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Milking cows at 4,100ft above sea level: Dairy farming Swiss-style

Milking cows at 1,250 metres (4,100ft) above sea level in the alpine foothills of Switzerland carries considerable challenges and it is not just about the weather. Olivia Cooper reports...

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Reto Theiler’s family has been farming at Abnistetten, Lucerne, for three generations – but while there are certain traditions which remain strong, this family is anything but stuck in its ways.


Farming in the Entlebuch biosphere – one of 669 such protected regions around the world, including the Galapagos Islands and the Serengeti – is not easy. This environmental reserve comprises moorland, marshland and pre-alpine pastures and is not designed for profitable modern-day farming.


But Mr Theiler is determined to make it work and his family has frequently adjusted its system to maximise profitability.


He says: “Between 1948 and 1969 we fed our milk to rear calves, then between 1969 and 2008 we were able to sell the milk commercially and from 2008 to 2010 we took it down to the town to a local cheesemaker.”


New farmhouse


But in 2010 the family decided to replace the 200-year-old alpine hut with a new farmhouse, complete with a cheese dairy, enabling them to add value to their own milk. Built using timber from their own woodland, it is heated with a biomass boiler, with warmth from the dairy recycled for use in the house.


The family milks 45 Brown Swiss cows and grazes their own and other farmers’ youngstock on the alpine pasture. With one stock bull they breed their own replacements, and this year they fattened 50 pigs on the cheese whey.

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Like other farmers in the mountainous region, they only keep cattle on the hills in summer – between May 14 and September 29 this year – taking them down to a smaller farm in Schupfheim at 720 metres (2,360ft) above sea level for winter.


“We own 40 hectares at Abnistetten and lease a further 20ha, with 30ha in the valley,” says Mr Theiler. Calving all-year-round, the cows are stocked at a maximum of two head/acre on the mountain, where they are milked twice-a-day in a small four-point parlour.


“It takes 60-65 minutes to milk 40 cows, and they average about 30 litres a day at 3.5 per cent protein and 4.3 per cent fat.”


High yielders are fed 0.5kg of dry concentrates and minerals in the parlour, twice-a-day, with grass silage fed to supplement grazing if required. And this year it has certainly been required, as Switzerland suffered the same summer drought as the UK.


“We had to bring up 4,000 litres of water every day for a while as we did not have enough rain.”


The cows are housed during hot periods to prevent heat stress. When Mr Theiler first started making his own cheese, he processed 50,000 litres over the summer months: this year he doubled that to 100,000 litres, with 70 litres of milk producing 6kg of cheese.

It is a fairly rapid process – the milk is delivered straight from the parlour to the dairy, where it is warmed to 25 degrees before a cheese culture is added.


Cheesemaker Thomas Hofstetter then heats the mixture to 32 degrees before leaving it to rest and chopping it into small pieces. It is then stirred, heated again and strained through a muslin cloth, after which the curds are pressed into round moulds.


These are turned five or six times over 24 hours before the cheese is turned out of the moulds and put in a salt bath. Following Swiss cheese-making tradition, it is then brushed with salt water to keep it moist and develop flavour – initially daily then declining to a few times a week.


Mr Theiler makes four different types of cheese, achieved by varying the temperature and cultures used, and stores them next to the dairy before either cutting and packaging them or selling to a wholesaler. About half are hard cheeses and half soft.


“I sell eight-nine tonnes to Intercheese at CHF12/kg [£9.20/kg] at two months’ matured, and about 1.5t direct at CHF18/kg [£13.80/kg], but for that I have to mature the cheese for eight months, package and market it, so it is easier to sell to Intercheese,” he says.


The milk is tested once-a-month in a local laboratory, and the business has to comply with the same rules and regulations as larger cheese manufacturers.


The family also makes butter and cream, and sell their produce both online and through a little farm shop in Schupfheim, as well as making a few direct sales to hikers in the mountains.


“Through the wholesaler we supply the two main retail chains in Switzerland: Co-op and Migros, with different cheeses – they do not want to sell the same cheese as each other,” says Mr Theiler.

Financial support


Given the difficulties of farming in the area, the Swiss Government offers financial support to producers, through environmental payments and a subsidy of 18c/litre for cheesemakers.


Milk produced in the mountains sells for 90c/litre against just 60c/litre in lower areas.


“To be sold under the Alp brand the milk and all the cheese-making equipment has to be in the alps,” explains Mr Theiler.


So what happens when the cows return to their lowland winter home?


As the cheese-making equipment remains up the mountain, Mr Theiler simply sells the raw milk to a cheesemaker in the valley. But there is more to returning to the lowland farm than might be expected.


This is not simply a case of loading up the livestock and transporting them from one farm to another; here, the Alp Descent – or Alpabfahrt – is a huge public festival, celebrating cows, farming and rural traditions.


Schoolchildren are given the Friday off school to help prepare for the big event, which involves walking the cows around five miles down the winding mountain roads to the town of Schupfheim.


Families decorate their cows with floral sashes and head-dresses, replace the mountain cow bells with large ceremonial bells and dress up in traditional Swiss costume.


The sound is both exciting and deafening as seven different farmers bring down hundreds of cows, complete with bells, to the awaiting crowds.


While Schupfheim only has about 4,000 residents, this swells to more than 10,000 on this festival day.


The Theilers even dismantle their parlour at the mountain farm and bring it down to re-erect in time for the evening milking.


“The mountain is good for marketing,” says Mr Theiler. But there is more to it than that. Grazing cows in the rich alpine pastures is essential for the local environment, food chain and economy and it is one tradition that this family is striving to keep alive.

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