Cows are the link between land and cheese. Nothing is possible without them. They help enhance the land with milk that will become a finished product (fresh tome, Laguiole and aligot) and the cheese by providing quality based on the region's assets, among other things.
Monks created the Aubrac breed by selecting cows from Aubrac and the surrounding area: the foothills (Bonnefon and Aulos), Lot Valley, Comtal Causse, Aveyron Valley (Les Bourines), Chaudes-Aigues canton (Maurines, Morsanges and Montclergue) and Carladez (Cassanodis d’Aubrac commanderie in Taussac). As a rustic breed, it has many qualities and is recognised for the quality of its meat, milk and labour. But the Aubrac cow was not characteristic until the mid-19th century and not described in the herd-book (genealogical register) until 1893. Local climate and geography as well as breeding methods shaped the breed, giving it a particular genetic structure allowing the cows to thrive during transhumance and in pasture as well as long winter months in stables. Those conditions made the cows robust and flexible. The breed made a major contribution to the region's life until the mid-20th century and is therefore part of its identity.
By the 1950s inbreeding and the limited number of pure reproducers threw the breed into jeopardy. The modernisation of breeding and decline of the burons contributed to the collapse in numbers. An Aubrac cow produced 1,500 to 2,000 kg of milk a year, much less than the 10,000 litres of "HPCs" (high-potential cows). Farmers stopped raising the Aubrac breed for milk and cheese but the land had quality pastures, which, combined with the fact that it is a good suckler cow, led to the production of meat so successful it received the appellations Fleur d’Aubrac and bœuf fermier de l'Aubrac).
Selections aiming to make the Aubrac a meat-producing cow gradually wiped out its dairy qualities. The cows were no longer milked, selection for dairy purposes was abandoned and a non-selected genetic character regressed. An Aubrac dairy breed reintroduction programme has been under way since 1991 to strengthen the ties between the cheese and its origins. It involves finding the best genetic strains in the oldest Aubrac cows alive today and bulls with a dairy lineage; embryos are implanted in Simmental surrogate mothers. It also consists of weaning the calves born in this process in the same conditions as Simmental heifers, separated from their mothers at birth so that they can be milked (the cow is raised to give its milk instead of keeping it for the calf). Each year around 30 heifers are distributed in dairy herds belonging to the Jeune Montagne cooperative in order to evaluate their behaviour and dairy qualities.
The goal is for Aubrac cows to make up 10% of the herds by 2013.
THE FRENCH SIMMENTAL BREED
Its biography in Aubrac
How did a cow from Switzerland's Simme Valley end up being a majority in the dairy herds in Aubrac?
The Aubrac breed was obviously declining. In the1960s Aubrac's milk producers converted to dominant new agricultural models, which involved the widespread use of high-potential cows (HPC) capable of producing 10,000 litresof milk a year. But very soon two interrelated factors—the cows' performance and the quality of the cheese—sounded the alarm. Nothing good can come of taking a plains cow and plopping it down in the mountains, and a cow that does not fulfil all its potential because its living conditions do not allow it to cannot produce good milk. The quality of Laguiole cheese declined. Then the goal was to find a cow that could live in Aubrac and produce milk with the same qualities it used to have. The early 1960s Aubrac Cooperative Research Programme was precious: it provided all the necessary information on the qualities of the Aubrac dairy cow's milk. The study was carried out in Switzerland, Austria and Germany in order to find the breed whose milk was most similar to that of Aubrac cows some 20 or 30 years earlier and that could adjust to a mountain context.
That is how Simmental cows came to the high plateau and now make up most of the herds. Their milk is used to produce cheese whose gustatory qualities are similar to the original. The hunt for a cow suited to the region was started for the cheese but has benefited the entire area.The restoration and protection of the land have been understood as a positive retroaction.
THE AUBRAC COOPERATIVE RESEARCH PROGRAMME
In the early 1960s around 40 CNRS researchers from every field conducted a study on a specific human settlement, Aubrac, one of the last places in Franceuntouched by modernisation of the means of production. This was the Cooperative Research Programme (RCP), an ethnological, linguistic, agronomic and economic study that observed the environment, socio-economic conditions, farming and breeding and dissected how the region works. It was a tall order. The researchers observed, quantified, analysed and listed everything, producing a work that eventually took up several volumes.
The cheese association and cooperative referred to the study when they realised that the high-potential cows were ill-suited to their region. It gave them the most accurate information possible on the quality of the milk used to make Laguiole cheese a few years earlier. The precious data allowed them to actively look for the right cow for their terroir.