Cows in Switzerland: Discover the Icons of Pastoral Beauty

cows switzerland
Last updated: September 14th, 2023

If you love the velvety smoothness and rich flavor of Swiss cheeses and chocolate, you must also appreciate the iconic Swiss cow. Grazing in higher altitudes on fragrant alpine flowers and herbs, cows in Switzerland produce more flavorful milk with higher fat content.

Switzerland has nearly 20,000 dairy farmers who produce around 4 billion kilograms of milk each year. Most of these farmers could make a better living in other fields of work. But they choose to live high in the Alps and keep the old-fashioned Swiss farm culture alive by surviving on a government subsidy of about $5,000 per cow each year.

The Swiss government chooses to support cow farmers as much for tourism as for the billions of francs in revenue the Swiss milk industry produces. Cows are a part of the country’s culture and are an unofficial national animal that is celebrated with parades and festivals and sought out by millions of tourists.

7 Interesting Facts

swiss cow
Swiss cow

1. In some Swiss villages, there are more cows than people

Switzerland has more than 700,000 cows. The population of Switzerland is 8.57 million. This translates to one cow for every 12 people. Some small dairy farming villages actually have more cows than people.

2. Cows graze for about 100 days in the high pastures.

From late spring to mid-summer, or September to October, cows spend their days grazing in grassy meadows.

3. A team of cheesemakers are hired by farmers to work during the summer.

Students and city slickers spend their summer months in solitude making cheese. They get up at 5 am to milk the cows, take them out to pasture, and milk them again in the evening.

4. Cows sometimes ride on cable cars.

Farmers move their herds to varying elevations between spring and late fall. Sometimes weather conditions force them to bring the cows down early. If snow is in their pathway, the cows may be loaded on the same cable cars that hikers and skiers use.

5. Cows sometimes have “hiking accidents.”

Cows can wander off and fall off of high, rocky cliffs in search of tastier grass. When this happens, helicopters have to fly out and immediately drain their blood. The meat isn’t wasted but it’s only fed to dogs.

6. Alpine cows are celebrated with parades and festivals.

When autumn arrives, farmers return their herds of cows from high-altitude pastures. The cows are bedecked with flowery headdresses and elaborate ceremonial bells around their necks and paraded through villages in colorful parades. The cow owners dress in brown and march at the end of the procession with herding dogs by their side.

Types of Cows in Switzerland

Swiss Fleckvieh Cow
Swiss Fleckvieh Cow

The original Braunvieh (brown cattle) was exported to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Brown Swiss breed was born there, and today, the majority of Brunvieh that graze the alpine meadows are a re-cross with the Brown Swiss from the U.S. for a higher milk yield.

Also producing a large volume of milk, the Holstein Friesian cow is recognized by its black and white coat. The breed originated in the United States where European immigrants continued to breed cows from Holstein and Friesland.

Originating from Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, the red and white Simmental is an important breed around the world and is usually crossed with other breeds. But in Switzerland, the Simmental breed is pure and original.

The red and white spotted Swiss Fleckvieh is a milk-producing dual-purpose breed that is a cross between a Simmental and Red Holstein.

The Jersey cow is another important breed in Switzerland for milk production. It’s known for its bovine beauty and black-rimmed eyes.

Where to See Cows in Switzerland

Cow above Stoos
Cow above Stoos

Hiking on trails in the Alps past small farms, mountain lakes, and alpine huts you will likely spot cows grazing in the meadows or at the least hear the jangle of the signature bells they wear around their necks. It’s a treasured part of the Swiss hiking experience.

The canton of Bern has the most cows with a total of 300,000 head of cattle. And the capital city is home to a large number of Swiss cheese shops.

The small village of Brandegg in the municipality of Grindelwald has a picturesque hillside covered in cows. You will also see cows grazing in the pastures around Gimmelwald and in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

High-altitude places in Switzerland with “alp” in their names such as Grütschalp and Riffelalp have rolling green foothills where you’ll find cows grazing near Swiss chalet houses. And to see horses and cows grazing together, go hiking in Glattalp located in Muotathal in the canton of Schwyz.

Why Are Cows Very Important in Switzerland?

Cow on a green grass field
Cow on a green grass field

Cows in Switzerland are significant both historically and economically. During the Battle of Sempach in 1386, the cows were a symbol of the fight against the Habsburg lion. This battle was important to the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291.

Economically, the cow is a symbol of prosperity. During the 18th century, families made a living on revenues from cows including milk, meat, and leather products. This was especially true in the mountainous areas where there were few work opportunities before dams were built.

Cheese and cheese dishes such as fondue and raclette and delicious Swiss chocolates made with Swiss-produced milk are important to Switzerland’s tourism and the overall economy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do cows in Switzerland have bells?

Dairy farmers in alpine regions equip their cows with bells around their necks during the summer season to make sure they can locate them on the large alpine pastures. In many areas, they are often hard to see.

What is the most common cow in Switzerland?

Most Swiss cattle belong to two breeds: the Swiss Brown at 46 percent and the spotted red Simmental at 41 percent.

Is the slaughter of cows prohibited in Switzerland?

In accordance with the Animal Welfare Act of 2005, cows must be stunned before slaughtering. This prevents pain and suffering and ensures that their dignity is respected. However, the import of halal and kosher meat from non-stunned cows is allowed.

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