Unfortunately “fat” has become something of a dirty word in our culture (which we’re on a mission to help change!), so when it comes to talking about dairy and cows, you would probably be in good company if you had difficulty making positive associations with a term like “butterfat.” But when it comes to healthy milk and healthy cows, butterfat is where it’s at!
Milk, one of nature’s most complete foods, is made up of sugar, protein, and fat components. “Butterfat” is the general term used for the fat that naturally occurs in milk, and it refers to the diversity of different fatty acids present in milk. Butterfat content is typically expressed as a percentage, indicating how much of the milk is comprised of fats. In its natural state (aka “unhomogenized,” unlike most milks commercially available in the U.S.), milk naturally has a line of cream that rises to the top of the liquid. This is the butterfat. This is the most precious and nourishing part of the milk. This is what you should love with all your heart and soul.
The milk that used to just be called “milk,” in its natural state with the butterfat and all nutritional components intact, has now come to be known on labels as “whole milk” – in contrast to skim, 1%, or 2% milk, in which some of the butterfat has been removed. Naturally, we view this butterfat-robbing as something of a travesty, given our commitment to full-fat dairy. What’s more, the butterfat content in different “whole” milks can vary substantially, based on a number of factors, not all of which are bad.
And here is where we have to take the story back to the cows…
Butterfat content plays a key role as one of the primary markers of a cow’s health and overall wellness. Dairy cows put their fat first and foremost into their milk, not stored on their body, which is one reason why they are naturally leaner than beef cattle. A healthy, well-nourished cow will be a consistent milk producer and reliable maintainer of her milk’s butterfat content. Farmers, like ours, pay close attention to fluctuations in butterfat, which they regularly track, in order to assess how well the herd is being fed and their level of stress. When a cow is stressed, for any number of reasons, her body’s natural response is to reduce milk production and thus conserve energy. As you might guess, butterfat content also decreases in a stressed or sick cow, since the body has gone into conservation rather than production mode. On the flip side, strong and fairly consistent butterfat levels are a good sign that a herd is healthy, happy, and relatively stress-free!
But not all fluctuations in butterfat levels are a bad sign. Variations in butterfat from animal to animal, and even from day to day, are natural and necessary. Here are two important reasons why:
Breed Different bovine breeds are naturally inclined by heredity to produce certain levels of butterfat. This becomes a major selection point for dairy farms when choosing their breeds and also a significant selling point for their milk. Jersey cows, for example, are recognized as reliably high butterfat producers at around 5%, while Holsteins are usually on the lower end of the butterfat scale, roughly around 3.5%. Brown Swiss cows, like ours, typically fall in the middle with an average 4% butterfat content in their milk. We are pleased that our particular herd consistently has butterfat levels above 4%, though. How does that happen? Well that brings us to the second influence on butterfat levels…
A cow’s milk will only be as good as what she eats. It makes sense, then, that cows fed a more nourishing diet will have stronger butterfat levels. Further, herds that eat a 100% grass-based diet, like ours, will experience changes in the makeup of their food as the seasons change. This is a good and expected phenomenon, according to the pattern of the natural world. Certain types of grasses and certain seasons will raise or lower the butterfat slightly in fairly predictable ways. In general, a higher fiber diet for the cows means higher butterfat levels in the milk. So in Spring, for example, when the fresh grass is “washy” (a farmer-term for low fiber-high protein forage), butterfat levels decrease slightly. In the Fall, though, when the grass is higher in fiber and they are still grazing on fresh pasture, butterfat levels soar to their highest of the whole year. By staying abreast of these changes and correlating them with pasture conditions, our farmers can be skilled caretakers for our animals and also optimize butterfat in our milk for you!
Why bother with butterfat?
Well, beyond its relevance for animal health and whole-food nutrition, as we’ve already discussed, here’s what you really need to know… If you drink whole milk – which is its most natural state and the one we recommend – then it is vitally important that you drink milk from animals who have been raised organically and on pasture. Why? Because mammals, like cows and us humans, store toxins in their fat. It’s a protective mechanism from our bodies, really, but it becomes a problem when the fat that may potentially harbor toxins makes it way into what we eat. For cows, this means any toxins – like antibiotics, growth hormones, herbicides, pesticides, etc – gravitate to the butterfat in the milk. When you consume milk from non-organic sources, you risk exposure to these substances, which add to the toxic load our bodies already have to deal with in living our modern lives.
So go full fat – your body needs the butterfat to properly absorb all the good fat-soluble vitamins in whole milk and science is showing that eating fat doesn’t make you fat – and go organic & 100% grassfed – to ensure that beautiful fat will nourish you without passing on potentially harmful toxins. And go glory in the butterfat!
Traderspoint Creamery is an organic pasture based dairy, farming and special event facility located in Zionsville, IN.