The “Cow Culture” of Switzerland’s Berner Oberland

Living up high among the Swiss Alps, cow farmers keep their family traditions alive, earning a living by making cheese

Cows in the Alps
In the Alps, you'll share the trail with cows. Rick Steves

Walking high above Gimmelwald, my favorite Swiss village, with Olle, who teaches in the village school, I always feel like a wide-eyed student.

We meet a massive cow loitering atop a fairytale ridge, and I can’t help but wonder where he keeps his camera. Olle tells me that even cows become victims of the mountains, occasionally wandering off cliffs. He says, “Alpine farmers expect to lose some of their cows in ‘hiking accidents.’ These days cows are double the weight of cows a hundred years ago...and 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.”

With a local friend leading the way, the Alps become a lively world of tumbling cows, cut-glass peaks, and fragrant meadows trimmed by a pastel carpet of flowers: gold clover, milk kraut, daisies, and bell flowers.

“This is a good mix for the cow’s milk,” notes the schoolteacher of the farm kids, suddenly all but abandoning me for the flowers. “For me, when the flowers come out again in the spring, it’s like meeting old friends.”

I’m always inspired by how the old-fashioned farm culture survives high in Switzerland’s most scenic corners. Here in the Berner Oberland region, 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. But these farmers have made a lifestyle choice to keep tradition alive and to live high in the mountains. And around here, rather than lose their children to the cities, Swiss farmers have the opposite problem: Kids argue over who gets to take over the family herd.

The cows’ grazing ground can range in elevation by as much as 5,000 feet throughout the year. With the arrival of summer (usually mid-June), the farmer straps elaborate ceremonial bells on his cows and takes them up to a hut at high elevations. The cows probably hate these big bells, which can cost upwards of $1,000 apiece—a big investment for a proud-yet-humble farmer. When the cows arrive at their summer home, the bells are hung under the eaves.

These high-elevation summer stables are called “alps.” Within a short hike from Gimmelwald are Wengernalp, Grütschalp, and Schiltalp. The cows stay at the alps for about 100 days. The farmers hire a team of cheesemakers to work at each alp—mostly hippies, students, and city slickers eager to spend a summer in the mountains. Each morning, the hired hands get up at 5:00 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 alp cheese (it’s too difficult to get the milk down to the market). In the winter, with the cows at lower altitudes, the fresh milk is sold as milk.

Every alp also has a resident herd of pigs—which generally don’t make it into those alpine travel posters. Cheesemaking leftovers (Molke, or whey) can damage the ecosystem if thrown out—but pigs love the stuff. The pigs parade up with the cows. Cheesemakers claim that bathing in whey improves the complexion...but, as many in the lower villages say, perhaps they’re just feeling the altitude.

When the cows leave the farm for the high meadows, the farmers turn their attention to making hay. The average farmer has a few huts at various altitudes, each surrounded by small hay fields. The farmer makes hay while the sun shines, and stores it in the huts. In the fall, the cows come down from the alps and spend the winter munching the hay the farmer spent the summer cutting.

Occasionally the weather forces the farmers to bring the cows down early. If snow is threatening, you may find yourself sharing a cable car with a farmer and his cows as they take the easy way down. And, in spite of any friendships made between cowherds and their cows in those high and lonely alps, every two months or so, Gimmelwald farmers round up the cows that aren’t doing so well and herd them into the cable car to meet the butcher in the valley below.

Every corner of Europe hides similar wonders. And when we meet the right locals—like my friend Olle—any of us can become wide-eyed students enjoying the recess of our lives... and learning at the same time.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.