Scientists Share Research Findings of Grass-Fed Meat and Milk

By Troy Bishopp 

Hagerstown, Maryland—“Information is the currency of scientists” was a theme throughout the 2017 Northeast Pasture Consortium Annual Conference which assembled researchers, chemists, scientists, professors and nutritionists to tell the grass-fed story from pasture to table. It appears research findings on livestock production of meat and milk from forage-based systems and directly grazed pastures have positive attributes for human health.

To the lay person, the discussion of fatty acids, double bonds, lipids, isomers and meta-regression analysis may seem overwhelming but the burgeoning grass-fed market and pasture-based farmers are very much interested in the results. Since 1996, The NE Pasture Consortium has been a leader in this kind of timely, unbiased, science-based, collaborative research between land grant universities, USDA-Agriculture Research Service (ARS), nongovernmental organizations and private sector pasture producers to address practices on the ground, that improve economic and environmental sustainability.

This year’s venue concentrated on rumen-derived fatty acids in meat and milk from grass-fed animals and their effect on human health, especially after cooking or pasteurization. Dr. Carol Lorenzen from the University of Missouri Animal Science Research Center posed the question to a packed audience, What is meat quality?  “Every beef producer and customer will answer this differently.  You can have a high quality eating experience in either grass-fed or grain-fed.  For either, customer’s eating preference still comes down to quality grade (select to prime) and price,” said Lorenzen. 

The star of the show was the study of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) and their numerous health benefits. What helps their concentrations?  Feeding animals more forage-based diets, change the way you cook it, especially low and slow, and eat the muscle groups highest in CLA, such as chuck and shoulder cuts with more fat and marbling.  According to Ms. Janet Roseland, M.S., R.D. Nutrient Data Laboratory, USDA-ARS Beltsville, MD., “Total fat was generally lower and Omega 3s were significantly higher in the research trials using grass-fed beef and lamb.”  She suggested using the online ground beef calculator ( to help producers, consumers and retailers use nutrient information for labeling and understanding the benefits of beef and lamb.

Research Chemists, Dr. Michael Tunick, Dr. Diane Van Hekken, and Dr. Peggy Tomasula from the Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit, USDA-ARS, Wyndmoor, PA shared their findings on fatty acid profiles in consumed grass-fed milk products and how processing effects them in the diet. Dr. Tunick stated that dairy products contribute about 75% of the total CLA in the human diet.  “CLA appears to be a factor against cancer, obesity, diabetes and atherosclerosis, while helping with modulation of the immune system and bone growth”.

“CLA and Omega 3 Fatty Acids found in dairy products are essential to human health. In our research, published in the International Journal of Dairy Technology, we found grazing cows produced between 29%-36% more CLA in their milk than non-grazing herds.  A nationwide study of conventional and organic milk from 14 processors showed an 18% increase in CLAs,” said Tunick. 

Dr. Van Hekken shared her research on how processing impacts healthy fatty acids in milk. “Healthy fats” (Omega-3FA, CLAs & Omega-6FA), were not altered by homogenization or heat treatment.  Milk from grazing dairies processed using HTST and UHT treatments, started and ended with higher levels of healthy fats, compared to non-grazing herds, said Van Hekken.  Although milk proteins from both sources are highly digestible, more research is needed to understand the digestibility component for humans”.

Dr. Tomasula introduced guests to USDA-ARS’s “artificial gut”, technically referred to the Simulator of Human Intestinal Microbial Ecology or “SHIME”. The new gizmo will be used to study the human inside micro-biome and provide a new way to look at the impact of dairy foods on health.  “It’s an in-vitro model of the human digestion system consisting of bioreactors in series that simulate the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine. So far, the link between the composition of the gut microbiota and health has been established, but between what is consumed and how it effects the gut microbiota is relatively unknown. The SHIME closes this gap by allowing study of the effects of mediators such as milk or a processed product on the gut microbiota”.

“Butter is back”, exclaimed Dr. Jana Kraft, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Vermont. “I’m really excited about the complexity of the fats and their amount and how they are rumen-derived.  The glorious cow has a rumen that is full of billions and billions of microbes which transfer to meat and milk that consumers need for a healthy diet”.  She went on to describe the benefits of bioactive nutrients in pastured animals, feeding strategies to enhance complex fatty acid production and the development of new dairy products with health guiding capabilities for infants, immuno-compromised elderly, and the population at large.

Research professionals reviewed farm management practices that can be utilized to improve the fatty acid content of pastures and milk. They described their research data about the trade-offs and interactions of replacing pasture with concentrate and consequent implications on milk FA profiles. They also presented a summary of research investigating different sources of dietary trans-fatty acids and how they impact human health, specifically risk for cardiovascular diseases. There was considerable discussion on finding the “balance” between diet, exercise, cultural preferences and environmental factors. 

The two day event, held jointly with the Maryland Cattleman’s Association also featured information on pasture management, mob grazing research, soil health, meat marketing and a youth livestock skillathon in conjunction with a trade show and cattleman’s banquet.

To learn more about the Northeast Pasture Consortium’s work and research priorities visit:

Published in Lee Publications