Why small is beautiful in Alpine dairy heartlands

Decades-long drive for bigger cattle has been based on a false premise, say Swiss farmers

Smaller Swiss cows of 500 to 600kg can produce a proportionally greater 6,000 to 7,000 litres of milk
Smaller Swiss cows of 500 to 600kg can produce a proportionally greater 6,000 to 7,000 litres of milk

Mara Bernath

As parched pastures force farmers across Europe to purchase expensive feed crops for their hungry herds, a Swiss dairy association may have part of the answer: smaller beasts.

New Swiss Cow, a group advising about 100 farmers, is trying to reverse 50-year-old push for bigger animals in Switzerland, which it says was based on the false premise that they would boost economic output by producing more milk.

While it's true the livestock long favoured by Swiss farmers churn out more milk, smaller cows do it more efficiently by using proportionately less feed and space, according to the association. They also require fewer visits from the vet than their genetically enhanced cousins, New Swiss Cow said.

"Cows bred for maximum milk output are more expensive than smaller cows, as they need more space in the shed, more fodder and are more prone to diseases," said Michael Schwarzenberger of New Swiss Cow.

Since the 1960s, Swiss cows have bulked up to as much as 800kg by using semen from American bulls, some of which originally came from central Switzerland. Almost half the nation's 537,000-strong dairy herd are fawn-spotted Simmental, which were crossbred with US Red Holstein. That cross-breeding helped to more than double the average annual output per animal to 7,400 litres, according to the producers' association Swiss Milk.

Dairy economics

Still, smaller animals of 500 to 600kg can produce a proportionally greater 6,000 to 7,000 litres of milk, according to New Swiss Cow's Martin Huber, who teaches at a farming institute in Salenstein, near Lake Constance. That rationale applies to other breeds of cow and beyond Switzerland's borders, he said.

However, in addition to the economics, there's another reason big isn't always beautiful in Switzerland, according to the country's main farmers' union. Lighter cows can more easily reach alpine pastures, said Sandra Helfenstein, a spokeswoman for the Swiss Farmers' Union.

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"The ideal cow looks different in every country," said Helfenstein. "Every farmer tries to maximise food utilisation and with three-quarters of Swiss land being grassland, having to import concentrated feed is leading to higher costs."

Dry summer

Those challenges are also being faced in neighbouring Germany, where extreme drought and heat over the past few months have ruined pastures and crops, setting the country on course for the smallest harvest in 24 years. That means Europe's second-largest grain grower will turn to costly imports to feed cows and pigs this year.

Eastern Switzerland has experienced the driest summer on record, and farmers all over the country have been forced to bring their animals down early from the mountains as pastures are depleted, said Reto Burkhardt, a spokesman for the country's milk producers' association.

"Scarcity and instability leads to speculation on the grain markets, affecting all farmers in Europe," said Burkhardt.

"We have to live with the weather but it will definitely affect Swiss farmers' cost base."

© Bloomberg

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