Braunvieh cattle share the Swiss roots, popularity and long history of Switzerland's best-known breed, the Simmental, and have become increasingly appreciated over the past 50 years as a distinctive breed valued for both beef and dairy.
Braunvieh, German for “brown cattle,” are neither a new breed nor a hybrid. They are a breed that many experts consider the oldest pure breed in existence, a conclusion supported by the discovery of Braunvieh-like bones at sites occupied by Bronze Age Swiss Lake Dwellers some six thousand years ago. Identifiable records of the breed date to 800 B.C.
Modern Braunvieh history begins in the 17th century, when there were at least 12 types of Swiss "brown cattle" in Northeast Switzerland. Breeders worked to improve and standardize those varieties, selecting primarily for increased dairy production. Their efforts led to the creation of two distinct branches of the Braunvieh family. One, the true Braunvieh, retained its reputation as a beef breed. The other branch became the Brown Swiss, now considered a separate breed that is greatly valued for dairy production.
The Braunvieh story in North America began when some 130 head were imported to the United States from Switzerland between 1869 and 1880. Again, the goal was improved dairy production. The cattle that descended from those imports formed the basis of the breed and were formally recognized as American Brown Swiss in 1890.
The Brown Swiss produce large volumes of milk with an optimal ration of fat to protein, making them ideal dairy animals, especially for cheese production. The Swiss recognized those virtues and, in the 1960s, began importing American Brown Swiss semen in order to improve dairy characteristics of their native Braunvieh. The strategy was successful, but that success has meant that most European Braunvieh today, though registered as Braunvieh by the Swiss Braunvieh Association, are actually Brown Swiss hybrids. Cattle that have not been crossed with the Brown Swiss are now registered by the Swiss Original Braunvieh Association as a separate strain called Original Braunvieh.
The arrival of the Braunvieh bull Aron in Canada in 1968, followed by many more shipments over the next 15 years, signaled a renewed interest in Braunvieh as beef cattle in North America. However, it was not until 1983, over a century after the first Braunvieh imports, that original Swiss Braunvieh were again imported into the United States directly from Switzerland.
The increasing popularity of the breed can be attributed to a number of desirable physical characteristics, many of which stem from the varied and often harsh alpine environment in which the breed developed. Braunvieh are light brown with a distinctive white ring around the muzzle and dark blue eyes resistant to solar radiation. Their hair is fine and sleek in warm weather but will become thick and heavy in extended cold. They display correct feet and legs, with strong, well-structured legs and hard black hooves. These are balanced, sturdy cattle with strong constitutions complemented by a quiet and docile temperament.
Braunvieh cows do not mature quickly, but their longevity more than compensates for any slight delay. Cows are routinely productive to 15 years of age and many continue to produce to age 20. Bulls, however, reach maturity at 12 to 14 months and their progeny tend to inherit the breed's propensity for long, productive lives. A 2008 study by JHL Ranch, a 1500 head operation in Nebraska, compared breeding results of Braunvieh and Angus bulls over the course of seven years. At the end of the study, 47 per cent of cows sired by Braunvieh were still productive, a number almost twice that of the Angus-sired cows. In addition, bulls serviced 10 more cows per year and remained active for an additional three or four years.
Braunvieh health and longevity are complemented by a very high quality of production. On the dairy side, they produce large volumes of milk with the closest ratio of protein to fat of any breed. They rebreed regularly and their calves are relatively heavy. For beef production, Braunvieh are of moderate size, with cows weighing between 1,100 and 1,500 pounds and bulls between 1,800 and 2,500 pounds. Their size makes them efficient feeders, especially given their fast rate of growth and an inherent superiority in grade of meat produced.
In 1974, Braunvieh made up 47 per cent of Swiss cattle herds, second only to the Simmental, and the breed has today established a strong presence throughout the globe. There are now some seven million head of Braunvieh in at least 60 countries and they can be found in climates ranging from the tropics to the arctic and at altitudes from sea level to 12,500 feet.