It is my first up-close encounter with a cow, and I am slightly nervous. I thought that after feeding wild hyenas, hanging with mountain gorillas, and swimming with whale sharks, big beasts wouldn’t faze me that much anymore. Especially a creature as cultivated and gentle as a cow. But she is huge. And she weighs 600 kilo. I realise that she could quite easily crush me, trample me, squash me, pressure me to a pulp or flatten me like one of her pies. So it is with a little trepidation that I get on my knees next to her and start petting her warm skin…
In this travel story I share my experience of cow cuddling, also known as cow hugging, an initially daunting but ultimately relaxing experience in the heart of the farmland of The Netherlands.
Cows in The Netherlands
Few things are as quintessentially Dutch as a green pasture full of cows. The black-and-white bovines produce the milk that is used to make our famous Gouda and Edam cheeses. The animals can be seen roaming grassy fields all across the country. Whenever I return from a trip abroad, seeing the countless cows from the train or from my airplane window instills an immediate sense of ‘home’. Besides admiring them from afar or enjoying their dairy products, there is an opportunity to meet them up close and personal. In Voorst, a tiny rural settlement in the heart of The Netherlands, you can sign up for a cow cuddling workshop where you learn to hug and relax with cows. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, even for a Dutch person like myself!
With me on this adventure are my two sisters. Cows play a role in our family history. Our grandfather was a farmer, although by the time we were growing up he had retired and had minimised his livestock to a flock of sheep. When we were young, our parents would also take us on annual camping trips to a dairy farm. ‘Inspecting the cows’ was an adventurous pastime for city girls like us. The smell of manure and hay still transports me back into those childhood memories. So when we arrived at the farm where our cow cuddling initiation was going to take place, a comforting sense of nostalgia washed over me.
Starting the cow cuddling experience
Nicolette, our host whose sister once founded this farm, welcomes us with coffee and tea. If Nicolette displays the effects that hugging a cow has on you, she is great advertisement. Her manner is very calm and zen. She immediately lets us know that today will all be about relaxing and enjoying the moment. She shares some history of the farm with us. When making a sustainable living as a dairy farmer became more difficult, they came up with the concept of cow cuddling.
For the past 19 years, they have been training their cows to become accustomed to the close presence and the touch of humans. The result is a herd that is happy to tolerate humans in their midst. “Don’t try this with just any cow you might encounter!” she warns us. “Untrained cows will not be as relaxed as the ladies on our farm. Cows are flight animals whose instinct tells them to constantly be alert, and to flee the scene whenever they perceive something threatening. We have worked very hard to make these animals accustomed to visitors”
Meeting the calfs
We don the rubber boots and farmer’s overall that are provide. For the sake of it we also tie a red handkerchief in our hair.
We are ready to meet our mooing mates! First stop is the calf’s pen. Nicolette nudges us to calmly step over the fence and sit in the hay among the calfs. They are a couple of months old. Baby cow are really just like puppies. They are playful, curious, clumsy, and they use their mouth to investigate whatever crosses their path. Our boots and sleeves are nibbled at and my hair is chewed up completely, leaving me with a lovely slimy ‘do for the rest of the day. Although today’s purpose is relaxation, a farm is definitely not a beauty spa. It’s much more fun than a spa, though!
Next, Nicolette shows us the main stables. These are large and airy, with free access to the pastures outdoors. The cows can come and go as they please. They have tools to scratch their backs and there is pop music playing in the background. The milking system is fully automatic. The cows can choose when they want to be relieved of their milk. All they have to do is walk up to one of the two milking robots where they feast on some food while the robot empties their udders. Every cow wears a transmitter that corresponds with the robot and keeps track of which cow has been milked when, and how much milk she’s produced.
It is quite fascinating to see a cow calmly walking into the robot. We watch the teats being located by a laser, after which the machine automatically connects four extensions and starts pumping. To be honest, I find the sight a little uncanny. The absence of humans in this setting is almost a little dystopian. The industrialisation of living, breathing creatures makes me feel a little uneasy. I wonder what my grandpa would have thought of this!
One of the goals of this farm is to lessen the societal gap between farmers and non-agricultural citizens. Nicolette explains how she often hears children say that they believe milk is created in factories. Or when she asks people for whom cows produce their milk, they’ll say “it’s for us,” forgetting that milk is meant for calfs in the first place. For many people, this glimpse into farm life will provide some new understanding about the kind of work that goes into producing our breakfasts and desserts.
Into the meadows!
Then, the highlight of our visit has arrived. We walk into the meadow where the majority of the cows are grazing. No matter how familiar the sight, walking among them is still a little bit scary in the beginning. But we quickly learn that these cows are truly gentle giants. Our presence does not seem to bother them. Their jaws continue to chew and with their eyes they follow our motions, but they won’t move an inch as we pass by.
Nicolette demonstrates the correct way to approach a cow, or, how she likes to call it, how to ‘cowmunicate‘ with them. The best cows to select for a round of cuddling are those that are laying down. “Look for the ones that are not ruminating,” she explains. “When their jaws are moving, they are hard at work. The ones that are not ruminating are most receptive to relaxing together.” She shows us how to kneel in front of the cow and to slowly approach its face. “Offer your hand so it can sniff you by way of becoming acquainted. If the cow is accepting, you can go ahead and start petting and massaging its head.”
