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Can we learn from History? Smallholder Cattle Breeding in Germany

Antje Feldmann[11] and Wolfgang Bayer[12]


For hundreds of years, cattle were used as multipurpose animals by smallholders in Germany. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the community and newly founded breeding associations started to improve cattle breeding. The main emphasis was put on the use of certified bulls and controlled mating. Different systems of organized bull-keeping were started, some of which still exist. An analysis of these systems could give ideas for organizing smallholder cattle breeding in developing countries.


In many parts of Germany, cattle was once the backbone of smallholder farming. Access to resources (fodder, land, housing, labour) was limited. Many crop-farming families could afford only a few animals - sometimes only one or two cows - which they used for draught, manure, milk and eventually meat (for income). Where families kept animals on hill pastures as a secondary activity in addition to others, such as working in mines, village or town herds were formed and the appointed and paid herder was also responsible for bull-keeping.

The herder option

In hill areas, a herder led all village cattle to the communal forest pastures. One man, with herding dogs, could handle up to 150 head of cattle. Villages with more animals split the herd and hired a second man. Generally, the herder was highly esteemed as an adviser on cattle sales or slaughter, as someone with veterinary skills, and as a pasture/fodder manager and bull keeper. According to the season, animals were brought back from nearby pastures each evening or stayed on high pastures for several weeks or months. The animal owners were responsible for the fodder in winter, usually hay or straw.

The smallholder option

In smallholder crop-farming areas, cattle were multifunctional. With increasing pressure on the land, manure production became very important prior to the advent of chemical fertilizer. Cattle were stall-kept overnight and given cut-and-carry fodder. Milk was produced for subsistence, and draught power was an important cropping input. Most farmers used cows instead of oxen for draught. In many cases, bulls were used for reproduction at a very young age (one year or less). Adult bulls were too demanding in their forage requirements, needed too much space in the stable and were also considered dangerous. Bull keepers sometimes used the bulls for draft purposes.

Improved animal breeding practices

In the early eighteenth century, livestock marketing became more important and efforts to improve breeds started in many parts of Germany. By the late nineteenth century, breeding laws had come into force throughout Germany and neighbouring countries. All heifers and cows were to be serviced by a quality bull. It was the community’s responsibility to ensure that one bull was available for 80-100 potential cows/heifers. There were detailed regulations about the use of the bull: frequency (no more than twice daily), service crates, feeding, duties of the bull keeper, etc.

Organizational forms of bull-keeping

The type and quality of the bull depended on the customers. For smallholders, the price of the service was critical and top-quality bulls were rarely kept. Getting the cow into lactation was sometimes more important than the quality of the offspring. Quality bulls were restricted to herd-book breeding farms, but community bulls nevertheless had to be certified (even if it was only class C). A range of organizational arrangements for bull-keeping developed, such as:

Community bull-keeping. The community (village council) selected and bought suitable bulls, provided feed, a stall and feed-storage facilities and accommodation for the bull keeper, and selected and paid the keeper. The farmers paid for bull services in cash and kind, such as hay.

Contractual care-taking. The community bought the bull and delegated its care to a local cattle keeper.

Contractual private keeping. The community delegated and paid one or several local cattle keepers to procure and keep breeding bulls and sometimes provided pasture for the bull(s).

Cooperative bull-keeping. The community handed over bull-keeping to a breeding association or cooperative.

Private bull-keeping. Larger farms and communities with farmsteads separated rather than concentrated in villages kept their own breeding bulls.

Since the 1960s, community bull-keeping has largely been replaced by artificial insemination (AI). However, the law that obliged the communities to provide breeding services was in force until 1992. Therefore, many communities started to subsidize artificial insemination to buy themselves out of the obligation to keep a bull, and in some communities the AI subsidy is still paid today.


For about 250 years, cattle breeding for small-scale farms in Germany was based on community or cooperative bull-keeping. Rural communities were legally obliged to keep bulls of appropriate quality in good condition. These examples of successful organization of community-based cattle breeding for such a sustained period could provide adaptable models for organizing breeding in other areas with similar needs for multipurpose animals in smallholder systems. However, whereas the historic German models were aimed at increasing production, there is now a universal need to support locally adapted breeds and maintain animal biodiversity. It is an open question whether these goals can be best achieved through direct financial incentives or whether support of better marketing would be preferable.

[11] Society for the Conservation of Old and Endangered Breeds, Witzenhausen, Germany (E-mail:
[12] Rohnsweg 56, 37085 Göttingen, Germany (E-mail:

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