Small is beautiful in Swiss agriculture but farming life is thriving. Chloe Palmer meets farmer Thomas Roffler to find out more about dairying in the Swiss Alps.
Nestled into the mountainside above the small village of Grusch are a cluster of picture postcard farmhouses surrounded by steeply sloping fields and woodland.
One is home to Thomas Roffler, his family and a herd of the most sought after pedigree Brown Swiss cows in the Canton region of Grisons.
Farming just 35 hectares (86 acres) with a herd of 20 pedigree Swiss Brown cows plus followers, it is a dairy farm of above average size for the Canton.
Thomas is part of the younger generation of farmers here who have seen rapid technological progress in recent years.
The farming methods in this mountain region appear very labour intensive and traditional compared to those employed in the UK but Thomas reflects on the rapid advancement in technologies in his part of Switzerland over the last three decades.
“The technology we can use here is limited by the topography and the small, undulating fields,” he says. “But Swiss farmers have invested large amounts of capital in tractors and specialist equipment to allow us to make quality forage on our steep slopes.”
Thirty years ago, the hay on steep slopes was mainly made by hand using rakes and forks, he says.
The burning question is always how a farming family, which includes children Jasmine, 18, Marc Andri, 16, and Stefanie, 13, can survive on these mountain farms with such a small acreage and inevitably high costs.
Thomas acknowledges direct payments from the Swiss Government and Swiss Parliament are crucial for most farms in his Canton and across the country.
“Our direct payments system provides the means to compensate farmers for income which they cannot secure solely from the market.
“It pays for the public services agriculture provides, such as the biodiversity provided by our ecological farming system.
“The voting public in Switzerland say they want to preserve the alpine meadows and the landscape and to prevent soil erosion.
“We receive feedback from the Swiss people saying they are willing to pay the 2.9 billion Swiss francs (CHF) (£2.4bn) for these benefits, which they value.”
Maintaining the landscape so cherished by the nation means the Alpine tradition of ‘transhumance’ has endured. This is where cattle are moved up to the ‘summering pastures’ high on the Alps each spring and in some areas is marked by a festival.
Thomas’ cows are milked in separate stalls by local herdsmen using mobile milking equipment and this alpine milk is processed for on-site cheese making.
“In the summer, the milk from our cows is made into a special Swiss cheese called ‘Alpine Cheese from Gruscheralpli’. Local products such as these attract a higher price because they are unique to this area and they are made only from Alpine milk,” Thomas explains.
“The milk from our Brown Swiss cows has high levels of butterfat and protein – notably kappa casein protein which is an essential component of hard cheese production,” he adds.
Cows are typically moved up onto the Alpine meadows at the beginning of June and will return to the farm in mid-September. Each Alp will have specific dates for the transhumance, depending on altitude and the local climate.
Cows generally calve in autumn and by the time they are moved up onto the Alpine meadows in early summer, yields have declined significantly. At the end of summering period many cows are drying off.
“Cows nearing the end of their lactation with lower day-to-day milk yields cope better with the reduced nutrient supply and the need to search over large areas for their forage on the alp.
“The transport of feed from the valley to the alp is very restricted and on some alps is prohibited,” he adds.
For Thomas, moving his cows to the alpine meadows means he can shut up the fields around his farm to make sufficient hay and silage needed for the winter months.
He is allowed to feed silage over the winter because the milk collected when his cows are housed is pasteurised.
In Switzerland, cows producing raw milk for hard cheese production must not be fed silage because of the risk of raw milk in the artisanal hard cheese production being contaminated with fermenting bacteria from silage.
“My farm is situated on good ground and so we can make sufficient quantities of high quality silage. I supplement this forage ration with some maize which I grow in the valley, near the village of Grüsch,” Thomas says.
The flat land in the valley bottom is very sought after by farmers in the Alpine regions because it is in such short supply and it is the only land which will grow maize and cereals.
“I only have three hectares of arable land and here I grow maize followed by a rye-grass and clover ley. We take a proportion of the chopped maize to the next village, Landquart, where it is pelleted.”
“We find our cows perform better on a ration composed of hay, silage and maize pellets and it has allowed us to increase milk from forage from around 6,000kg per annum to a figure of 8,000kg achieved on my farm today.”
He believes shorter wilting times and establishing multi species leys with leguminous plants have helped to maximise the home grown protein content in forage rations.
“We grow perennial rye-grass grass varieties with between five and 10 other species including clovers and other legumes included in the species mix. This has enabled us to minimise the need for bought-in protein.”
Genetics have also played a part in the improvement in herd performance and the milk from forage figures.
Thomas admits breeding quality pedigree Brown Swiss cows is his passion and his Rofflers herd is highly regarded within Switzerland’s Brown Swiss producer circles.
“I choose semen for each individual cow to secure the improved traits I am looking for. I want a cow of the right quality for showing and she must be hardy and well suited to the Alpine conditions here.
“She must have good feet with excellent horn quality, she must have very good mobility, exceptional conformation and a well formed udder,” Thomas says.
Showing his cows is not only a hobby but it is also important for trade. He has been a judge for 15 years and recognises the value success in the show ring can deliver.
“Competitions are an opportunity for me to promote my herd as selling pedigree animals is a significant element within my business.
“I sell up to 10 cows each year during their first or second lactation and they will sell for about 4,000-8,000 CHF (£3,320-£6,640) each.”
The price achieved by Thomas’ pedigree animals compares to a more typical price of 3,000 CHF (£2,490) for an average dairy cow in Switzerland so represents a considerable premium.
Beef semen will be used on those cows within the herd which are performing less well and the sale of beef animals provides useful additional income. For his best cows, Thomas uses embryo transfer to gain maximum benefit from outstanding bloodlines.
“We are looking for the best cow families for our herd replacements and to produce animals to sell,” he adds.
Autumn block calving allows Thomas to calve his cows when they return to the farm at the end of the summer. It also means the peak lactation from his herd coincides with the winter months when he is producing milk for the lower value ‘industrial’ liquid milk market.
Thomas’ wife, Karin, helps with the milking as Thomas can be away from the farm frequently in his role as president of the Canton Grisons Farmers Union and board member at Swiss Farmers Union.
She says: “Our cows are tethered when housed over winter and we line milk to a mobile tank. We take our milk down to a collecting point in Grüsch every other day where milk from five farms is delivered and then the milk is collected by our processor, ‘mooh’.”
To qualify for the direct payments from the Government, strict welfare requirements must be complied with and, as a local politician, he knows all to well the devil in the detail.
“Our cows must be allowed to roam outside for at least at 13 days per month over the winter if we are to receive the payments for ‘open-air roaming’.
“The cows must also graze outside for a certain number of days each year and there are strict conditions relating to grassland management and soil husbandry,” explains Karin.
Despite the stringent obligations linked to the payments, Thomas and his family believe the support system works well for farmers and the Swiss population.
“People in Switzerland want ecological farming methods and a well maintained landscape. For farmers, the payments help to support farming families and the best farming practices and without them, there would be no agriculture in Switzerland.”