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Der Klauaschniider: putting the best hoc forward.

There aren't many of us who can claim to have started training for our jobs at the tender age of three, but for Nicolas Untersteiner (28), whose occupation is bovine pedicurist (or, 'Klauaschniider' in Swiss German), this is very much the case. For at this age, Nicolas was spending summers far back in Val Chaschauna, in the southeastern corner of Switzerland, mere kilometres from the Italian border, living on the alp that his parents managed in the summer months. At the age of three Nicolas would help with what he was able, which meant looking after a small lot of pigs. But it wasn't long before he was given his own small herd of young cows. At age 14, he was responsible for a herd of roughly 250 head, and at the age of 16 he and a cousin took over the management of the Chaschanella Alp, the next operation down the road, located in the next valley over, fully 1 hour on foot. Nicolas reminisces of this first time living without the burden of parental supervision. But without doubt it was a lot of responsibility the boys had been entrusted with and they took their job seriously.

In those days his father would make cheese entirely by hand, using fire to heat the cauldrons, hand cranks to churn the barrels. Nicolas remembers spending hours cranking away at the butter churn as soon as he was big enough to manage it. His father would give it a hefty turn to get it going and Nicolas and his brother were expect to keep it going for the next hour. At the age of 17 Nicolas left his friends and family in his native Vinschgau in Southern Tyrolia, and ventured to former East Germany and a former state-run farm that was several times bigger than any operation he had worked on till then. There he spent three years as an apprentice of agriculture and tried his hand at every facet of the operation.

It was not long before he was drawn back to his native Alps where he took up several jobs in different mountain farming operations over the next 4 years, learning how to make cheese in Wallis, making hay and milking cows in Tessin, traveling around with farmers in the Pyranese and even venturing to far-off New Zealand to learn some English, travel and take a course in the art of shearing sheep. According to Nicolas, mountain-dwelling people of the Alps share a similar mentality, which is borne of its simplicity and proximity to natural elements. Nicolas feels quickly at home among this folk regardless of their nationality.

Once Nicolas met his future wife, Lena Poletti (24) on Alp Ludera in the Prattigau region, perhaps he started looking forward a bit more. He realized that a person with his qualifications but no farm to call his own would never be able to earn enough to support a family in Switzerland. So he set himself about the task of becoming self-employed. He figured that if he could get some customers in the relatively new bovine pedicure business combined with sheep shearing in the autumn and winter months, and then continue to manage Alps in the summer, he might just make a decent living for himself. So in late 2011, he enrolled in a weeklong bovine hoof care course and bought the equipment he would need, which consisted of special knives and angle grinders fitted with purpose-made blades. The biggest investment by far, however, was a second-hand hydraulic stand for holding the cows in place while they are being worked on which he had to drive to Holland for.

Once Nicolas was ready to start, he took out a small advertisement in an agricultural magazine. Much to his surprise, within a couple weeks he had been contacted by not one, but two men in the field who were looking to get out of the business and keen to find someone to take their clients off their hands. With this stroke of luck, Nicolas was able to build up a strong customer base virtually overnight. Now, he is already booked out and has to turn some potential clients away.

A lifetime's experience of working with and tending to cows is the source of Nicolas' intuition and a rarefied skill set, which aids him in his present occupation. Most of us would have a hard time distinguishing one cow from another in a herd let alone being able to tell if they have correct posture or not. But Nicolas can. When on the alp he and his wife know all their animals by name, and he has a keen eye for seeing if something is ailing one of them. When doing his pedicures, he must remain intensely concentrated for long periods. Being paid by the cow, the more efficiently he works, the better his hourly rate, but making a mistake could result in tender feet for the animal and a loss of custom from the farmer. Nicolas is happy when he can do 30 head, or 120 hoofs, in a day. Some of his peers shoot for twice that.

The hoof maintenance season ends in May, and then in June Nicolas will return with Lena, their son, Chasper (2), and daughter Jelscha (3 months) to Alp Vauglia perched at 2265 meters above sea level overlooking the Chaschauna valley of his childhood. It is an idyllic world on the alp. No hustle and bustle, no hubbub of voices, no rumbling of passing traffic. No Internet connections and often not even mobile phone reception. One is free to roam the unrestricted countryside. It is a modest life filled with the kinds of treasure that are increasingly rare in this day and age.

About Engadin:

Widely known for its high-class tourism, the Engadin is also a winter sports paradise of spectacular natural beauty as well as one of the last enclaves of Romansh speakers, Switzerland's 4th national language. The Engadin's special variety of deeply engrained Swiss traditions, mixed with contemporary cosmopolitanism, make it truly a unique place

Justin Brunjes has been a resident of Swizerland for 11 years and has now lived in the Engadin for 4.
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Title Annotation:art & culture: typical swiss
Author:Brunjes, Justin
Publication:Swiss News
Date:May 1, 2013
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