Alpine and mountain farming

Our research activities focus on the question of how the mountain regions can be managed sustainably and how Alpine and mountain farming can be further developed in the context of comprehensive regional approaches.

The Alpine and mountain regions make up a significant part of Switzerland's territory. The climatic, societal and economic changes in these regions make it essential that agricultural enterprises and value chain actors undertake adaptations with foresight. In collaboration with INFORAMA Berner Oberland in Hondrich, our research group develops solutions for the holistic and sustainable development of Alpine and mountain farming.


  • Development of strategies and of forms of cooperation and organisation for Alpine pasture holdings;
  • Management plans and mapping for site-appropriate use of Alpine pasture holdings;
  • Optimisation of ruminant genetics, husbandry and feeding regimes in mountain regions;
  • Business plans for Alpine and mountain cheesemakers;
  • Total absorption costing for Alpine pasture holdings – specific calculations of product prices for different sales channels;
  • Strategies for the utilisation and development of traditional or newly developing woodland pastures in cooperation with the forestry sector;
  • Marketing strategies for Alpine and mountain products as well as for agri-tourism offers in the mountain and high-altitude summer pasture regions;
  • Regional and spatial development concepts for the mountain and high-altitude summer pasture regions;
  • Development of practical tools to simplify the management of mountain and Alpine farm holdings.


Strategic and marketing approaches for sector organisations

  • Governance of value-adding systems
  • Marketing strategies for farm holdings and organisations

Regional and spatial development concepts

  • Natural resource management
  • Participatory development processes involving regional actors in rural areas

Locally adapted management in mountain regions

  • Schemes for grazing management and utilisation of Alpine pasture holdings
  • Site-appropriate management of different types of grassland using roughage-consuming livestock


In collaboration with Agroscope Tänikon, 19 randomly selected farms from the mountain zones 2, 3 and 4 with original Simmental dairy cows (OS) were studied and compared with two reference groups from the same zones.

Compared to the reference groups, the OS farms had slightly larger structures (+9% / +3%) and a significantly lower milk yield per cow (–24% / –31%). In terms of economic efficiency, the OS farms stood out due to their significantly lower direct, external and full costs. As they received more direct payments and had similar product revenues, their overall income was higher. For example, the income achieved per ha was 46% and 40% higher on the OS farms and labour remuneration was 49% and 41% higher than on the reference farms.

The better economic efficiency of the OS farms is explained by their lower costs, the good milk utilisation efficiency of the calves and the suitability of Simmental genetics for a well-adapted, ecological farming of land in mountain regions. The excellent fertility, robustness and fitness of this breed should also constitute an important advantage in the efficient management of alpine pasture holdings.

Swiss Alpine pastures are managed by more than 7000 Alpine farms and approximately 17,000 Alpine farmers and farm workers who look after around 300,000 livestock units over the summer months. As is generally the case in agriculture, the demand for Alpine farm workers is significantly higher than the supply. Therefore, it is particularly important for Alpine farm managers to understand what the main attractiveness and loyalty factors are, and to know what their staff expect of their Alpine workplace. This research project, in collaboration with the Swiss Alpine Association (SAV), addresses the need to analyse the situation of workers with a specific focus on recurring Alpine employment.

Methodologically, the project combines a quantitative online survey, in-depth qualitative interviews, and participatory workshops. As part of the latter, recommendations for action are developed in collaboration with stakeholders. These recommendations, and the empirical knowledge, will be prepared and disseminated by the project partners in a targeted way so that a) Alpine farm owners, in particular, can use them to create ideal framework conditions to ensure the long-term viability of their farms, and b) together with economic partners, the promotion of combined employment (summer–winter) can be examined.

Biodiversity promotion areas (BFF) make up a significant proportion of agricultural land in mountain areas. Manure from the animals, containing nutrients from the fodder produced in these areas, fertilise the farms. The biodiversity promotion areas themselves are not usually fertilised, which results in a transfer of nutrients from unfertilised to fertilised areas.
This can lead to an oversupply of nutrients in the fertilised areas and, therefore, negative effects on biodiversity, feed quality and the environment.

A case study conducted by BFH-HAFL in 2019 on three dairy farms in Avers (GR) revealed a significant flow of nutrients from unfertilised to fertilised areas.

As dairy farms tend to be managed more intensively, the case study is being extended to six dairy farms in Rheinwald (GR). To quantify the on-farm nutrient transfer, input-output balances at farm, barn and field scale are conducted on each farm and the results of feed sample, manure and soil sample analyses are included. Vegetation studies also provide insights into the impacts of on-farm nutrient transfer.

Internationally, once-a-day (OAD) milking, which was prohibited in Switzerland until 2020, is an interesting alternative for pasture-based dairy systems in terms of labour economics in that it reduces the workload and burden on people and livestock where there is a shortage of labour or feed or where pastures are located far away.

As a closed system, a bovine dairy processing its own milk from Alpine pasture is ideally suited to an investigation, at manageable effort and expense, of the impacts of OAD along the value chain. For this reason, a trial was conducted on such an Alpine pasture holding in the canton of Grisons. Over four summers from 2015 to 2019, roughly 55 still lactating cows out of an average of 85 summered cows were milked only once instead of twice a day. The impacts on the animals, the dairy products and management in general were analysed with regard to the following parameters:

  • Milk yield, milk constituents, somatic cell count
  • The cows‘ energy provision, physical condition and weight development
  • Milk processing and cheese quality
  • Pasture management, animal behaviour
  • Labour management
  • Cost effectiveness

The change in food legislation introduced as of the summer of 2020, including the lifting of the prohibition of OAD milking, has the potential to reduce the significant pressure on home farms in mountain regions to convert from dairying to suckler cows and thus preserve the high value-added potential of specialty dairy products in these regions. For the Alpine pasture holdings, this in turn means that the environmentally particularly sustainable as well as economically and touristically highly attractive dairy farming enterprises will be preserved.

