The Land of Happy Cows

Dairy cows in field with University of Utrecht campus in distance.

Dairy cows in field with University of Utrecht campus in distance.

With one look my husband fell in love with Dutch…cows.

“They look so happy!” Michael exclaimed on our first train trip through central Holland, several years ago. I pointed out he probably meant they appeared to be well-fed and watered, and thus are probably physically “content,”  because it’s really not possible for humans to assess an animal’s “happiness,” especially from a whizzing train. But, being Michael, he refused to budge from his anthropomorphic assessment of hundreds of bovines’ mental state.

“Cows in Holland are happy cows.”

Drawing on lessons from Psych 101, I canned logical argument and attempted to draw out his “reasoning” with an encouraging “Uh-huh?”

“The cows here are happy, because the grass is so green, there’s water everywhere, their udders are huge – and they look so happy!”

I summoned my nominal bovine knowledge and replied, “Full udders mean they need to be milked and the cows are probably wishing for nothing more right now than to get back to the barn, get out of this damn rain, and get milked so their udders won’t be so painful.” He, of course, ignored me.

And so he began calling the rain-soaked, canal-ringed-and-riddled, mostly-below-sea level Netherlands (italics are a clue, folks) “The Land of Happy Cows.”

So much for psychology.

To exacerbate my annoyance with such anthropomorphism, Michael began to “document” why Dutch cows look happy. He claims several people told him (I’ve not met one) the Dutch had passed laws years ago that restricted the amount of time cows could be kept penned within barns. In other words, lots of rain, fresh air, lush grass, and water produce healthier cows, which results (theoretically) in a higher quality of milk from which the fabulous Dutch cheese is made.  And, as Michael insists: “happy cows.”

(Mind you, Michael is New York City born and bred and just because he learned to fix a tractor and ride a horse does not necessarily make him a Bovine Authority.)

Being the curious sort, I finally got around to doing an internet search on Dutch laws concerning cows’ rights to stand out in the rain all day chewing their cuds. I found general laws on livestock husbandry, but nothing to indicate that the Dutch have embraced bovine grazing rights as banner legislation. In fact, I found the exact opposite: according to two 2013 reports, grazing among dairy cows is rapidly decreasing in Western Europe, including the Netherlands.

So — where’s the cow?

Cows are everywhere in Holland. You find them in the darnedest places.

The Bar Cow at Cafe Belgie

The Bar Cow at Cafe Belgie

Trust the Dutch to decorate their bikes with cow pix.

Trust the Dutch to decorate their bikes with cow pix.

And if you can't find cows in the middle of Utrecht, you can bring along your own inflatable cow.

And if you can’t find cows in the middle of Utrecht, you can bring along your own inflatable cow.

First, a bit of History of the Dutch Dairy Cow. All those cud-chewing, udderly fat cows that Michael claims are so happy are all Holstein-Friesian cows, usually called Holsteins, the hands-down best milk-producing bovines on the planet. And, of course, these cows developed in…Friesland, in northern Netherlands! Early Dutch settlers brought some Holsteins with them in the 1600’s when they settled in New Amsterdam (currently New York City) and upstate New York. As other colonists discovered the attributes of the breed in milk production, additional Holsteins were imported. By the late 19th c., the Holstein became the foundation of U.S. dairy production.

These black and white cows initially were bred to thrive on the native grasses of northern Netherlands, but on modern dairy farms, their diet is no longer exclusively grass. They are given feed supplements of both grain and dried grasses (hay), especially in the winter months.

A typical Holstein cow.

A typical Holstein cow.

The Dutch Dairy Board website is chock-full of fascinating information about the dairy industry, including their “thematic goal” of maintaining grazing “at least at its current levels.” Having cows graze 6 hours per day, 120 days per year seems to be part of the “grazing goal.” However, while they note that 73.6% of dairy cows meet this “grazing goal,” 18.8% never graze at all, and the remaining 7.7% have an unspecified, “other type” of grazing.

What the Dutch do seem to regulate quite well are the limitation of unnecessary antibiotics, prohibition of hormones to increase milk production, the types of minerals (e.g. fertilizers, and other grass “enhancers”) put into the soil, veterinary “treatments,” as well as milk processing from milking to end dairy product – all good activities for consumer, bovine and environmental well-being.

