What did you do last weekend? I watched the cows come home. I know. I never really understood what my mom meant about “waiting until the cows come home,” because I thought they did it every day. I guess not.
Every year, Alpine farmers summer their cow and goat herds on the high plateaus where the grass is green and the sun shines for long hours each day. However they can’t leave them there in the winter, with the harsh winds and deep snows, so they must bring them down during the fall. All over some parts of southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, there are long processions of cows and goats coming down from the mountains. They are decorated and paraded through town to their respective homes.
The area around Urnäsch is the famous Alpenzeller region. It is well-known for its delectable cheese. It used to be that the farmers would make cheese right on the mountaintops all summer after milking the cows. Nowadays, the cows are milked and the milk is sent down to the town to a factory due to all the hygienic regulations in place.
All the boys in Urnäsch wear earrings in their right ears. When they are small boys, it is usually a cow. As they get older, they pay homage to the cheese that has supported this region for centuries, and they wear a golden “shovel.” The shovel is used to skim the cream off the milk during the boiling part of the cheese-making process.
The cows, themselves, get pretty dolled up for the occasion. The farmers deck them with huge bells with leather straps and tassels. Even though the bells are heavy, the cows love to wear them. Our hotelier recounted the following story to us. There was this one cow who was the leader of the herd, and she always led the family’s herd to town wearing a great big bell. She did this year after year, but one year the farmer feared she was getting too old to carry the bell, so he put in on another cow. The matriarch went somewhat berserk until the farmer once again belled her.
It is pretty expensive to own the cows, but the families in the region want to hold onto their traditions. During a good year, the cows are priced about 15,000 Swiss francs (about $16,000). Although the worldwide recession has also hit this bucolic area, and now it’s almost more cost-effective to lose a cow to falling off a cliff and collecting insurance than it is to try and sell it.