Michael Huber, Landwirtschaft Altighofen Dairy Farm, Switzerland

Time to read: ca 7 min
Michael Huber
"We have been raising cows for generations, and we believe the genetics we are using, including Norwegian Red, and the systems we are adopting will help us to produce milk in an even more efficient way."
Michael Huber
Cows in milk
Organic, block calving grass based
Average annual milk production/cow
5,500 Kg

Q: Please tell us about your farm:

A: We are a family farm with a milking herd of 80 cows, and we implemented a genetic profile shift several years ago by introducing crossbreeding. Our aim is to have a complete herd of crossbred cows, with a focus on two (Holstein and Norwegian Red) or three (Holstein, Norwegian Red, and Jersey) breeds. Currently, we are trying both and sticking to the plan of consequent crossbreeding and deciding later which is best for our system. Additionally, we have been an organic herd since 1995, driven by our commitment to responsible and sustainable farming practices.

Our system is a block calving grass-based (Irish type) where cows are not fed with concentrate at all, just grass. The grazing season is from mid-March to mid-November. Now we still have both spring (February) and autumn (October) block calving, but next season 2024 it will be fully converted to spring calving.

Our cows produce an average of 5,500 Kg of milk, with 4.25% fat and 3.40% protein. The system for milk payment we have in Switzerland is based on both volume and % plus somatic cell count (penalties in place for > 350,000 and no quality bonus). In 2022 we had an average of 1.3 inseminations/pregnancy - and we expect to have a stable calving interval of 12 months, which is very good.

The farm implements block calving grass-based (Irish type) where cows are not fed with concentrate at all, just grass. Photo: Diego Galli

Our cows are milked twice daily (unlike in Ireland and New Zealand, the once-a-day milking is not allowed in Switzerland) in a traditional parlor that caters to our cows' needs. However, we do have the plan to adopt the New Zealand-style herringbone parlor 2x12, as we recognize this is a good system.

Q: In 2016 you spent 3 months in Norway in a student exchange program, tell us more about your experience:

A: Yes, I had the opportunity to study and went to different places in Norway, namely areas in Vestfold, and North Trondelag. Alongside my studies, I worked on two dairy farms and had the privilege of visiting several other farms. Additionally, I was able to familiarize myself with the Norwegian Red breed and learn more about Geno by visiting the breeding station, which is situated close to the city of Hamar where Geno’s head office is located.

Q: From your experience in Norway, what was your impression of Norwegian dairy farming and Norwegian Red as a breed?

A: While the herd size varied, the Norwegian farms are smaller compared to the Swiss standard. In the Vestfold region, for example, I believe the average farms are larger than most farms in the country. I also observed that many farms are sharing their operations, new sheds, robotic milking, and indoor feeding widespread. Animal welfare was also very good.

Q: What are your key takeaways from your Norway experience?

A: From the farming point of view, Norway really has great cows in its farms, and the rare use of antibiotics is really impressive, they do have very well-managed professional farms.

From my personal view, I do enjoy the low population density and the “do less but do it right” mentality of the people. I also liked the landscape, of course.

Q: In 2017 you spent 6 months in Ireland, tell us more about your experience and Irish farming

A: Yes, I was in an area close to Port Laoise in the Midlands, and I was there working for a farm with 150 dairy cows with a robotic grazing system.

My experience with the grazing system in Ireland was truly transformative. I was amazed at how effortlessly the farmers produced high-quality milk, all while maintaining a relaxed and balanced lifestyle (with the exception of the hectic calving season). Not only did I learn how to effectively manage the daily grass allocation, but I also gained valuable knowledge on optimizing pasture usage and setting up an efficient grazing farm. Overall, this experience had a profound impact on my perspective of dairy farming.

Q: What motivated your decision to implement the grass-based block calving system, despite its rarity and relative difficulty compared to traditional systems in Switzerland?

A: My first main driver was the demand for cows. With a “concentrate-free” production system, it is crucial to give the cows the best feed when they need it. This is only possible when the demand of the whole herd is synchronized. In a “concentrate-free” system, it is also crucial to have the cheapest possible feed which is the grazed grass.

The second most crucial driver is the work-life balance. I like to work hard, but not 24/7 365 days a year. After a busy time, I have some months with less work to relax. In this system, I can reduce the time of the year when I possibly have to get up at night due to a cow calving to only two months in the year. And if I have to get up at night, it’s for more than one cow at the same time.

Q: Are you planning to keep the same system in the near future?

A: Yes, definitely. Never going back again.

Q: Why did you consider crossbreeding?

A: Getting faster the cow of my needs and combining the best of different breeds. With crossbreeding, I have a wider choice of genetics. That simple.

Q: Why Norwegian Red?

A: I really like the Norwegian Red as they are aggressive grazers, small in size, with good capacity, and carry on the condition well. Good genetics for our system. Other important traits are great daughter fertility, claw health, and overall disease resistance. Norwegian Red is a great “low maintenance” dairy cow that fits well in low and high-input systems.

And full disclosure, the trends witnessed in Ireland and New Zealand have played a crucial role in shaping my decision.

Q: What are your criteria for selecting Norwegian Red sires?

A: Daughter fertility, components (%), size (small stature), feet & legs, and claw health.

Q: In your opinion, what are the primary developments observed in Swiss dairy farming?

A: As with most in the whole of Europe, Swiss farms are growing in size. But they are not growing with arable land around the sheds. Therefore, an intensive grazing system with a larger herd is not possible. Indoor systems are therefore more common and the trend for growing farms.

Along with growing farms comes the trend of digitalization and robots. However such technical equipment is too expensive for grazing system and works better with indoor systems. Grazing at a very low level of feed intake is not very common in Switzerland which might not change in the future.