So, in answer to the question heading this paragraph, nearly three-fourths of Dutch Holstein cows of today spend a lot of time standing in pastures during the months of April to November. They don’t seem to mind the rain, which is a good attribute, and despite the time of day, their udders always look full-to-bursting from all that lush, rain-soaked grass.

(For a cute but short video of happy-looking cows being released from their barn in springtime, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDvnUiO-LAk.)

But as noted by the Dutch Dairy Board, this picturesque pastoral scene of contentedly grazing cows is rapidly changing. The small-holder dairy farms are facing increasing economic pressures and competition from larger “franchises,” and many solo farmers have been swallowed by these milk-production conglomerates.

So, Michael, enjoy your “happy” cows. For the foreseeable future we can both continue to call the Netherlands “The Land of Happy Cows,” and toast these joyous bovines who produce such good cheese.

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Some Peripheral Information on Dairy Cows

If you’re sick of reading about cows and dairy production, skip “Dairy Facts” and go straight to “Famous Cows.” The latter is amusing, I guarantee it.

Dairy Facts:

I know I get carried away in researching my blogs, but some of what I found out about the dairy industry, particularly in Holland, is interesting:

  • According to a 2013 report by the Dutch Dairy Board, “Dairy is the engine of the Dutch economy.”
  • There are 18,500 dairy farms and 1.97 million dairy cows in the Netherlands which produce 12 billion kilos of milk annually (about 26.45 billion pounds).
  • 56% of Dutch dairy products is cheese.
  • Dairy products accounts for 9% of the Dutch economy’s trade surplus.

And in the U.S.:

  • The World Dairy Expo is the international trade organization for dairy cows and is held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s the largest dairy trade show in the world, but features dairy cattle from the U.S. and Canada.
  • Black and white Holsteins (there is a recessive line of red and whites) have won “Supreme Champion” honors at the World Dairy Expo 32 times in the last 42 years, far more than any other breed of dairy cow.
  • There are over 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., and 90% of them are of Holstein descent.

Famous Cows: (This is why blogs were invented….)

  • A Canadian Holstein named Missy is the most expensive cow in the world, bringing $1.2 million in after being named “Supreme Cow” at the World Dairy Expo in 2011.
  • A Holstein cow named “Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET” (no lie) won the world record for milk production in 2010 by producing over 72,000 pounds of milk in one year. The average Holstein produces 23,000 pounds of milk per year. Of note, “Ever-Green” is a Wisconsin cow.
  • President William Howard Taft had not one – but TWO – pet cows at the White House. When the first official “Presidential Cow” Mooley Wooly died, Senator Isaac Stephenson of Wisconsin donated “Miss Pauline Wayne,” a Holstein from his farm. “Miss Wayne” served as “First Cow” for three years. She became popular at dairy trade shows where her milk, in miniature bottles, was sold as a novelty for 50 cents. (Talk about a cash cow…) When Taft left office, “Miss Wayne” was returned to Stephenson’s farm.
  • “Miss Wayne” narrowly missed an ignominious death in 1911.  She was returning from an appearance at a dairy show when her private train car was accidentally attached at a rail switch to a train of cattle cars bound for the Chicago slaughter houses. Telegrams were sent throughout the land and a group of cow-loving vigilantes saved Miss Wayne. Apparently, they had a tough time convincing the stockyard that they were about to slaughter the President’s pet cow.

And – finally – that’s it, folks, from the Land of Happy Cows!

What more can I guy want -- a field full of happy cows!

What more can a guy want — a field full of happy cows!

 

 

 

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Holland’s Day of Remembrance – May 4

Crowds honoring WWII and other Dutch dead in Dam Square, Amsterdam. Source: http://www.rnw.nl/.

Since 1945 the Dutch have held a national day of remembrance honoring those civilians and military who died during WWII, and all wars or peace-keeping missions thereafter. At 8:00 p.m. on May 4 all over the country a two-minute period of absolute silence is observed. Cars, buses, bicycles, trains and trams stop where they are. People come quietly together in public squares, waiting for the traditional bugle call for silence. People still making their way home stop on the sidewalks, doff their hats and bow their heads to acknowledge those who died in defense of freedom and liberty.

