Murnau-Werdenfels: Milk, Meat and Labor

The Murnau-Werdenfels was common in Bavaria until it was replaced by other, more productive cattle. But traditional breeds are about much more than yeld: local adaptation, healthy meat, good farming practices.

In the past, life at the foot of the Zug- spitze, the highest mountain in the German Alps, was not easy. Agriculture was impossible and fodder for cattle, which grew in the swampy meadows, could only be transformed into nutritious food for humans after long mastication by the animals and the action of a well-functioning rumen. In the summer months, the mountain pastures would fill with flavorful grasses and flowers rich in nutrients. To reach them, the cattle needed a sturdy, muscular frame and strong, resilient hooves. Thanks to centuries of selection carried out by the local farmers, a cattle breed developed that was able to easily cope with the local conditions: the Murnau-Werdenfels.

Ph. Stefan Abtmeyer

The farmers in the agricultural areas slightly further north soon realized that these animals not only produced excellent milk for the production of cheese and delicious beef, but that their docile nature and extraordinary physical characteristics made them ideal for use as draft animals. The demand for Murnau-Werdenfels oxen began to grow, guaranteeing the Werdenfels farmers an important source of income. Then, two centuries ago, this began to have animal husbandry consequences; the cattle were in such high demand as draft animals that the best bulls were not used for reproduction, but castrated and sold. However, once the farmers realized the problem, they began keeping the best bulls and by the 1860s the Murnau-Werdenfels was the most important breed in the region.

At the end of the 19th century, the Simmental breed arrived in Bavaria from Switzerland. With its greater milk yield and heavy carcass, it gradually began to replace the local cattle breed. In 1960 the number of animals was drastically reduced even further, when countless animals were culled to halt the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The extinction of the Murnau-Werdenfels breed seemed imminent.

Ph. Stefan Abtmeyer

Only a few farmers continued to raise the cattle, and it is mostly thanks to their link with tradition that the breed has survived to the present day. One of them was Martin Jais, a part-time farmer, and his wife Elisabeth, from Weiler Eschenlohe, a village near the Olympic venue of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In 1940 Martin’s father bought a small farm called “Schulmeister,” a former school. As was common in the past, the teacher had lived in the school-house and tended a small farm on the land. Martin Jais worked as a builder, while his wife took care of the farm and their three children. The cows in the family’s cattleshed were healthy, producing a calf every year and providing delicious milk, thanks to a diet based on the grasses from the marshy meadows and the mountain pastures.

The quantity of milk produced, however, could not compare to that from high-yield breeds. Therefore it took much idealism and great obstinacy to continue to farm the pure-breed cattle. Often, despite the mockery, Martin partici pated in local fairs with his animals and even in the Zentrallandwirtschaftsfest agricultural fair, held every three years in conjunction with Oktoberfest. Over time, his breeding animals earned the esteem of the public and the same government authorities that once handed out prizes for the elimination of Murnau-Werdenfels cattle now recognize the breed’s value as a precious genetic re- source and pay subsidies to the farmers raising the breed.

Martin Jais has managed to kindle enthusiasm for the Murnau-Werdenfels among his fellow farmers, and he is now the president of an association for farming the breed. His son Josef is planning to take over the farm when he retires and carry on raising the cattle. Since 2007, the breed has entered the Ark of Taste, and with the help of the association for promoting the breed, created in 2009, the number of animals is growing every year.

by Rupert Ebner

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