Lentille | Granta


Urs Mannhart

Translated by Christine Müller


I have barely left the tiny railway station behind me, barely passed the small shop and the church and reached the gentle hill on which the last houses of the village are gathered, where the view opens up to the far-reaching forests, the pastures and the farm where I have been helping out for a few weeks – I have barely reached the gentle hill when I hear the piercing mooing of a cow.

For a few moments, everything remains silent. A wind hesitantly pushes a tame cloud structure over a coniferous forest, the distant hum of a truck can be heard, then once again this brute dark, this alarmingly land-filling scream sounds from the yard.

Three hundred metres separate me from the farm; I hurriedly leave the neatly enclosed family homes behind me and soon turn into the avenue of sycamore trees leading to the farm.

Did I just speak of mooing? A shamefully embarrassing word. For there is nothing to be heard of the loveliness inherent in this two-silver.

When I reach the farm, open the two-piece wooden door and enter the stable, Lentille is lying in the straw, breathing heavily, sweating, her neck wildly dislocated, her head tilted above the feeding trough. Michaël and a veterinarian are standing by her, also breathing heavily. Standing close to the cow, the two of them are in the midst of a ton of helplessness. Right now, they are doing nothing, but this must be a break: the vet’s right arm is stuck from fingertips to shoulder in a transparent, slime-smeared glove, there is straw stuck to her knees and elbows, Michaël’s clothes are marked with mucus and blood. I greet him curtly, more with a nod. I am also greeted with a nod; it is the wrong moment for words.

Lentille stretches her neck and lays into the next roar. Now that I am standing directly in front of her, this voluminous scream, pushing out into the open from the innermost part of the cow, is an event that grabs me with rough hands, presses me against the wall, makes it difficult for me to swallow, and every new time she roars again, my thinking briefly stops.

When I said goodbye for the weekend four days ago, Michaël had mentioned that he would lead Lentille into the separate box in the evening so that she could give birth to her first calf in peace.

There is no calf. There is nothing left of peace. Fat threads of mucus mixed with blood hang from Lentille’s swollen vulva. The other cows, just a few steps away, are quiet and the sheep opposite are busy eating, but the mood is tense and the vet is frowning.

Michaël communicates with her, then they both kneel down behind Lentille in the straw. The fine boned, muscular vet now pushes her gloved hand into the cow. Lentille rolls her eyes and roars. The vet continues, pressing her forearm into the animal until her elbow sinks; with all her strength, yet as carefully as possible, she pushes herself into the cow’s body.

Michaël confirms what I suspected: the unborn calf is in an awkward position. An hour ago, he reached in himself and only felt the calf’s head, but not its legs. It won’t be able to pass through the cervix.

The vet pulls out her arm, stares silently into space, shakes her head wearily. It could be done, she explains, but Lentille has to get up. Michaël nods and seems to look for signs of confidence in her face. He then looks worriedly at the body lying in front of him, which looks as if it will never get up again.

Lentille – pronounced lãtij, French for lens – is not a massive cow. On the contrary: she is not even three years old, narrow-hipped; it is her first birth. But she certainly weighs just under five hundred kilograms.

As always, Michaël works with admirable patience; he massages Lentille’s tense neck, he talks to her. Finally, he gestures for her to stand up.

A heavy sigh and a heavy lying down are her answers.

That can take time, that will take time.

As my presence doesn’t help, I think about what kind of work I could get behind. Because I didn’t come to the farm to drink coffee, but to make myself useful. I could split wood; make cheese; bring hay to the sheep; repair fencing material; clean out the chicken coop; prepare straw; rinse the cans needed for the whey; put the youngest cheeses in the salt bath – on a farm work lurks around every corner – but I don’t have the head for it, the situation of Lentille stirs me up.

I am convinced that at some point Lentille will rise up. Michaël has a good connection with his cows. He will be able to communicate with her. And at some point, despite everything, the vet will hopefully manage to lead a rope inside the cow, so that she can tie a knot with it that encompasses the front claws. This can take time; it will take time – perhaps too long. The longer it drags on, the worse the chances are for the calf. I don’t know what to do. I can’t work. Above all, I can’t help Lentille. Even though she roars. As long as she roars, I won’t be able to work. Listening to her roar without being able to help is already work. More than I can handle. Lentille roars; my ears are full, my hands empty. I take my eyes off her, leave the stable, take all the work of having to listen and not being able to help with me, close the stable door behind me and go to the kitchen, where it’s humane to listen to her roar, empty, and halfway quiet.