The commemoration is solemn and sobering, intended so every citizen, no matter how young or aged, whether recent citizen or WWII survivor, will never forget that freedom can be costly to win – and to hold onto – and to silently thank as well as remember those who died. There are no firecrackers, no block parties and barbecues, no brash brass bands; the festivities will come the next day when Dutch across the country will celebrate liberation on May 5, 1945 from Nazi occupation.

By far, the largest May 4 public commemoration takes place in Amsterdam at the National Memorial on the Dam, the main square of Amsterdam, in front of the Royal Palace, and the nearby Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Members of the royal family and various dignitaries lead the crowds and nation in the tributes. However every city and village plans its own version of Remembrance Day, all activity stops for those long two minutes at 8 p.m. for silent commemoration.

For me, one of the most touching features of the Day of Remembrance is not just how the Dutch still honor and remember their own dead. They also honor and swear never to forget how so many non-Dutch fought and died in order to liberate Holland from Nazi occupation — the thousands of British, Canadian, American and Polish soldiers who also gave their lives in World War II.

 

The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margratan, southeast Netherlands. The cemetery is the only one in the Netherlands for Americans who died during the months of military operations leading to the May,1945 liberation. Over 8,000 American soldiers are buried here; an additional 1.723 are listed as missing in action and whose remains were never found.

Source: http://www.awon.org/memorials/netherlands/

This lesson in history and appreciation of freedom was brought home to me soon after our arrival in the Netherlands, three years ago. We met by chance at a medical conference a young (mid-30s) physician from Maastricht, in southeastern Holland. Upon hearing we were Americans, he asked if we knew about the U.S. WWII cemetery in Margratan, just outside of Maastricht. We did not, much to our subsequent embarrassment. He told us how thousands of Dutch have “adopted” a dead U.S. or Canadian soldier, as the majority of the liberating forces in southern Holland were either Canadian or American. As part of the remembrances observances, the people go every May 4 – if not more often – to tend “their” soldier’s graveside, to lay flowers, and to just remember why that man is buried there. He said he takes his young children, then about 5-7 years old, every year to honor “their soldier,” because “I never want them to forget.”

Yesterday was our first Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. We had been invited to dinner by our next door neighbors, John and Leduine. As we rang their bell, I noticed John had the Dutch flag at half mast, so we asked what is their form of observance of the two minutes of silence.

“Why, of course, we observe the two minutes of silence,” said John. “We will start our first course of dinner, then about 7:40 I will turn on the television, and we will watch the ceremonies in the Dam Square in Amsterdam. The King and Queen will come out of the Royal Palace just before 8 p.m. to lay the first wreath, and then the whole country goes silent.”

And, so we did. Thousands of people crowded into Dam Square, with trails of observers standing in the many side streets leading to the square and the national monument. Comprising these hundreds of thousands were multi-generational Dutch families, WWII veterans, former Resistance members, Jewish Holocaust survivors, recent immigrants, military representatives from around the world — yet hardly a person spoke, and those who did, whispered. It was truly amazing to see how quiet thousands of people could be.

Right before 8 King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima walked solemnly from the palace to the monument, and laid an immense wreath for all the Dutch war dead. Still without saying a word, they stepped back and waited for the bugle’s call for silence, followed by eight peals of the church bells exactly at 8 p.m. The ensuing silence was moving as well as astonishing. Not a sound, nor whisper, hardly a clearing of throats. I couldn’t imagine having so many people in one place in the U.S. staying silent and respectful as the Dam crowd did.

It was truly a moment that brought home how powerful silence can be, not just in rendering respect for those who died, but bringing together those alive and present in acknowledging those people’s sacrifices, and most importantly, standing as one, a disparate crowd of people — with all their differences — finding unity and purpose in giving silent thanks.

 

The Liberty Statue, also known as the liberation Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht.  On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.

The Liberty Statue, also known as the Resistance Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht. On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.

 

Footnote: Today, May 5, is Liberation Day when the Dutch celebrate the surrender of the occupying Nazi Army and the liberation of the Netherlands. For a look at some interesting historical photos of Utrecht, see the blog of another American resident of Utrecht on this topic go here.