Norway is a country full of mountains and forests – vast areas unsuited for the cultivation of grain and other agricultural produce. The most fertile soil is usually found in the valleys, along the coast and in a few flat and soil rich areas. The Nordic climate gives long, dark and cold winters – and short and intense summers.

This is the foundation upon which Norwegian agriculture gradually evolved – over the course of several thousand years.

The beginning

In the beginning, the population was small and both people and domestic animals had all the space they needed. The early people settled on the most fertile land and in areas with suitable climate conditions. This is where the first farms and communities were established: the so called permanent settlements.

With an increasing population, the people needed to harvest more than the permanent settlements could yield. The domestic animals and the food they could provide became more important. It is at this point in time that the summer pasture farming – or seterbruk – began to take shape.

In order to provide enough fodder for the animals, the people had to start utilising more of the available land: the forests and the mountainous areas. This part of the Norwegian landscape was particularly well suited for seasonal use: both for grazing and the collection of hay and other animal feed for the winter.

The custom of having summer dairies has been common in many countries, but in Norway it became particularly widespread.

Translating the Norwegian words into English

In this article you will come across several Norwegian words. These words will have both a technical and an emotional meaning. To fully translate a word’s emotional meaning is almost impossible.

Had we been able to sit down with the many emigrants who left Norway back in the 1800s, then surely the pure mention of words like seter and gard would have evoked strong feelings. It would have reminded them of their childhood home – and the people and the way of life that they left behind.

  • Gard or gård, spelling depending on the dialect = farm
  • Seter or sæter, the latter is a more old fashioned form = summer dairy
  • Budeie or seterbudeie = milkmaid or summer dairy milkmaid
  • Gjeterjente or gjetergutt = cowherd girl or boy
  • Budrått = the dairy produce coming from the summer dairy that was brought back to the farm to be stored as food for the winter
  • Buføring = the process of bringing the domestic animals from the farm to the summer dairy location
  • Sel = the simple living quarters at the summer dairy – where the milk and the produce also often would be temporarily stored
  • Seterfjøs = the simple summer dairy shelter for the animals

Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – its land and surroundings

What is summer pasture farming or a summer dairy – a seter?

Agricultural historian Lars Reinton defined the word seter roughly as follows:

«Having a summer dairy is when a farm – a fixed all-year location – sends its livestock to summer pasture in a place away from the farm – to a fixed summer location. At this fixed seasonal location, there are simple dwellings for both people and domestic animals. The people looking after the animals would live there all through the extended summer period. In this way, it is possible to utilise larger areas for grazing and often also for haymaking and the collection of other winter fodder. This saves on the resources back on the home farm and enables the collection of feed for a much larger number of domestic animals – which again means more food for the people living on the farm.»

The summer dairy could be located fairly close to the home farm – or far away.

The reason for having fixed buildings in a specific location, rather than letting the animals roam freely with a cowherd guarding them, was the need for additional equipment and cooking and storage facilities when turning the animals’ milk into food. All through the season, the summer dairy milkmaid – seterbudeia – would churn butter and make cheese and other dairy products. The produce would be stored safely indoors until it could be transported back to the home farm. In the wild Norwegian landscape, both humans and animals also needed protection against bad weather and potential low summer temperatures.

The word seter comes from the Old Norse – setr or sætr – and is related to the verb to sit. Other words used for seter are: støl, sel, vang, voll and others.

The summer dairies could be very isolated and located far away from other people – or they could be found in clusters – setergrender. Having other seter-units close by was preferable both for practical and safety reasons. Living at the summer dairy all through the season could be a very lonely affair.

In some areas, the farms had more than one summer pasture location. This was to optimise the utilisation of the landscape. Often, there was snow in the mountains until mid or late June. If this was the case, the animals would be moved to a location 1 in the spring where they would stay for a while – before later being moved to a location 2, often positioned higher up in the mountains. In the autumn this process was often reversed.

Two elements were key as for when the animals would be taken to and from the summer pasture: the weather and the availability of food for the animals. In areas where the climate was not too harsh, the stay at the summer dairy could last from May to late September.

How old is this tradition?

The practise is mentioned as early as in the older Gulating Law. This law was first written down in the latter half of the eleventh century. Already then this was an old way of life. The law refers to the summer dairies of olden times. Based on this textual source, we can safely say that utilising the natural resources in this way stretches back more than a thousand years.

