Dealing with animals: retired cattle

Jan Gerdes and Karin Muck have converted their farm into a retirement home for animals. 34 cows spend their last years at Hof Butenland.

Safe from the butcher: cow at Hof Butenland. Photo: gabriela keller

They are already old, otherwise they would not be here now. They have done their work, and when their strength waned, they were to leave, Klara, Kathe and all the others. There was no more life for them out there. But this place is different. Here they can stay.

They are many – brown, black colored. 34 cows stand in the enclosure at the side of the farm. In summer, they can run freely over the 40 hectares that belong to Butenland Farm on the Butjadingen peninsula, from their stall down to the dike.

But now rain beads over their fur and the wind pushes graphite-gray clouds over the herd. Flat land spreads out all around, moist brown earth, meadows, trees here and there, farmland in the north of Lower Saxony, which with 820,000 cows is the most important dairy state in Germany after Bavaria.

The farm looks like farms in children’s books, built of red brick, with green-painted wooden doors. "Cow Retirement Home" is written on the sign on the facade.

Curious animals

Out the front door comes a petite woman, 58, who has tucked her blond hair under a wool cap. Karin Muck heads toward the enclosure; Chaya, the fattening cow, stretches her nose toward her, nestles her massive head against the woman’s shoulder. She smiles, a fine network of wrinkles imprinted on her face. "Cows," she says, "are so incredibly curious."

Not only cows live on the farm, but also five pigs, four horses, six cats, three dogs, eleven rabbits, 20 ducks, 40 chickens, six geese. They come from farms, fattening facilities and have brought their suffering from there, broken joints, diseases, bodies that were never meant for a long life. "Many think this is an ideal world here. But it’s like a nursing home for people," Muck says. "There are always decisions, doubts and situations where we reach our limits."

Karin Muck has a lot to do with caring for sick animals. The veterinarian has to come in all the time to treat malady cows and pigs.

Well-deserved retirement

Jan Gerdes, a slim, tall man, 59 years old, appears at the fence. Gerdes was born on the farm; together with Muck, he converted his father’s dairy farm into a grace farm about ten years ago. "We don’t say mercy farm," he says, "Mercy means undeserved clemency."

Muck and Gerdes are a little uneasy. They know there’s a drive hunt coming up in the neighborhood. Until now, they had to allow hunting on their land. Now, however, there is a new EU law according to which it is possible to obtain a ban for ethical reasons. Gerdes has submitted the application. But the authorities have not yet decided. "The hunters had promised not to enter our land anymore," he says, "now we’ll see if they stick to it."

Then he turns and disappears into the haze over the meadows. Gerdes is a shy guy who doesn’t like to talk big. Karin Muck can talk for hours about the animals.

There’s Alma, for example, who was the only one of 180 cows to survive on a farm that was afflicted with botulism, a bacterial poisoning. Or Samuel, who was found in a garage next to a pizzeria. The owners wanted to serve his meat to customers. Cows could live up to 30 years, she says, "but none will anymore." The oldest cow here is currently Mathilde, at 17.

Ancestral gallery with chicken

But Muck and Gerdes are not only concerned with saving individual animals. They also see themselves as pioneers of a new world order, or, as they put it, "of a new cowhood." They see their work as a critique of an agricultural industry where cows must give birth to a calf every year so they never stop giving milk. After birth, mother and young are immediately separated. At about five years old, they are so emaciated that they are no longer profitable. Then they are slaughtered.

On Butenland Farm, Muck and Gerdes have created a small idyll where the laws of cost and profit do not apply. But again and again they have to say goodbye. A gallery has been set up on their website, with the animals that have died here. Luna, the chicken, died of its own weight because broiler hens are bred to grow so fast that their bones can’t take it. "She loved music," it says under the picture, "she entertained us with her cackling singing, her cheerfulness."

Of course, that all sounds a bit hyperbolic. But at the same time, Muck and Gerdes are articulating pressing, topical questions. Is it right to turn animals into purely utilitarian factors, just so that the refrigerated counters at Aldi and Lidl are always full? How did a chicken have to live if its meat can be offered for two euros per kilo? "In the past, our ‘cuddly animal protection’ was often ridiculed," says Muck; but now the farm is getting a lot of encouragement. Around 1,000 people have taken on animal sponsorships. Muck and Gerdes have been living vegan for a long time; they have followed how a niche topic became a movement that is now becoming increasingly established.

