Cow breeds and their effect

Research in a hiker's paradise

  • Forschung

When ETH acquired the Weissenstein Alp on the Albula Pass in 1967, initially only Braunvieh cattle continued to go to the Alpine pasture, as had been customary up to then. Over time, however, new research questions came into focus and with them other cattle breeds. While this caused quite a stir in the early years, animals of specific breeds were even missed by people in the later years.

For a long time, Graubünden was a stronghold of Braunvieh cattle breeding and thus almost only Braunvieh cattle were known on the Graubünden Alpine pastures. When ETH Zurich acquired the Weissenstein Alp in 1967, projects were indeed carried out exclusively with animals of the Braunvieh breed in the first few years. With the changes in agriculture, however, other breeds and types of cattle also became the focus of research. For example, the then professorship in Animal Breeding took an interest in the Holstein and Jersey breeds, which are known for their high level of milk production. Therefore, in the course of the 1980s, the first black-and-white Holstein animals were brought to Alp Weissenstein. This fact caused some excitement and gave rise to quite a few discussions.

Ten years later, with new research questions and the suckler cows, additional new breeds appeared (at that time, restrictions on foreign breeds were lifted in Switzerland). While the first black Angus cows did not trigger any major reactions, the Scottish Highland cattle brought to Alp Weissenstein as part of the Polyproject PRIMALP attracted the attention of tourists in the region in particular. Even when there were no more such cattle on the Alpine pasture after the project was completed, people still frequently asked about the animals. Similar things happened in later years with the small-sized Dexter cows.

Feed intake of the suckler cows’ calves are here and their feed intake must be simulated by the doctoral student, 1999.
(Photo: ETH Zurich)

Research questions in the course of time

But not only the breeds changed over time, but also the research questions. Initially, the focus was mainly on production-related issues related to Alpine pastures and the performance of the animals. Then, with the higher-performing animals, questions about the physiology and health of the animals also came into the focus of research. This meant that it was no longer sufficient to precisely record the quantity of milk and weigh the animals. It also required blood samples from the animals and heart rate measurements.

With the PRIMALP project, the idea that the entire production system should be considered more comprehensively also became the focus of research, and with it questions about nutrient cycles, the utilisation of nutrients in feed and ultimately also the quality of milk and meat. This also necessitated the use of experimental techniques previously unfamiliar to the farming operation. For example, food samples had to be collected that corresponded as closely as possible to what the animals ate. Animal-specific samples of excrement were needed. Animals had to be tracked for their behaviour on the pasture. All this required creative solutions from the doctoral students.