Three onions are in the basket; I begin to peel them. Even sitting at the kitchen table, I can still hear Lentille’s roar. The knife goes through the onion, my waiting and hoping goes through the wall, over into the stable.

I want to collect myself, arrive here. I like this kitchen, like its chummy, completely unadorned way, but today I also find it difficult, it is too close to the stable.

This is not a kitchen like other kitchens. Michaël’s kitchen is a farm kitchen; there is always some straw on the floor, which is part of good manners. If you say farm kitchen, you have to clarify what farm means. Today, farms where dairy cows live are found in considerable variety – also, but not exclusively, due to geographical conditions.

In Germany, where about 3.9 million dairy cows are currently kept, two thirds of these cows live in herds of more than one hundred animals. The national average is seventy animals per herd, with Mecklenburg-Vorpommern topping the list with an average of 245 dairy cows per farm.

The Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden counts more and more farms milking more than five hundred cows every year, and it will surprise no one that the people looking after these animals are no longer called farmers, but herd managers. A video portrait of a farm in the Netherlands that keeps 2,250 dairy cows can be found on the web. The farm manager and the herd manager show their farm; colossal tractors fetch mountains of grass, maize and grain from the fields, colossal machines mix mountains of chopped fodder, drive across asphalted areas and into hangar-sized halls to distribute the fodder in front of the heads of the animals living there behind bars. Other tractors, with trailers as high as a house on their jaws, fetch tons of slurry from underground facilities and transport it to the fields.

The farm manager comes into the picture, he shows his proud entrepreneurial face, and with this face he now explains that he would like to expand the farm, but at the moment the phosphate law acts as a strong brake. Then tractors can be seen again; all the work is done quickly, to the rhythm of the engines, everything is well thought out, a choreography of brawny but also supple machines is celebrated, and the cows, actually large animals, seem small and lost in the covered landscapes of steel, wood and concrete.

The secret core of this farm is a temple of uniformed equanimity: in an impressively high round hall stands a leisurely rotating milking carousel. It can accommodate eighty cows at a time. Around six hundred cows per hour can be milked by only three people thanks to this equipment. One person quickly cleans the udder, two people attach the teat cups. At six hundred cows per hour, a cow has to be connected to the machine every six seconds; since two people are responsible, both teat cup fitters have twelve seconds each to connect a cow to the machine. So the merry-go-round goes round and round, and after just under four hours the entire herd is – how can we put it: emptied?

The waiting room in front of the milking carousel has space for five hundred cows; automatically opening, pressure-sensitive gates prevent both too much crowding and too much spacing; no space should remain empty on the carousel.

Sometimes I watch such videos so that I don’t forget how the rabbit hops. I don’t forget what is meant elsewhere when someone says farm.

On the video, you can see a lot of the farm but nowhere is a kitchen to be discovered. Cows and kitchens are far away from each other, people do not live with cows under the same roof, they do not share physical proximity. The herd managers do not stumble into the barn at three o’clock in the morning in their pyjamas because a rumble from next door has woken them up. They never face a cow in slippers and with eyes glued shut by sleep, who, instead of lying in her place, has made herself comfortable behind the hay stored in the empty goat shed and now that someone unexpectedly enters the barn, shows herself to be as dazed as a schoolgirl caught with a cigarette in the playground. These people do not live in a community with cows, they do not hear when they go to sleep whether it has become quiet in the barn – and there is no straw in their kitchens because cows are not allowed to lie on straw on farms of this kind.

I often forget such videos shortly after. This one, however, has stayed with me. Maybe because the numbers have stuck in my mind: there, three of them milk six hundred cows in an hour. Here, in Michaël’s barn, two of us milk six cows in less than an hour. Well, that also has to do with my speed; I’ve only been on the farm for a few weeks. We don’t milk on a carousel, but on a stool and by hand. We make eye contact with the cow.

We clean and massage the udder, feel the tissue, lean our forehead into the warm cowhide, and when we feel that the cow has relaxed, that she has released the milk from the udder down into the teats, we begin the time-honoured sequence of finger movements with which the milk can be brought into the bucket. On Michaël’s farm, the accompanying calf also helps with the milking; the two left teats are reserved for the cow’s baby, the two right teats for the human. This is how Michaël practices it with his animals, this is how they are used to it. This requires time, strength, patience, and also empathy – a calf does not a priori agree to only being allowed to drink from two teats. Just as a cow does not a priori agree to not giving all of her milk to her child. But it is an outrageously beautiful job, framed by three ear pleasing sounds: the indescribably gentle noise of a cow eating hay, the smacking and gulping of a calf drinking from its mother, and the rhythmic hiss of each fresh stream of milk as it hits the shiny chrome steel of the bucket.

