The Right Cow for the Alp

Brown Suisse_GabrielaBraendle

Influence of Dairy Cow Productivity on the Ecosystem, Profitability and Animal Welfare in the Summering Area

The milk yields of modern highly productive dairy cows continue to rise steadily. We investigate the extent to which the energy requirement of these animals is met on alpine pastures and whether less productive animals are economically and ecologically more sustainable in these challenging alpine conditions.


As a result of breeding and diet, dairy cow milk yields have doubled to tripled in the last hundred years. These higher-yielding cows need nutrient-rich, readily available forage to cover their energy requirement for milk production. However, one-third of Switzerland’s agricultural area consists of low-nutrient alpine pastures, many of them with challenging terrain. Not only does this disparity between the elevated requirements of the grazing animals and the scant resources of the pastureland presumably have an adverse effect on animal welfare; it also leads to the collapse of the milk yields of the high-producing animals on the alpine pastures. To offset this economic loss, productive animals are concentrated on the few pastures in the summering area that offer forage of good quality. The resulting overuse causes erosion, eutrophication and weed infestation. On the other hand, less favourable alpine pastures are scarcely used any more, and are subject to shrub encroachment. Both overuse and underuse lead to the loss of pastureland and reduce biodiversity.  

The PeaMaps project investigates how the productivity of alpine cows influences sustainability, animal welfare and profitability.

The Project

The PeaMaps project investigates which type of cow is best suited to which site conditions (e.g. food supply, slope, grazing) and offers the greatest benefit for animal welfare, the ecosystem and profitability. To determine this, the entire productivity range will be considered: intensive dairy breeds, moderately intensive dual-purpose breeds and extensive dual-purpose breeds.  

The project focuses squarely on cows: which type feels at home in the challenging conditions of alpine pastures? Which cow makes financial sense? Which cow makes ecologically sustainable use of the alpine pastures?
Question Method
Which site conditions on alpine pastures allow the different types of cow to meet their energy requirement?  ► Analysis of existing GPS data to calculate the energy balance
How do site factors influence milk yield, milk quality, animal welfare, and the foraging and movement behaviour of the different types of cow? ► Grazing experiment on Alp Weissenstein with 3 herds of differing productivity in various types of vegetation
Do the different types of cow differ in terms of their methane emissions? ► Methane measurement in the grazing experiment
What costs and income do the different types of cattle generate for their owners? ► Full-cost accounting on 50 farms


The project aims to improve the understanding of how performance breeding impacts both cows in the alpine region and the alpine region itself. It enables us to assess the suitability of different cow types for different site conditions, and through this, to promote animal welfare and sustainable food production on alpine pastures. It aims to develop viable solutions for site-specific use, and to contribute to the preservation of natural resources and the unique biodiversity of alpine pastures.

Project partners

Agroscope, AgroVet Strickhof / ETH Zurich, University of Glasgow, University of Texas

Monitoring group

Experts from practice, extension, breeding, nature conservancy, forage production and administration


Swiss National Science Foundation, ‘PeaMaps’ project



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PeaMaps - «Promoting ecological and economic sustainability and animal welfare by matching cattle productivity and site properties in mountain rangelands»

Last modification 07.05.2024

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