetic milk is being produced using real milk proteins, but without the feed-converting cow. Perfect Day (previously known as Muufri) hopes to launch its first products this year. The company markets its milk as “sustainable, kind, and delicious.” Most importantly, Perfect Day notes they “craft animal-free products that taste like the real thing.” But what does the “real thing” mean in the world of grass-fed, grain-fed, and onion patch contaminated tastes?

The Perfect Day website claims a taste that is like “the real thing.” (Perfect Day)

Suppose Napoleon Dynamite became an FFA judge after high school. Will taste testing soon include identifying animal-free milk? The ability to taste what cows eat is certainly a unique quality of milk that we don’t necessarily get from other foods. Additionally, milk taste has become a marker for specific feeding practices in the dairy industry. With animal-free milk, we will no longer taste a relationship held between a farmer and their cows, but a process completed by a scientist using their laboratory instruments. Considering the history of milk, these tastes may not receive that signature Dynamite “yesssssss” by future milk consumers or Future Farmers.

Notes

  1. The Hatch Act of 1887 formally established agricultural extension stations with colleges. Laboratories that used tasting as a method for grading milk were formed at this time. Return to text.
  2. Bartholomew Dacre, Testimonies in Favor of Salt as Manure (Manchester, 1825); “Effects of Food on Milk,” The New England Farmer, 3.1 (1851): 16. Return to text.
  3. Charles Iseard Bray, Silage Feeding (Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, Agricultural Experiment Station, 1914), 7. Return to text.
  4. Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture (Kansas State Board of Agriculture, 1914), 318; “Effect of Silage on the Flavor and Odor of Milk,” The Threshermen’s Review (May 1914): 44. Return to text.
  5. Other “first” contests were held at universities and high schools in 1926 and 1927, as documented in Rufus Stimson and Frank Lathrop’s History of Agricultural Education of Less Than College Grade in the United States (Federal Security Agency, 1942). Return to text.
  6. The Milk Dealer (February 1922): 50. Return to text.
  7. Kendra Smith Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford University Press, 2013), 86, 111-113. Return to text.
  8. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006). Return to text.
  9. An important note to make here is that “organic” does not automatically mean “grass-fed.” Organic milk can be produced with grain-based diets, too. However, the “milkier” taste is often cited by consumers as a grass or pasture-focused characteristic of organic milk. Return to text.

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