Apart from the numbers, the short film also stuck in my mind because someone wrote in the comment columns perhaps a farmer – It is nice to see that the cows are doing well even on a farm with so many animals.

That struck me. Not because I thought the cows there were in a particularly bad way. I wondered how someone could form an opinion about how the animals are doing on this farm on the basis of a short video showing mainly tractors, machines and metal grids.

Once again, I hear Lentille’s roar through two walls. If the attempt with the rope doesn’t work, a caesarean section may be necessary. An operation that can quickly become life-threatening for a cow.

I peel onions, onions again. I wash glasses, cups and pots, take care of the fire. I put cutlery in the drawer, spaghetti ready. Lentille roars; I am not concentrating and go over to the stable.



Michaël and the veterinarian are kneeling in the straw behind a heavily breathing, rolling-eyed Lentille, tugging at a rope. Two or three centimetres of the wet, shiny claws are now visible, the coming of the world is within reach. But as soon as Michaël and the vet slacken their efforts a little, the tender-looking, porcelain-coloured tips of the claws disappear again into Lentille’s body, and apart from a cow physically moving at its limits and two people close to despair, not much remains.

The progress is apparently also modest because Lentille is now too exhausted to push with the strength she needs; more than two hours have passed since the vet arrived.

Feeling helpless, I go back to the kitchen, squat at the table and chop up pieces of onion that are already small.

A week ago, Michaël once again extolled the virtues of his cows to me, stressing how little grief he had with them, in general, but also because the calves are apparently usually already born and on their feet before he gets around to wondering whether the cow preparing to calve might need help.

A cow’s pregnancy lasts a little longer than a human pregnancy, about two hundred and eighty days. The oestrus cycle recurs every twenty-one days and is meticulously checked daily by the bull, if there is one in the herd, by smelling the vulva and urine intensively.

As far as births are concerned, in livestock farming we talk about breeds that give birth easily: the Rhaetian Grey cattle, to which Lentille belongs, is certainly one of them. In agricultural literature it is said that they are undemanding, robust animals. They are certainly smaller and lighter than other cows. They are popular in mountainous areas, where they cause hardly any trampling damage worth mentioning, even in steep terrain. The jargon about the conformation of the Rhaetian Grey is that it is small-framed. This may sound uncharitable – agricultural vocabulary is in need of major renovation – but now that Lentille is lying painfully distorted in the corner of the barn, it does not seem out of place to perceive her body as a frame. Even though Rhaetian Grey cattle certainly cannot be described as high-performance cows in the conventional sense, they are.

If you look at the cows, what they can transform from grass and hay into meat and milk is most impressive. And on this farm in the Swiss Jura mountains, situated at just over a thousand metres above a distant sea, the winters are long and the summers often dry. A cow like the ones in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania would hardly be able to make ends meet here.

Anyone who has anything to do with cows will agree: the most beautiful thing is when a cow can calve in summer, out in the pasture. The most beautiful thing is to watch in the evening how the cow in full term separates herself from the herd, how she is the only animal that keeps a distance of thirty, forty or fifty metres from the rest of the herd in order to have her peace, her solitude. And the most beautiful thing is to go and get the cows in the pasture the morning after and count one animal less than usual.

Counting one animal less than usual – that is precisely what farmers do not want. But if they have observed a highly pregnant cow separating the night before, it is a hopeful sign. Usually, a second glance reveals the cow standing alone at the edge of the forest, not moving, not showing the slightest interest in coming into the barn, even if the best hay and the best silage are waiting for her there. Most of the time she is lying or standing a freshly born calf next to it, and since the calf is still balancing on wobbly legs, the cow cannot be moved into the barn either.

Take your time. Look at the light on the stalks, the light in the trees. Walk up to the cow, slow step, make sure for a moment: the calf is healthy. Is strong enough to stand up, has instinct enough to drink. At such moments there is a strong glow in the mother cow’s eyes; she hardly ever lets the little one out of her sight, she is steaming with pride. And the tenderness with which she licks and cares for the newborn and touches it with all her tenderness tells of a happiness that only mothers know. This happiness of trouble-free childbirth: it is not granted to Lentille. And before I can put the spaghetti in the water, I go back over to the stable.

