Germans Party When the Cows Come Home

The chore of bringing cows down from high summer pasture becomes the celebration of viehscheid in the Alpine villages of Germany and other European nations. Festivals may differ, but they all include the essentials: bovines and beer.




Bavaria’s small cattle farmers have tended herds in these meadows for centuries. Now their livelihood is fraught with many of the same problems faced by Johnny-come-lately dairymen in the U.S.: milk prices are volatile, the farmer’s share of profits is too small, and public support for quotas and other protections is eroding.

If people are discussing such issues this morning in Buching, we can’t tell. More pressing concerns seem to be getting one’s fluffy gamsbart (a splendid brush of mountain goat hair) pinned on straight and restraining a particularly energetic Brown Swiss from veering off course and eating a patch of street-side marigolds.

In Buching the cattle are led down one at a time, each with her own dazzling ornamentation, though honestly it’s hard to tell who’s leading whom, as young men in their spiffy trachten (native Bavarian costume) strain with panicked faces to keep the animals from galloping into town. For events we saw in Maierhöfen and in Nesselwängle, Austria, the herdsmen took less of a beauty-pageant approach. Only a couple of the lead cows wore crowns, big glorious ones with mirrors, metal crosses and embroidery, and the rest of the cattle followed in a clanging crowd, kept orderly by unrufflable women and men wielding long sticks.

Each of the events we were lucky to see unfolded the same way: The cows come down from the high meadows along an avenue lined with spectators. The animals are penned near the center of town and admired by everyone. The farmers find their stock and take them home, and then people either drift off or settle in for a festive afternoon and evening under a big tent.

In Maierhöfen there were a couple of simple rides for the children. In Pfronten, a 60-piece band took the stage and, without much ado, several large painted cowbells were awarded. Were these prizes for the best milkers? We couldn’t tell. Buching included the widest array of vendors: people selling wool hats and socks, knives, honey, shoes, and wreaths of dried flowers. Nesselwängle’s celebration, the smallest we attended, featured an accordionist, stand-up bass player and guitarist, yodeling in otherworldly three-part harmony.

In Pfronten, we missed the cattle but found the party well underway. A tipsy young farmer offered us beers, cracking jokes in German far faster than we could translate. With a leer, he bent over and slapped the leather rump of his lederhosen shouting, “Crazy German boys!” In Buching, a team of draft horses festooned in white and blue, Bavaria’s colors, pulled a barrel-laden wagon behind the town musicians, the horses guided by four men in black vests, pants, and jackets and the round, low-crowned hats of Southern Tyrol. Trotting behind the wagon, wearing the same outfit in miniature, a blond boy with eyes ice blue held out a tray of beer-filled cups to spectators.

The late, great anthropologist Victor Turner discerned the strange power that ritual has to change things – or at least to change how we perceive those things. He called it the “mechanism that periodically converts the obligatory into the desirable.” He must have seen a day like this in Buching. Getting the cows safely off the mountain every fall is required, is work. But when viehsheid crowns it, serenades it, feeds it plum cake and slaps it on the rump with sunlight, it’s ecstatic too.

Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop are Daily Yonder contributing editors.