Berner Oberland Feature

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When the Cows Come Home

It's difficult to grow more than grass on the steep slopes of the Alps, so much of the area has traditionally been used to graze sheep, goats, and, of course, dairy cattle, who supply fresh milk to the cheese and chocolate industries that make up such an important part of the country's agricultural economy. Brown Swiss, said to be the oldest breed in the world, has been a reliable producer of dairy products for centuries. Browns are highly prized in the region, as they adapt to all kinds of weather, have strong feet and legs, and produce more milk (which also happens to be higher in protein than that from other cows). Their robust nature has made them increasingly popular throughout the world.

The seasonal movement of livestock from lowland pastures to Alpine meadows is a tradition that goes back to ancient times. In spring, herders in regional costume spruce up their animals with flowers and embroidered bell collars and move them up to the grazing areas in a ceremony known as the Alpaufzug (Alpine ascent). In fall they come down the same way in the Alpabfahrt (Alpine descent). All cows are fitted with bells to help make them easier to find if they wander away from the rest of the herd, and the collective clang can echo through an entire valley. If you're driving along during one of the ceremonies, be prepared to pull over for a half hour or more while the cows lumber past, taking up the entire road.

Updated: 2013-09-05

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