Just then Michaël pulls a soaking wet, beautiful calf towards Lentille so that she can sniff and lick it. She nudges it gently with her paws, nudges it carefully with her horns, nudges it again and again and licks and licks the fine, wet, grey-white fur, the ears and the eyes. But no matter how hard Lentille tries, no life finds its way into this little cow’s body, the calf remains dead. The time span between the breaking of the amniotic sac and the moment when the calf’s head passed the cervix was too long.

Looking wordlessly into the straw, the vet rolls the long, soiled glove off her arm. Michaël, on his knees, his clothes full of blood and mucus, holds his hand on Lentille’s back and speaks comforting words. Like me, he has tears on his face. I go up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

So we stay together for a while, Michaël, Lentille and me. Then we bring her water and hay and leave her alone.

Hunched over the overcooked spaghetti, we sit at the kitchen table. We are hungry and yet without appetite, our cutlery rings loudly.

Back in the stable, we find Lentille lying unchanged in the straw. She has had nothing to drink, no hay to eat. She seems unwilling or unable to get up.

In this case, the vet has left medicine behind. It is supposed to protect the cow from severe dehydration.

We go to Lentille and try again to get her to stand up. In vain. She doesn’t mind us opening her mouth. We pour the liquid between her smelly tongue and her lips. Lentille is left completely weakened, a depressive impression.

When, after two hours, she finally rises, Michaël and I are immensely relieved. We open the stable door, clear the way to the pasture, hoping that being with the others will do her good.

Slowly, Lentille walks out of the stable and across the play yard. She trots, sways like a ship. She walks as slowly as I have ever seen a cow walk before, able to reconnect with her herd. When she finally enters the pasture, two cows come up to her and smell her vulva. They are the two cows that gave birth to a calf a few weeks ago.



Michaël puts on coffee; we sit at the kitchen table, squat in front of the leftover onion skins and talk about how Lentille will deal with this experience. Michaël also has the impression that she is completely depressed.

Then we don’t talk anymore, the coffee creeps up into the pot with a hiss.

We sit behind our coffee for a while, lost in thought, then Michaël lets out a sigh, gets up, goes into the stable, lifts the dead calf and drags it onto the dung stick.

It is a sunny day, a devastatingly beautiful day it is, a day with a depressingly blue, now almost cloudless sky.

Michaël digs a hollow with the dung fork, puts the calf into this steaming warm layer of the dung heap, covers the tender animal with straw and dung, covers its legs, torso and face, covers its empty eyes, and hands everything over to the micro-organisms that will completely decompose it.

The daily chores are on the agenda. The stable has to be mucked out, the sheep demand hay, in the cheese dairy, the moulds want to be washed and the ripening cheese wheels need to be lubricated. Having to work after such a birth is bitter. To be able to work after such a birth is comforting.

The day passes, a new one slips behind it, different and yet the same, the experience sticks.

I now look at Lentille more closely and attentively. I want to find out how she feels.

She eats, she drinks, but not very much. Does she give a depressed impression? I can only find vague evidence of that, mostly she behaves inconspicuously, and there is terribly little that can be interpreted by a human being in the facial expression of a cow.

Lentille struggles to expel the placenta. Bloody mucus clings to her vulva, but the placenta that should come out does not appear. Her body reacts with a strong fever; in order to prevent an infection, we are forced to give her an antibiotic three days after the difficult birth process. Even though this contradicts our philosophy. Did she not reject the placenta well because she lost her calf?

Twice a day Michaël squats down to milk Lentille. Considering that she is being milked for the very first time, she is extremely cooperative. She does not beat her tail, does not knock over the milk kettle. However, her teats are so thin and short that it is extremely laborious to milk her by hand – it would be easier to be able to count on the help of a calf. Lentille would make the milk flow better and the calf would do half the work.

The milk that Lentille now supplies cannot be processed into cheese; it is yellowish in colour, rich in fat and immunoglobulins. These were intended for her calf, for its immune system; this is how cow mothers enable their children to quickly deal with local pathogens. For seven days, Lentille produces this colostrum, but because milk from antibiotic treated cows is subject to a lock-up period, we have to dispose of Lentille’s milk for ten days anyway.

Lentille’s fever is down, she eats and drinks normally.

Is she in mourning? Is she melancholy?

