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

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 at all.

An early photo of the original farm.

However, say Gerdes, “as good as it felt to start the sanctuary, there was also a feeling of uncertainty, as I no longer had an income from dairy farming and I had to find new ways to make a living.” He didn’t know how he would finance the cow retirement home, and he says the first years were difficult. “We had to use all of our savings to keep the sanctuary running. But that improved after more and more people learned what we were doing.”

People found out about the sanctuary first via holiday flats that Gerdes and Mück offered on the property, for guests who enjoyed the countryside and visiting the cows. One guest offered Gerdes extra money, he explains in the film, in thanks for not slaughtering the cows. “More and more people came and liked the idea, and wanted to donate,” and eventually they knew what to do. In 2007, they established the official animal welfare foundation, Tierschutzstiftung Hof Butenland, to aid in the care of the cows and the growing number of other animals Gerdes and Mück began taking in.

L: Martina; R: Magda

Today, Hof Butenland is home to a variety of animals rescued from various forms of harm and exploitation, as well as the remaining two cows from that original twelve, Martina and Magda.

“They are both rather inconspicuous individuals,” says Gerdes. “Martina has her own circle of friends and is well-liked,” he says, adding that overall she is still in good health despite her age. “Magda is one of the rather shy cows. We ourselves have never petted the sweetie, simply because she doesn’t want to and it is of course her right to stay out of our way,” — a true expression of sanctuary ethics.

As for the future of the animal retirement home in North Western Germany, Gerdes says that thanks to their supporters, Hof Butenland is now financially stable. “We just built a new stable for the herd during winter and they really enjoy it, especially during these cold days.”

The film, though not graphic or overly emotive, offers a beautifully honest and raw picture of the dairy industry, as well as of those trying to expose it and offer refuge to its victims.

Butenland can be streamed through Prime in the U.S. and the U.K., and rented or purchased via Vimeo everywhere.

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