Hanging out with a cow
After Nicolette’s demonstration, each of us spread throughout the pasture to find a suitable cattle companion. I pick a large mostly black girl that lies lazily in the grass. She is very calm as I rub her face. I follow Nicolette’s example and move the side of the cow to lean against her gigantic belly. Her skin is warm (cows have a body temperature of 39 degrees!) When I put my ear to her side I can hear her four stomachs hard at work.
A cow is essentially a massive warm and soft moving pillow. Because of her size, she is so solid and just wonderful to lean into. I close my eyes. The experience is very simple but at the same time quite profound. My senses are soothed because my world is now limited to the smell of the grass that I am sitting on, the sunlight on my face, and the living and breathing creature that so calmly accepts me resting alongside her. I could easily doze off and fall asleep right here.
Then something moving happens. The cow bows her neck and rests her giant head in my lap. As I caress her face, I feel her breathing slow down. She seems to have fallen asleep and is dreaming. She irregularly jerks her feet the way a cat or dog tends to do when lost in a dream. I feel her massive eyeball rolling against my chest. I wonder what her mind’s eye is showing her in her dreams?
Cow cuddling: an emotional experience
To receive the trust of such a beautiful being touches me. I’m not a spiritual person, but connecting on a rudimentary level with a creature of a different species is truly something special. As I lay against her flank, I realise that I want to put more effort into living a vegan lifestyle. I have been a vegetarian for the bigger part of my life, but beyond not eating her I am still guilty of exploiting her and her babies for my culinary pleasures. The truth behind dairy products is that cows only produce milk after having given birth to calfs, which are taken away from the mother within hours and – in case it’s a male and hence of no value for future dairy production – killed for their meat. It won’t be easy as, much like Sanne, I love cheese (foodie trips are our favourites!) but I do want to make a conscious effort to at least seek out alternative options where I can.
Although I must say that this farm is an exemplary venture that promotes the animals’ wellbeing. The cows here are clearly loved by the farmer and his staff, and they are well taken care of. They also obviously enjoy the human companionship. After the cow cuddling activity was introduced on this farm, the cows have started to produce considerably more milk than they did before. If you don’t want to give up your dairy products, at least make sure they originate from a place like this one that truly cares about its animals.
After my cuddling companion wakes up, I get up to walk around a little and “try” other cows that are lying here and there in the field. They are all very calm and gentle. Even when they get up on their feet they are careful not to step on you, and it is very easy to move away in time. This has been the most relaxing experience I have had in a long time. I feel completely rejuvenated. Who would have thought that rolling around in the mud with cows could have this type of effect on a person?
Then, it is time to walk back to the farmhouse to hose down our boots and enjoy some drinks and snacks. I wish I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to my new bovine friends yet, but the Dutch skies help a little. As they start to pour out a typical summer rain, the cows languidly get up on their feet and start strolling back to the stables as well.
I feel relaxed but at the same time I’m totally psyched. Usually, I travel halfway around the world in search of experiences like these. I love how I’ve been excited by an encounter with the most mundane animal I can think of – that good old staple element of my home country’s most common scenery. Who knew that adventure awaits so close to home?
Go cow cuddling in The Netherlands
Want to get up close and personal with a cow and share some good hugs? With the below information you’ll be ready to go.
Where to go cow cuddling?
The name of the farm described in this story is Noord Empe. They have a website dedicated to cow cuddling that is in Dutch, but if you contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org they can reply to your request in English. You will need to make a reservation to go cow cuddling. This is their address:
Noord Emperweg 1
7383 CX Voorst
Voorst is a very small village in the middle of farmlands. It is about 1 hour and 30 minutes by car from the center of Amsterdam. Alternatively, you can get there quite easily by train. From Amsterdam Central Station, take an intercity train to Apeldoorn, from where you can switch to a local train to the Voorst-Empe station. Remember to check out and then check in again at Apeldoorn station, because you will be switching transport providers. From the Voorst-Emple station it is an easy and pleasant 20 minute walk to the farm on rural roads.
What to wear when you go cow cuddling?
There is no need to worry about keeping your clothes clean. You will be provided with rubber boots and an overall that you can wear on top of your own clothes (so it is most practical to wear pants instead of a dress or a skirt).
What is included in the cow cuddling session?
You’ll be welcomed with coffee, tea and cookies. The aforementioned use of boots and overall are included in the price, as well as a short tour of the farm. In total you’ll spend around 2 hours with the cows, after which you will wind down with refreshing drinks and some snacks. You can bring your own camera, but the person in charge of your cow cuddling workshop will also take photos of you that will be shared with you afterwards.
You can choose between workshops of varying lengths. We went for the 3 hour cow cuddling workshop which was a perfect introduction to the activity of cow cuddling.
What if it is rainy?
Ideally, your cow encounter will take place in the grassy meadows. But don’t worry if the weather is not in your favour. The cow cuddling will be moved indoors into the stables.
And if I become addicted to cow cuddling?
Good news: the farm offers an annual subscription of €50 that allows you to come and cuddle with cows whenever you please. Bringing a companion is included in this price; the third and fourth friend who come along will pay €10 each.
Disclaimer: I received a discount on the price of the cow cuddling workshop in return for publishing this story. The story I wrote about this cow cuddling experience is based on my honest evaluation of the event and reflects my own personal and unbiased opinion.