Where do plant-based milk substitutes fit into the Grassland 2.0 vision?

milk being poured

Story by Laura Paine, Grassland 2.0 Outreach Coordinator

There is a debate raging over plant-based milk substitutes (PBMS). These include beverages made from soy, rice, almond, cashew and other nuts (apparently, you can make “milk” from any kind of tree nut), coconut, oats, and hemp. They’re all white and opaque like milk, but I won’t call them “milks” because that’s one of the sources of controversy. 

Photo Credit: Kondratya/Shutterstock

So, while dairy milk remains dominant with 85% of a $19.4 billion market (Mintel 2020), plant-based milks increased their market share by 28% in the last five years. They’re soaring in popularity, especially among Millennials and Gen Xers, driven primarily by perceived health and nutritional benefits. I say “perceived” because a perusal of the internet yielded a wide variety of “expert opinions” on the nutritional composition of various plant-based milk substitutes.

Generalizations drawn from sites that reported actual nutrition information from product packaging suggest that 1) some, but not all, PBMSs have fewer calories than dairy milk, 2) most have less fat than dairy milk (unless you drink skim), 3) all (other than soymilk) have significantly less protein, and 4) nearly all have added calcium to make them competitive with dairy milk. They vary considerably when it comes to carbohydrate and sugar content. Many have added sugar as well as other added ingredients. And most taste funny, at least from the perspective of this confirmed dairy enthusiast.  

So, do plant-based milk substitutes pose a threat or an opportunity for Grassland 2.0’s vision for grazing-based livestock systems in the Upper Midwest? Or perhaps, a better question is how can we make them an opportunity for livestock farmers? Many of these PBMSs start with products we’re unable to grow here, like almonds, cashews, and coconut. But what about oat “milk”? Oat “milk” is one of the fastest growing PBMSs, increasing in sales by 54% between 2015 and 2019. 

Oats are an old friend to livestock farmers in this region. Oats are a go-to nurse crop for alfalfa establishment, less popular in recent years, but still widely used. Farmers either take the vegetative oats off with the first cutting of alfalfa in mid-summer, or wait until the oats mature in August and take them off as grain. Oats are a high-quality feed grain and like all small grains, they have a valuable by-product—straw that can be used for livestock bedding or sold! They’re a good tool in the forage production toolbox. 

Now let’s think about the oats that are raised for human consumption, called “food-grade” as opposed to “feed-grade” for livestock feed. About 90% of all types of grain (corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats) raised in this country are feed-grade and they are fed to livestock and ethanol plants (in the case of corn). To be food-grade, a grain crop has to have some special characteristics: the grain quality has to be top-notch, with high grain density (called “test weight”), good color, minimal damage from insects and disease, and clean (minimal weed seeds and debris mixed in). For some products, only certain varieties with special traits are used. So it takes a skilled farmer to grow a crop that meets these standards and even the best farmers have loads or whole crops rejected as a result of weather and other unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a risky business.

So where should the Plant Based Foods Association look to find farmers to grow their food grade oats? Right now, the majority of oats for this purpose are imported from Canada, but they say they’re interested in bringing that production home to the U.S. Oats are a cool season crop (that’s why they grow well in Canada). Right now, nearly half of the oats grown in the U.S. are grown in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. So, if they’re looking for farmers to grow their fancy, food grade oats, they should look no further than here, and they should work with livestock farmers! Livestock farmers have a tradition of raising oats and other small grains. They have an immediate use for the straw and they have an alternative use for the grain if it doesn’t make the grade. That reduces risk for both the farmer and the company contracting with them. It just makes sense! 

Oats with an underseeding of alfalfa. Photo by MIke Rankin, Hay and Forage Grower

So, why would a project that promotes livestock production on well-managed perennial pastures want to encourage production of plant-based milk substitutes? One of our main themes is restoring the ecological function of the original prairies. One aspect of ecological function, diversity, captures the value of adding this crop to the mix. Growing food grade oats would diversify farmers’ income streams and contribute to their financial resilience. It would also diversify their crop rotations, whether they are planting it with alfalfa (a perennial crop) or alone. Small grains are less erosive and less demanding in terms of synthetic inputs, and incorporating oats into a rotation would help break up pest and disease cycles. This short season spring annual would allow ample time for cover crop establishment in an annual cropping system. It would be a step, albeit a baby step, toward a more ecologically healthy agriculture, and why shouldn’t we add this high-value, versatile crop to our toolbox?