Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a birthday party for my friend and fellow ag journalist Mike Wilson in Decatur, Ill. Although it is a long 6 and half hour drive to Decatur, it is one I enjoy as it gives me a chance to observe the Midwestern agriculture that stretches between the two states. Mostly what I saw was flooding – worse along the Wabash in Indiana than anywhere else. With the exception of some chisel plowing, very little field work had been done at that point. I did not see a field that was planted until my return trip when I noticed fresh corn planter tracks in one stretch south of I70 as I drove into Springfield, Ohio.
Wilson is the editor of Farm Futures magazine and a distinguished writer with a broad range of expertise. He is currently serving as the president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a group with members from nearly all continents. Among the guests who came to the party were Ruth and Hansrudei Langhart, longtime friends of Mike and his wife Molly.
The Langharts raise angus cattle on their farm in Switzerland. Until 13 years ago they were a typical Swiss dairy farm. They had 12 milk cows and a barn big enough for 20. However, quotas on milk production limited them from expanding any further. With no chance to increase their dairy operation, no children who were intended to come back to the farm and a decreasing interest in being tied to a milking machine 365 days a year, Hansrudei was looking for new challenge. Angus cattle were just gaining attention in Switzerland at the time. So he decided to take the plunge.
He now has 30 brood cows, 12 heifers and 1 bull. He is a member of an association of Swiss Angus breeders. “It has been a very good change,” he says.
He is also subject to the tierschutz or animal welfare requirements of the nation. “We have had these rules for at least 20 years,” Langhart says. Under the laws their barn and animals can be inspected at anytime. If the cows and stalls are not perfectly clean there can be a fine. It can run as high as $3,000. Each cow must have a stall space of at least 5 meters by 5 meters. When they are in the paddock a similar amount of space must be available to the cows.
Langhart cleans and beds the cows two times a day with fresh wheat straw to make sure they are clean in case the inspector comes. “We have to buy wheat straw because we don not raise enough,” he says. When the cattle are taken to slaughter they also must be spotless. He has never had a fine, but notes that every year there seems to be a story in the newspaper about a farmers whose cows did not measure up to the regulations.
In the spring summer and fall, the cows are put out to pasture where tourists can see and enjoy the sights of Swiss agriculture.
The Langharts are not sure who created the regulations, which they note seem to be changing often. “Probably someone in the government with help from veterinarians and animal rights people,” Ruth says. She notes that many in the animal rights movement in Switzerland are vegetarians, but adds that the demand for angus beef is still strong and growing. “Many farmers are looking to raise angus,” she says.
Swiss farmers have some of the highest subsidies of farmers anywhere. In part it stems from the notion that scenic beauty comes from an agrarian countryside. The Langharts are paid by the government for each cow and each of their 25 hectares. They also get a special payment for the wildflower pasture they keep near a farm pond. “The scenery is appealing to tourists,” Ruth says.
The size of American operations is the biggest difference between agriculture in the United States and in Switzerland, they say. “But our government is trying to push us to larger farms and is not offering payments to many of the very small farms anymore,” Hansrudei says. “I think it is terrible that American farmers must farm so much land to make a living,” adds Ruth. “The fields near Decatur are so huge. People everywhere do not appreciate what goes into to growing food.”