The Dairy Cows Who Turned a Farm Into a Haven

In Germany, rescued cows are finally getting the respect they deserve — and now they’re movie stars, too

Jessica Scott-Reid
Published in
4 min readMar 2, 2021

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Former dairy farmer Jan Gerdes at his sanctuary. Photos provided by Hof Butenland

Jan Gerdes was a third-generation dairy farmer. He took pride in his work, for a while. But then he started to feel torn, about the work that for so long felt perfectly normal, then began to feel the opposite. He was burnt out, and in 2002 Gerdes decided to sell off his herd. But when the day came to send the final twelve cows to slaughter, he just couldn’t do it. Instead, the farmer was compelled to keep the lucky dozen, and offer them refuge at what would become Germany’s first cow retirement home.

“As a dairy farmer I was stuck in a system,” says Gerdes via a translator, “where on the one hand I had to provide for my family, and on the other hand I no longer wanted to take calves away from their mothers, and send cows to the slaughterhouse that were no longer profitable.” Gerdes says he knew he had to stop, and on that fateful day when he decided to keep the final few, he says, “it felt like a huge relief, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”

And even though he had to live with the fact that he had sent so many others to their death, “for these 12 I wanted to make a change, and amend what I had done all these years before, with a growing guilty conscience.”

‘As a dairy farmer I stuck in a system, where on the one hand I had to provide for my family, and on the other hand I no longer wanted to take calves away from their mothers.’

Gerdes as a dairy farmer.

That amends came in the form of Hof Butenland, an animal sanctuary now at the centre of the award-winning 2020 documentary Butenland, by filmmaker Marc Pierschel (The End of Meat). In the film, Gerdes, seated alongside his partner, pioneer animal rights activist Karin Mück, describes how the exonerated cows immediately enjoyed much more space. A barn once meant for 60 cows now housed only 20, and there were no more tethers, no more tying up of animals…

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