Understanding Butter – grass-fed, cultured – What does it all mean?


Coming from many generations of farmers, there is one thing for sure we know: Nature knows best. A good farmer is a steward of the land, working with what nature offers or throws our way. Raising animals, crops and families, we are all of us, farmer and non-farmer, dependant on the land and how it is used.

We apply this philosophy to all we do. It is represented in the foods we produce on our farm.

Take cows and goats for instance. Cows are natural grazers, they love to go out on the grass and put their heads down. Goats are not grazers, they are browsers. Our goats have access to the outdoors and to grass, but what do they do when out there? Nibble the side of the barn, the leaves off the trees, the blackberry bushes pushing through the fence. Grass? Meh.

Our cows however spend the season from March to November, depending on what Mother Nature has planned for that year, out on the grass pastures. This is natural for them, and they are at their healthiest and happiest when grazing. In the winter, when the grass has too little food value to sustain good cow health, they are fed organic alfalfa and hay raised on our own farm, supplemented with natural grains, which include flax for essential oils. The milk produced from grass-fed cows is high in nutrients that contribute to good health.

Our society has gone through decades of “improvement” on nature, resulting in rampant obesity, a sky-rocketing incidence of heart disease, and a constant search for “miracle” foods. Now we are asking ourselves if we haven’t been misled: that maybe Mother Nature had always had our best interests in mind.

What about butter? For some time the medical and nutritionascience community taught that butter is a bad food which would be best replaced by manufactured edible oil products. We have always refused to believe it, and now the tide is turning. People want real food back.


Butter is dairy fat. The cows produce fat in their milk at various percentages, depending on the breed of cow, season of the year and type of feed. Whole milk is approximately 4% butterfat. It is removed from the milk by centrifugal separation, whereby the lighter cream is spun off of the top of the heavier skim milk. Butter is made by agitating the cream which changes the structure of the fat molecule so that it binds together and separates out from the water. The residual liquid (buttermilk) is washed out of the butter and it is ready to use. In grandma’s day fresh milk from the dairy was poured into wide bowls and left until the cream rose to the top.

It was then skimmed off, allowed to sit for a day or so to “ripen”, then churned into butter. (In the days before refrigeration or pasteurization, this butter could get pretty flavourful: remember Betty Botter who Bought a Bit of Bitter Butter?)

There are various types of butter available on the market:

Salted butter: this is the usual grocery store butter, at least in North America. Cream is churned, salt is added and it is packaged. Legislation requires that this butter be at least 80% butterfat.

Sweet cream butter: the same as the above but without the salt. It will be labelled “unsalted” in the store.

Cultured butter: the cream has been “ripened” or “cultured” by inoculating pasteurized cream with strains of lactic bacteria. The cream is allowed to age for up to 48 hours, then churned. The result is butter with that rich “buttery” aroma and flavour. Most European butters are made this way. Cultured butter is not usually salted.

Grass-fed butter: again, what the cows eat is reflected in the dairy products. Cows that graze fresh grass in season and cured hay out of season produce milk higher in healthy nutrients than cows that are fed prepared silage and grain. One noticeable quality is the colour: grass-fed butter is bright yellow. This is due to the beta-carotene (Vitamin A) in the grass which the cow stores in the fat molecules of the milk. In the summer butter can be almost fluorescent, especially when it comes from Guernsey cows that have a higher amount of beta-carotene in their milk than any other breed. This is the butter that we produce. It is that bright buttery- yellow colour, cultured and unsalted, and comes in at 85% butterfat. The buttermilk left after churning is the real thing too: low-fat (no butter in it remember), rich and thick, great for those Sunday pancakes or for a perfect dose of lactic bacteria for the digestion. My grandpa used to drink a glass daily, with a dash of black pepper.

Lately there has been renewed interest in natural whole foods, butter included. There are many studies and articles on the topic which are worth investigating. Here are a couple of links for more reading:

http://authoritynutrition.com/grass-fed-butter-superfood-for-the-heart/ http://www.whale.to/a/butter.html

– Debra


5 Responses so far.

  1. Lannell Kleinsasser says:

    Debra, Is there anyway possible to have fresh dairy products shipped out here to Saskatchewan?

  2. Erin says:

    Great post Debra! I just would like to point out that many dairy farms in Canada still graze their cattle, whether they make organic claims or not. Also, fresh seasonal forages (and vegetables!)definitely add more beta carotene to their diet, thereby enhancing the colour of butter. In winter however, we All need to feed our summer stored feeds (silages and hays)which include lower levels of beta carotene resulting in ‘blonder’ winter butters. The quality and level of nutrients coming from organic milk or conventional is the same!

    • Thank you Erin. Of course you are right, many farmers graze their cows, though certainly not as many as in the past. This post was not a discussion of organic vs conventional dairy practices, and I am not qualified to comment. Let’s just say milk is certainly affected by what the cows eat. For instance in the summer, though beta-carotene levels are high, casein (the “backbone” of cheese) as well as fat, is lower, requiring sometimes daily adjustments in the cheese recipes. Also, grass silage is a no-no for cows whose milk is destined for artisan cheesemaking. The bacteria and acids in the feed cause unfortunate issues in the resulting cheese :). It is an interesting ride! Debra

  3. Dwayne says:

    Hi folks…I’m searching for an answer to a question I have about butter coming from milk that is otherwise pasteurized….when I buy my organic butter from the store, I assume its coming from milk that is ultimately pasteurized, but is the butter removed from the milk before the liquid milk fraction is pasteurized or is it pasteurized while still part of the whole milk. I guess what I’m wanting to know is what nutrient loss there is to the butter if it is pasteurized while still part of the milk?

Leave a Reply to Dwayne Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *