Long Live Swiss Cheese!

For me, travelling to a foreign land is one of the best ways to compare ourselves and reflect on our methods. Furthermore, the people, their traditions, their different mentalities represent a significant source of inspiration for me. And that is exactly what led me to undertake this little trip to Fribourg in Switzerland with a group of Quebecers as part of the Confrontation européenne Holstein de Fribourg 2013.
The contest is held in a European country every three years and this year there were no less than 165 cows from 14 different countries. The Fribourg Forum was filled to the rafters with an enthusiastic crowd and Switzerland dominated the competition in both Red Holsteins, which are very popular in the region, and Black & White Holsteins. But this is not pure happenstance: For several years and inspired by North America, the Swiss have been working hard to attain animal conformity within their genetic species. According to genealogical books, Holsteins are currently ranked first among the species present in Switzerland in front of Braunvieh (Brown Swiss).

Switzerland is not known as one of the world's largest dairy producers. With just over 500,000 cows, a Nordic climate and a population of 7 million, it can easily be compared it with Quebec. More than 40% of the milk is destined for cheese manufacturing, most of which are controlled designation of origin (appellation d'origine contrôlée or AOC) and must meet certain specifications. Swiss cheeses are essentially known around the world and Gruyere and Emmenthal are two delicious examples.

On average, Swiss farms are much smaller than here, especially in the mountains. In fact, most of the country's 24,000 farmers fall into the artisanal category. However, while travelling the country we visited herds with anywhere from 45 to 100 heads in the Gruyere region, South of Fribourg. To comply with AOC Gruyere cheese specifications, farmers cannot feed fermented fodder to their animals. Here, we wouldn't even think of feeding a herd of 75 to 100 cows a diet of dry hay exclusively! Furthermore, the animals must be given access to the outside more than 50% of the time, in summer and in winter. Nonetheless, these small sacrifices are worth the cost because they allow farmers to seek a production bonus on milk prices bringing the price to over 83 Swiss francs (CHF) per hectolitre (CDN $93/hl) compared with about CHF 50/hl for milk for industrial purposes.

Since Switzerland left behind its quota system in 2009, the price of milk at the farm (especially for industrial production) is dropping. This encouraged businesses to join together and attain operational efficiency. The country must stand out with products that have added value, such as their world renowned milk chocolate. It is a way to achieve higher revenues for both farmers and processors. They have come to realize that, even if Switzerland is a small country on the world scale, it is by standing out from the crowd and by doing things differently that they will be able to make a living from dairy production.

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