The methods of producing dairy products would have gradually evolved – but the seasonal rhythm was more or less the same throughout this whole period. Visiting a summer dairy farm – whether it be in the year 950 or in the year 1800 – would probably have been a very similar experience. This gives us a deeper perspective – and we understand more clearly how the people and their way of life was connected through time. It also shows us how each new generation passed on the knowledge of the previous ones.

Happy is the cow that can walk freely in the outfields all summer

In today’s world, farming is focused on cost and efficiency, just like the rest of our society. In the year 1800, the Norwegian population was 880 000 – and in 2016, it has grown to more than five million people. With such a tremendous growth in the population, it goes without saying that the agricultural yield had to be improved. As a result – at least to a large extent – the domestic animals now spend most of their lives indoors and farming has become industrialised.

Back in the old days, it was in the farmer’s interest to send the animals out to graze as early as possible in the spring – and to keep them there for as long as possible in the autumn. During the winter, the animals were kept in dark and cramped barns – relying on the hay and other feed collected and stored throughout the previous summer. If the winter had been particularly long, the animals would often be weak and malnourished when spring came. If spring was late it could become critical and the weakest animals had to be slaughtered.

The journey to the summer dairy – buføringen

Buføring is the word used in many places for the process of taking the livestock from the home farm to the summer pasture location. It is not difficult to visualise the chaos this process could turn into, unless the journey was well planned and the people knew exactly what to do.

Often, the animals were released from their winter dwellings well in advance of the departure date – so as to allow them the chance to get used to being outdoors – and to being around the other animals and finding their place in the group.

"To the summer dairy" | Painted in 1864 by Adolph Tidemand | Nasjonalbiblioteket - wikimedia org - Public domain.
“To the summer dairy” | Painted in 1864 by Adolph Tidemand | Nasjonalbiblioteket – wikimedia org – Public domain.

The journey from the home farm to the summer dairy would often go via simple paths and tracks. People and livestock would often have to wander long distances through difficult terrain. In some places, the animals had to be transported by boat.

If the journey was long and the number of animals high, then all the people at the farm had to come along to get the animals safely to their destination. One can imagine the energy required to keep the herd moving: the horses, cows, sheep and goats – even pigs.

In addition to the livestock, equipment and necessities like salt and food had to be brought along. This was usually transported using pack-horses – kløvhester. If there was no horse available, then the equipment had to be carried by the people themselves.

On the larger and well-to-do farms, the summer dairy milkmaid would be on horseback when the procession set out on their journey. The milkmaid was responsible for the animals throughout the season – and would be the one making the many dairy products from the milk provided by the cows and the goats. The summer dairy milkmaid enjoyed a high status in the rural society and her good work was vital to the keeping and well-being of the animals – and for ensuring that the storage house back at the farm was well stocked when the winter set in.

Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm – the storehouse – stabburet

As soon as the people and animals had arrived at the summer pasture location, there would be scrubbing and washing to clean and prepare the equipment and the dwellings for the season. It probably took a week or two before the daily rhythm found its regular pace.

Who would we find living at the summer dairy throughout the season?

There would often be only two people living permanently at the summer dairy throughout the season: the milkmaid and a young cowherd girl or boy. If the dairy was situated in an area where there were predators – and for keeping watch in general – there might also have been a dog.

The milkmaid was often the wife of the farmer or one of the family’s daughters. Or she could be hired help. The cowherd girls or boys were in more recent times often children from one of the cotter’s holdings belonging to the farm. These children often had to leave home at an early age to fend for themselves.

Sometimes, the farmers would also cut the grass for hay in the areas surrounding the summer dairy. People from the home farm would come to do this work for a week or more during the summer. This was probably a most welcome change of pace.

During the long and bright Norwegian summer nights, many a suitor would also find his way to the door of his chosen one. Norwegian literature has many an example of the boy courting his girl this way. Sometimes, the youth from the valley would also visit on the Saturday evenings to meet up with friends and have a good time.

Strangers travelling by would also stop to get a bed for the night and some food.

What would we otherwise find at the summer dairy?

The local variations were many but the summer dairy often had only two buildings: the combined dwelling and storage house – selet – and a shelter for the animals – seterfjøset. The buildings were usually very simple and crude in their design and were built with a practical use in mind. Depending on where in the landscape they were located, they would be constructed from either wood or stone – or a combination.