Dispute with the hunters

Only with the farmers around there is tension. "When someone from your own ranks criticizes you – that’s hard. Jan is seen as a colleague-shitter."

The wet morning turns into a gloomy noon as the reality of Lower Saxony breaks into their utopia: a group of hunters, rifles in hand, roam the meadows. Gerdes stands at the window. "There they are," he says, then hurries outside.

Muck says she doesn’t want to appear like an opinionated do-gooder. "It’s important to us to stay in conversation with them. We want to make a difference, after all." Only that’s not easy. After a few minutes, Gerdes is back. There was a dispute with the hunters, he reaches for the phone and dials the number of his lawyer.

Muck sighs softly and starts cutting eggplant and kohlrabi, food for the rabbits. She lifts her head as footsteps approach from outside.

Milker buys cow

Steffen Bunk, a former milker from Thuringia, takes off his rubber boots and sits down in the living room. "When my girls were still alive, I was here more often," he says quietly, the thing with Gisela and Penelope still gets to him today. For 15 years, he had milked them both.

His boss threw a big party when Gisela reached the 100,000-liter mark in 2010. Two years later, she was headed for the slaughterhouse. "How can you be so ungrateful," exclaims Bunk. He bought them and brought them to Butenland Farm. Gisela lived until 2012, Penelope died in 2013. Bunk became a vegetarian and quit his job, now working as a window cleaner. "Cows are treated like cars. When they get old, they’re supposed to go," he says. "But animals are not cars, they are living beings."

Worldwide, people eat 300 million tons of meat a year; by 2050, that number is expected to reach 470 million, predicts the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s 2014 Meat Atlas. In Germany alone, more than two million animals are slaughtered every day.

"I also know the knacker drives by here every week," Karin Muck says. "That’s where it’s important to get your work and energy right." For her, it’s important to keep it fun, not bitter.

Karin Muck worked as a nurse for 25 years. In the ’80s, she broke into experimental labs, freed the animals, smashed the inventory. Then she was arrested. On suspicion of "forming a terrorist organization," she spent several months in prison.

On the verge of giving up

Jan Gerdes never intended to take over the farm. He sat down in the dining room; the dog Mastercard, blind, deaf, demented, plods in from the kitchen. In , Gerdes had begun studying to be a teacher, but when his father became ill, he was drawn back. He earned his master’s degree as a farmer, and after his father died, he converted the farm into an organic farm. Still, he had to take the cows’ calves away. Gerdes could not live with that. He was on the verge of giving up everything.

Then he met Karin Muck. She said, "Are you crazy to leave here?"

Together they developed the idea of the cow retirement home. Today, the farm is financed by donations, renting out the two vacation apartments on the farm, EU grants and the proceeds from a small wind turbine. They sell printed T-shirts, calendars, Muck has published a vegan cookbook. All in all, it’s just enough.

Muck brings coffee and a bowl of frothed soy milk to the table. A neighbor trudges across the yard; Bernd Spengler’s Mich business is nearby. "Most people around here think they’re weirdos," he says. "I’m the only one who bought the vegan cookbook."

Advice unwelcome

Spengler wants to get along with all his neighbors. He doesn’t want his real name revealed; he doesn’t want to get caught in the middle. "I’m OK with one doing his thing." Only their advice is sometimes too much for him, he says. "The fact that they’re a nuisance is also thanks to themselves."

The hunters, meanwhile, have settled into a restaurant. Three dead hares lie in the hallway; a bottle of Korn is on the table. Asked about the conflict with Gerdes, their faces lock. "We have the right to use the land for hunting," one man says, "and we will." At least until the ban is decided.

The rain has eased somewhat, and Karin Muck crosses the orchard behind the barn. In the dim half-light, the rabbit enclosure stands out. The mastiffs Erna and Else, sniffing between the roots, are only visible as bright shadows. Muck is silent for a moment. "We live a good life here and I don’t care what anyone thinks of me," she says then, "it’s freedom."