Happy Cows, Better Milk, Better Cheese

Edible Culture Summer 2012 Issue

Happy Cows, Better Milk, Better Cheese

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Becca Dilley 0

Happy cows give better milk, and better milk makes better cheese. That simple belief, launched three years ago by Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda, is today the reason this family-owned cheese factory is the main supplier for a growing number of restaurants demanding premium cheese made from certified–yes, certified–happy cows.

A third-generation cheese company known for its award-winning colby, jack and cheddar, Meister Cheese is today not only in the business of crafting premium cheese, it’s in the business of procuring premium milk. In partnership with Scenic Central Milk Producers, a marketing cooperative collecting milk from nearly 300 Wisconsin dairy farms, Meister Cheese today crafts more premium cheese than ever before. In fact, if you’ve ever enjoyed a gourmet burrito or taco at the Chipotle Mexican Grill national chain of restaurants, you’ve likely eaten cheese crafted in Wisconsin. That’s because nearly half of Chipotle’s 1,200 outlets use a blend of jack and white cheddar made exclusively by Meister Cheese, and all of that cheese comes from the milk of certified happy cows.

Is it really possible to certify happy cows? Four years ago, Chipotle thought so. Already sourcing most of its ingredients via its “food with integrity” philosophy, the restaurant chain’s executive team approached Meister Cheese about making cheese exclusively from the milk of cows that were certified as being treated humanely. Scott Meister, co-owner of Meister Cheese, and Kenneth Boll, general manager of Scenic Central Milk Producers, responded to the challenge by launching the first-of-its-kind “Animal Friendly Family Farms” program in Wisconsin. The program rewards small, family dairy farms for doing most of the things that already come naturally to farmers: treating cows right.

The program’s set of beliefs–outlined on the next page–are based on common sense. Farmers who comply with a milk production protocol of sustainable and ethical agricultural practices are rewarded. These practices include treating and feeding cows right, not administering drugs, not docking tails, and providing daily access to pasture. Farmers agree to be audited for compliance by a third party, and if found to be following all rules, are paid a significant premium for their milk on top of the already competitive pricing structure Meister has always employed. With more farmers coming on board each year, the program has proven to be good for everybody–from cows, to farms, to the local economy.

“We developed the Animal Friendly Family Farms program specifically to grow the milk supply we needed to produce cheese for Chipotle Mexican Grill, but the results have been amazing,” Meister says. “A significant number of dairy farms are tweaking their operations to meet higher ethical standards and partner with us on this venture. It’s really been a win-win, not only for us, but for everyone from the farmer to the consumer.”

Doug George, purchasing manager for meats and dairy at Chipotle Mexican Grill, agrees. He says Meister Cheese, Scenic Central Milk Producers and Wisconsin dairy farmers have demonstrated the consistency, quality and growth he looks for in suppliers. “These folks have assembled a pool of milk that meets our expectation for Food with Integrity,” says George. Now we are pleased to support their effort to increase that pool of milk, so they can make more cheese for us.”

And more cheese seems to be good for everybody. In fact, to meet increased demand from Chipotle Mexican Grill and other customers, Meister Cheese expanded its specialty cheese plant last year, doubling its processing capacity. Employing more than 60 fulltime employees and producing cheese seven days a week, the 14,000 sq. ft. expansion has allowed Meister to accept more milk through its Animal Friendly Family Farms program and serve more customers interested in cheese from certified happy cows.

“We are excited to be a part of a growing company and community, and are especially excited that our expansion has led to more demand for milk produced on local dairy farms,” Meister said.

Jeanne Carpenter is a former farm girl turned cheese geek, writing and talking about cheese for a living. As the specialty cheese manager at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison, she works with Wisconsin cheesemakers to bring new products to market. Her motto is "Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese."

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