A summer dairy at Lesja in Gudbrandsdalen | Photo: Williamborg - - GNU Free Documentation License.
A summer dairy at Lesja in Gudbrandsdalen | Photo: Williamborg – – GNU Free Documentation License.

Selet was sometimes split into three parts:

  • a small hallway or entrance room in the middle of the building – where there also could be cooking facilities for cheese making etc.
  • a storage room for the milk and the dairy products on one side
  • the dwelling for the people on the other

Access to clean, cold water was also important. You would normally find the summer dairy located close to a spring, a stream or a river. The water was needed for the cooking and the cleaning – and of course for human and animal consumption.

Large amounts of firewood was needed

All through the season, the summer dairy would require large amounts of firewood or similar. In many places, the gathering of sufficient fuel to keep the fire going could be a major challenge. If the surrounding area could not provide enough firewood, then it would have to be brought in from elsewhere – or they would use peat from the mountain bogs. The peat would often be cut in the autumn and stored in the barn all through the winter, so as to be properly dried out and ready when the next season came.

The summer dairy headcount of 1907

The first real Norwegian summer dairy headcount took place in 1907. Here is an overview of the results:

  • The number of summer dairies in use: 44 239
  • The number of horses: 17 050
  • The number of dairy cows: 186 987
  • The number of bulls: 8 358
  • The number young cattle: 79 562
  • The number of sheep: 367 805
  • The number of goats: 142 319
  • The number of pigs: 6 172

In 1907, the population of Norway was 2.3 million – 60% of the people were still living in the countryside.

Many old place names indicate a summer dairy location

When looking at local maps of Norway, one will see that the word seter or sæter will appear often – even in places where there has been no seter in living memory. By studying old place names we will find valuable information about where the summer dairies where located in historic times.

Budråtten – the dairy products

All through the season, the milkmaid was busy getting the most out of the milk provided by the cows and the goats. She would make butter and cheese and other dairy products. These products as a whole were in many places called budråtten.

One of the men from the home farm would visit regularly with his pack-horse to bring the produce back home – and to check on both people and livestock. The visit was an occasion for the milkmaid to get help with some of the more heavy duties – like collecting and cutting the firewood. In addition, she would get news from the valley and had an opportunity to send her own messages back to the farm.

Many of the milkmaids would take great pride in getting the most out of the available milk – making budråtten as large as possible.

The diet

Generally, one can say that the people staying at the summer dairy would eat the same food there as they would back home. The food they couldn’t make themselves had to be brought from the home farm. Old records list foods like flat bread, flour to make porridge from, cured meat – and grains and peas for the making of soup.

If there was a river or a lake nearby, then fresh fish would also be on the menu.

Recommended read: Norway and its age-old farming culture

Today the summer dairies are almost gone

In today’s modern world, the tradition of sending the domestic animals to the summer dairy is almost gone. This is an almost inevitable development. New and improved cultivation methods – and a more industrialised production style – has meant major changes. Such changes started in the late 1800s and the early 1900s but gathered real momentum after World War II. The steadily increasing number of people living in rural areas started to move away to find work in the cities.

The original role of the summer dairy was to provide more food for the people on the farm – which traditionally was very much its own self-contained society. As the farmer and the farm gradually became part of the monetised society, most of the produce would be sold off in exchange for money. This new way of life put greater demands on the need for transportation, food quality, cleanliness etc.

Instead of being sent to the summer dairy, the livestock would gradually be kept at home on the farm. There they would be fed on silage and feed based on grain etc. Little by little, the summer dairy lost its purpose.

As always when an ancient way of life is lost, a sense of grief follows in its wake. It is hard to see the empty buildings that once was so full of life – and the old grazing fields slowly being reclaimed by nature. For many, it has become important to keep the knowledge and the history of this way of life alive.

What we probably can all agree on is that Norway has a huge non-utilised resource in its forests and mountainous areas. A resource that some day may help feed the people of this planet earth once again.

Sources: «Stølsdriften paa Vestlandet» by J, Grude – Steenberg 1891, Stavanger. | «Sæterbruket i Noreg» by Lars Reinton – Aschehoug 1955, Oslo.

Main photo: «Evening at the summer dairy» | Painted by Knud Bergslien | Nasjonalbiblioteket – Public domain.