Return of cows from mountain pastures in Europe calls for celebration

Gloria Hafemeister
Traffic was held up for a time on the busy highway leading to Zell Am See in the Austrian Alps while cows make their way home from their summer pastures.

ZELL AM SEE, AUSTRIA -  While dairy cattle enthusiasts from around the world were visiting Madison, Wisconsin, for the annual World Dairy Expo, some Wisconsinites were in Austria and Germany enjoying the sights of cattle coming down from their summer pastures.

Summer is over and the days are getting shorter and nights turning rather chilly in the Alps of Austria and Germany and that means it’s time for the herdsmen to drive their cattle from pasture to the valley.

The Almabtrieb, which in the German language means drive from the mountain pasture, is an annual event in the Alpine regions in Europe referring to a cow train in autumn.

During summer all over the alpine regions cow herds feed on the alpine pastures high up in the mountains.

In autumn, these herds are led to their stables down in the valley in the Almabtrieb cow train. If all goes well for the herd and the family in summer, in many areas the cows are decorated elaborately, and the cow train is celebrated in communities with dance and musical events.

Adorned with varicolored ribbons and wreathes, it’s the time of year that the cows in Austria return from their summer pastures to the protection of the village for winter.  Germany and Austria have been experiencing drought conditions this summer and cows have come back earlier in some regions due to a lack of enough grass in the highlands.  Some communities have festivals to celebrate the annual tradition while in other areas cows walk down busy highways on their way back home.

If a family loses animals or a family member, they don’t take part in the ceremonial event and don’t decorate their animals.

In some areas of the region, the cows come down quietly without the ceremony, sometimes walking on the roads, holding up traffic and, at other times, walking along the grassy ditches alongside the road. It is not unusual to see cow-crossing signs on village and city streets and to see a couple of cows walk alongside cars on the streets.

It is not uncommon to see cow-crossing signs in German communities like this one in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in South Bavaria.  Early on a Saturday evening a few cows made their way down a busy street on their way home.

In the mountains, cows owned by numerous farmers mingle together in a rotational grazing system, beginning in spring on the lower meadows and working their way up the mountainside. Milking stations in the mountains are shared by the farmers.

In the past they made cheese right up in the mountains but now the mingled milk is picked up by a truck at the central location and brought down to the cheese plant in town.

Germany and Austria have been experiencing drought-like conditions this summer.  Pastures dried up earlier. Farmers who normally harvest two or three crops of hay in the summer only got one cutting this year. Rivers were very low and in some areas, cows rest on the edge of the river where normally water would be flowing.

Just over a third of Austria’s farms are classified as mountain farms with an average of about 20 cows. About half of the farmers in Austria also have jobs off of the farm.

Although geared towards small-scale farming, there is a trend for farms to become larger with more animals.

Solar panels are found on most barns and houses in the rural areas of Austria and Germany.