With every visit to the Swiss Alps I'm inspired anew by how Switzerland's old-fashioned farm culture survives high in its most scenic corners.
Most traditional Swiss cow farmers could make more money for much easier work in another profession. In a good year, farmers produce enough cheese to break even — they support their families on government subsidies of about $5,000 per cow. (Throughout the Alps, various governments support traditional farming as much for the tourism as for the cheese.) But these farmers have made a lifestyle choice to keep tradition alive and to live high in the mountains.
The cows' grazing ground can range in elevation by as much as 5,000 feet throughout the year. With the arrival of summer, farmers strap elaborate ceremonial bells on their cows and take them up to a hut at high elevations. The cows hate these big bells, which weigh upward of 10 pounds. And they can cost more than $2,000 apiece — a proud investment for a humble farmer. When the cows arrive at their summer home, the ornamental bells are hung under the eaves, and the cows get more practical bells.
These high-elevation summer stables are perched on mountainside pastures called Alpen (the source of the mountain range's name; alpages in French). You'll see "-alp" in the names of many high-altitude spots — such as the Lauterbrunnen Valley's Wengernalp and Grütschalp, the Zermatt area's Riffelalp and Fluhalp, and Appenzell's Ebenalp.
The cows graze on the high pastures for about 100 days, roughly from late spring or even midsummer to September or October, depending on the region. The farmers hire a team of cheesemakers to work at each Alp — mostly hippies, students, and city slickers eager to spend three summer months in mountainous solitude. Each morning, the hired hands get up at around 5 a.m. to milk the cows, take them to pasture, and make the cheese. They milk the cows again when they come home in the evening. In summer, all the milk is turned into cheese — Alpkäse — as it's too difficult to get it down to the market in liquid form. In the winter, with the cows at lower altitudes, the fresh milk is sold as milk.
When the cows leave their farms for the high meadows, the farmers — glad to be free of their bovine-tending responsibilities for a few months — turn their attention to making hay. The average farmer has a few huts at various altitudes, each surrounded by small hay fields. Farmers follow the seasons up into the mountains, making hay there and storing it in the huts. In the fall, the cows come down from the Alpen and spend the winter in the village, munching the hay their farmers spent the summer preparing for them.
Between spring and late fall you may notice farmers moving their herds to various elevations, and weather conditions can force the farmers to bring their cows down early. When snow impedes their path, farmers sometimes load their cows into the same cable cars ridden by hikers and sightseers — you just may find yourself on a surprisingly mooo-ving lift.
On one visit to the Berner Oberland, while out on a stroll with my friend Olle, we came across a massive cow loitering atop a precipitous ridge. Olle mentioned to me how cows occasionally wander off cliffs, becoming victims to the mountain topography. "Alpine farmers expect to lose some of their cows in 'hiking accidents,'" he said. "These days cows are double the weight of cows a hundred years ago…but no less stupid. If one wanders off a cliff in search of greener grass, the others follow. One time at the high Alp above our village, 40 cows performed this stunt. They died like lemmings. The meat must be drained of blood immediately or it's wasted. Helicopters fly them out, but it's only meat for the dogs."
Most likely you'll never witness such a scene — I sure hope I don't. Instead I keep my eyes and ears out for a far more delightful (and far more common) event: The colorful parades of cows — bedecked with flowers, laden with those big bells, and accompanied by their herders in folkloric costumes — that amble through many alpine villages to mark the cows' ascent to, or descent from, their meadows above town. Since the timing of these processions is determined by local weather conditions, dates aren't set very far in advance — making it tough to plan your trip around seeing one. Instead, ask locally and look for signage: In late spring through early summer look for notices of an Alp- or Almaufzug, or Alp- or Almauffahrt in German-speaking areas (or inalp in French ones). The cows come home in September or October (Alp- or Almabfahrt, or Alp- or Almabtrieb in German; désalpe in French). The festive processions are especially big deals in Engstligenalp (in the Berner Oberland) and Appenzell.
I'm grateful that so many Swiss embrace their cow culture. Between the hard physical labor, predawn wake times, twice-yearly migration, and the risk of "hiking accidents," traditional dairy farming isn't easy work in the Alps — but it's a key part of what makes Switzerland Swiss.