Handing over the keys at Früebüel

Despite the coronavirus lockdown, the renovation and extension of Früebüel research station in Walchwil (Canton of Zug) was completed nearly on schedule. AgroVet–Strickhof, a research cooperative supported by ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and Strickhof, now has state-of-the-art research and higher education facilities at its four locations.
Overview of the Früebüel research site: Newly built fallow deer enclosures with shelter (front left) and a fire brigade shed (front right). The other buildings were renovated and extended. (Photo: Alessandro Della Bella / ETH / Agrovet-​Strickhof)

People seeking relaxation on the Zugerberg mountain in Switzerland will have already noticed it: there have been big changes at Früebüel, a former farm. AgroVet–Strickhof, a platform for research and higher education in agriculture, joined forces with ETH Zurich to renovate and expand its barns, operational buildings and wild animal enclosures over the past two years. Now, almost three years after obtaining building permission from the Canton of Zug, the construction work is complete.

Früebüel’s new facilities will be used for research on breeding cattle, suckler cows, sheep and fallow deer. The expanded AgroVet–Strickhof location is operated by cooperation partner Strickhof. At 1,000 metres above sea level, Früebüel is particularly suited to investigating specific issues connected with farming operations in the Alps and alpine foothills. In the summer, the animals are moved to graze on Alp Weissenstein on the Albula Pass (Canton of Graubünden), which is also an AgroVet–Strickhof research location.

Research here is conducted primarily by AgroVet–Strickhof’s cooperation partners, especially ETH professors in the animal sciences, plant ecology and grassland sciences. Those in the latter department have been operating a measurement station at Früebüel since 2005; one project records material flows including greenhouse gases from grassland subjected to medium-intensity use.

Location allows for more intense research

“We’re thrilled to be able to continue and expand our research in this modern and spacious facility,” says Melissa Terranova, AgroVet–Strickhof’s Head of Research since 1 April 2020. “It has everything we need to drive livestock research in Switzerland.” Thanks to the extension of the location, she continues, research can continue at a greater intensity.

Ulrich Weidmann, Vice President for Infrastructure at ETH Zurich, is also happy about the completion of construction. “We’re delighted to be finished with this challenging project,” he says, “which marks the end of the extension programme for the AgroVet–Strickhof cooperative. Now we can hand over operations of this location to the AgroVet–Strickhof management team.”

ETH’s Real Estate Management department was in charge of planning and implementing the construction work. Planning and building costs amounted to about 13 million Swiss francs.

Major support from the local commune and canton

“I wish to thank the commune of Walchwil, the government and administration of the Canton of Zug, and the associations involved for their excellent cooperation,” Weidmann continues. “Without their terrific support, we would never have been able to bring Früebüel up to the standard necessary for first-class research.”

New wildlife enclosures and ecological offsets

Most of the construction consisted of renovation and extension work: a freestall for suckler cows was added to an old barn and the former dairy barn was turned into a sheep barn. Modernisation and extension efforts also focused on the laboratory infrastructure so that researchers can process and analyse samples directly on site. A winter shelter with spacious pens was built for fallow deer, as well as an outbuilding with a fire brigade depot “Berg” for the commune of Walchwil.

ETH Zurich provided ecological enhancements on the Früebüel site to offset the space enclosed by the new pens. For example, it applied extensification to wetlands and planted new hedges and ecologically diverse border zones. In addition, 300 metres of forest border were extensified. All of these connecting elements serve as a corridor for wild animals and add up to a total of 4.5 hectares.

Research focuses on livestock

“Research here focuses clearly on livestock science and its place in sustainable agriculture that has been adapted to its location,” explains Susanne Ulbrich, Professor of Animal Physiology at ETH Zurich. For example, the researchers investigate how feeding the animals impacts their metabolism, testing Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf sheep and Swiss Original Braunvieh suckler cows.

Ulbrich herself is heading a study on roe deer. These ungulates are only rarely kept and studied in enclosures. She is particularly interested in the roe deer’s phenomenon of embryonic diapause, or delayed implantation. “If we knew more about this special process, we would be better positioned to understand fundamental development processes in livestock,” Ulbrich explains. “We investigate what embryos need for healthy development. We’re also looking for new parameters that will differentiate healthy stress from the type of stress that harms the animals.” In addition to the physiological studies, the researchers conduct behavioural studies as well.

All studies with animals are carried out in compliance with strict animal welfare guidelines. Every study first has to be approved by the canton’s veterinary office.

Unique approach

Terranova points out that the higher education and research that AgroVet–Strickhof conducts at Früebüel is of national and international interest: “Besides AgroVet–Strickhof, Switzerland has neither university-level education nor research that is directly connected with career training and agricultural practice. This one-of-a-kind collaboration thus plays a crucial role,” she says.

AgroVet-Strickhof – Higher education and research in agriculture

Once a farm, Früebüel is now one of four higher education and research locations operated by AgroVet–Strickhof together with ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and Strickhof, a Swiss competence centre for agriculture, food and farming economics. The other three locations are Lindau-Eschikon (Canton of Zurich), Wülflingen (Canton of Zurich) and Alp Weissenstein (Canton of Graubünden). Together, the four locations cover all altitudes relevant for Swiss agriculture and animal husbandry, from 500 to 2,500 metres above sea level.

History of Früebüel:

In 1943, the Swiss federal government purchased the site with plans to expand it and operate it as a military prison; it was acquired by ETH Zurich for research in 1989. In 2017, Strickhof took over operation of the farm as part of the AgroVet–Strickhof cooperative. Then in November of that year, the builders received permission to go ahead with the extension, which had been in planning since 2014. Further information can be found here.