The project’s key findings were summarised in a fact sheet for owners and graziers of Alpine pasture holdings and their staff.

Changed climatic conditions pose new challenges for Swiss alpine transhumance. The extremely dry year 2018 and the long drought in the summer of 2022 have shown that even in the Alps, where water is usually abundant, supply bottlenecks and water shortages can occur. If water is scarce in the mountains, summer pasturage of livestock is not an option or can only be achieved with the help of expensive and time-consuming water transports.
The aim of this Master's thesis is to provide Alpine pasture holdings with a tool that enables them to estimate their current water consumption and water availability. The development of a tool to determine the water balance throughout the alpine summering season serves to identify bottlenecks in the water supply as well as water surpluses. This information allows the holdings’ managers to consider whether there is a need for action and to develop future strategies for water management.

The Master's thesis at BFH-HAFL will address the following questions:

  • Which factors critically influence the water regime of an Alpine pasture holding?
  • How can water availability and water demand on a farm engaged in alpine summering be mapped in a methodologically meaningful way and what baseline information is required to this end?
  • Can the water balance, as determined, provide information as to certain problem areas or weak points in the water system of an Alpine pasture holding?
  • What might the water situation look like in the future under changed climatic conditions?

Two high-altitude summer pasture areas will be used as case studies to test the applicability of the tool to be developed. All relevant data needed to estimate the water balance were collected in advance by means of interviews and some reference values were determined based on the existing literature.

Parasites are a major problem in small ruminants. They are usually controlled with antiparasitic drugs. However, parasites have already developed resistances to a number of active compounds contained in these pharmaceuticals. The feeding of common sainfoin as an alternative achieved good but not persistent control of gastrointestinal parasites. Its effect is attributable to the tannins which common sainfoin contains. However, monoculture cultivation of sainfoin is difficult and its tannin content varies.
Tannins contained in fir and spruce bark are very similar in structure to the tannins in common sainfoin. Using a specially developed extraction process, these tannins can be extracted from the bark and added to compound feed at a certain concentration.

The project pursues the following objectives:

  • To verify the effect of tannins on gastrointestinal parasites in sheep and goats
  • To develop a compound feed with an optimum tannin content
  • To use tannin extracts in other animal species.

There are fewer and fewer cows in Switzerland, and especially fewer dairy cows. This has consequences for summer pasturage, be it because there are not enough animals to graze down the grassland, or because there are insufficient numbers of dairy cows available for Alpine pasture holdings engaged in dairying and cheese-making. The situation varies from region to region and it is difficult to draw conclusions that are valid across Switzerland.
The 2014 agricultural policy reform, which had brought in stronger support for upland summering, dates back several years now. There has not yet been any scientific assessment as to whether or not the new conditions made it more attractive to summer dairy and suckler cows.

A Master's thesis at BFH-HAFL has addressed the following questions:

  • How economic is it today for home farms to send dairy cows or suckler cows to high-altitude summer pasture areas?
  • What other, non-economic motives are there for sending (or not sending) cows to high-altitude summer pasture areas?
  • What is the best way for farms who wish to newly engage in the cattle transhumance system to find a suitable Alpine pasture holding?

For this thesis, a survey and a full-cost analysis of home farms and farms engaged in alpine summering in different regions of Switzerland were conducted in the winter of 2021/22.

Since 1956, the Eggenalp long-term field trial on fertiliser use has been under way on the Alpine pasture at Eggenalp above Zweisimmen in the Simmental valley. This trial is conducted jointly by the Kali AG and INFORAMA Berner Oberland in Hondrich. The trial’s primary objective is to document the impacts of different fertiliser regimes on various aspects of the plant populations.

Analogous trials have been conducted in the canton of Valais (Orsières, Val d'Entremont) since 1984 and in the Solothurn Jura (Bremgarten, Laupersdorf) since 1972. The particular value of the Eggenalp trial is its long trial duration, the site’s higher altitude in the foothills of the Alps (1,340 m above sea level), the comprehensive documentation and the relative proximity to BFH-HAFL. The Eggenalp trial, like the other sites, is used regularly by BFH-HAFL and other institutions for projects, teaching and field trips.

The trial on fertiliser use at Eggenalp investigates

  • the impact of different fertiliser regimes on the species composition of an Alpine pasture site, and
  • the changes in soil nutrient content under different fertiliser regimes.

Approximately 80% of the quantity of Berner Alpkäse AOP (a hard cheese from the Bernese Oberland) produced each year is marketed directly by the stakeholders involved. The various suppliers position themselves in different market segments, which can lead to inconsistent pricing and undesirable competitive effects. Moreover, many market players lack the time and financial resources for successful product marketing. Together with the CasAlp variety organisation, we are developing a calculation aid for suppliers of Berner Alpkäse AOP and the extra-hard Berner Hobelkäse AOP and a concept to strengthen direct marketing.

The project has a number of different objectives:

  • More uniform pricing by means of calculations at different stages of the value chain
  • Improved quality and price awareness by means of simple calculations of costs and earned income
  • Reduced marketing effort by means of implementing good practice approaches
  • Greater targeting to customer base of the products offered



Matthias Grossmann

Head of Alpine transhumance unit, adviser for Alpine pasture holdings
+41 31 633 80 58

Maike Oestreich

Maike Oestreich

Head of cheese advisory service, Alpine cheesemaking adviser/teacher
+41 31 633 75 33