Maybe she shows it, but I can’t read it.



One day gives way to the next, October disappears, a mild November appears, and the days are overtaken early by twilight. Shortly before noon, Lentille goes with the others to the pasture, searches for the very last grasses, returns to the stable in the evening and is willingly milked.

Life on the farm moves in circles and cycles; the extraordinary emerges and sinks into the sea of the ordinary. No snow is falling yet, winter is patiently showing itself this year, but the sun is noticeably losing its power, the temperatures are dropping, and the grass is no longer showing any appreciable growth: the grazing season is over.

One early afternoon, Michaël unties the cows, as he always does these days, after the animals have eaten for a long time and laid down in the straw; he opens the stable door and unties the animals while I wait for them outside. I don’t usually do that. But today I’m standing in the middle of the passage that leads to the pasture, standing between the wooden posts that the cows have been hurrying through in the past weeks to get to the pasture.

I stand in front of the barrier with my arms outstretched to prevent an animal from running into the wire.

Susi, Ambre, Galia, Amina – the first cows step briskly out of the barn, soon realising that their way to the pasture is blocked. It is not long before I am surrounded by a mooing herd. Disappointment and resentment are great. That is understandable: instead of being able to enjoy the extensive pasture for hours and eat grass at will, they are forced to stand on the completely grassless forecourt until there is only hay again in the early evening.

I imagine the cows would love to hold up signs right now, signs with political slogans: ‘Free access to pasture!’ Or: ‘Fresh grass is a basic cow right!’ Lentille is also part of the demonstrators; in her indignation she gives me a pleasingly vital impression.

This grassless standing around on the forecourt – the older cows already suspect it – will become their new routine. A daily habit that will last until April or May, simply as long as the snow cover remains and prevents the grasses from doing business with photosynthesis. That’s how long the cows will have to be patient; that’s how long the hay supplies will have to last.

When the protest comes to an end after ten minutes and some peace returns, I am relieved. The following day, only a few protests, and on the third day, the expectation of being able to go to a pasture seems to have faded for the most part.

The question remains open whether the animals also accept the end of the grazing season because they have noticed that Michaël was able to bring large quantities of good quality hay to the hayloft during the summer months.

It may be negligently anthropomorphising to put so much imagination into the cow. But anyone who has anything to do with cows knows about their amazing talent for close observation.

At the same time as the cows, we now also let the young calves out of the barn and into the exercise yard at midday. Despite its lack of grass, this transforms the place into an eminently important place; here the cow mothers come together with their children, the little ones can drink from their mothers, can learn personal hygiene and social belonging.

At the moment I untie a cow, something of her character is often revealed: the procedure of untying a cow, which is banal in itself and yet again and again shows the most beautiful differences, begins – because the architecture and the rules of the place dictate it – with Susi.

Susi is tall and strong, stands on broad legs and is probably the most alert cow in the herd, her gaze always full of benevolent questions. The fact that she is calm when untying seems to have two reasons: firstly, Susi is basically a deliberate, calmly moving cow. And secondly, because of a cow’s general need to never be isolated from the herd, Susi is also interested in waiting to see if I will untie the other cows as well.

Ambre, on the other hand, the cow in second place, sometimes shows herself to be impatient: sometimes she already wants to start running because I only touch the collar but not yet the snap, i.e. a second too soon. Compared to Susi, Ambre is an exceptionally delicate, slender cow. What distinguishes her is an elegance rarely seen in cows. Michaël thinks she has an aristocratic air about her, as if she had nothing to do with the mundane business of eating grass and chewing the cud. In the herd, she tends to be solitary to the point of meditative, sometimes, especially when a fence is broken, she also shows great qualities as a nimble, pioneering runner.

Galia, in third position, is the leading cow. The herd leader. She wears a green and yellow collar, which makes me think of reggae. In terms of physicality, she is as similarly impressive as Susi. However, while Susi observes quietly and introvertedly, Galia shows a strong outward presence. She also bears the most powerful and longest horns. Although he considers her face to be graceful, Michaël does not praise Galia unconditionally for her beauty, but for her reason, her calmness and her prudence. Having such a cow as a leader is very lucky. She keeps the herd together in a sovereign manner, even in times of great unrest. She can be restless when untied, but as soon as she is free, she moves with the calmness that only true bosses can afford.

Next to Galia, in an astonishingly shiny silver coat, stands the beautiful little Amina. There is something dazzling about her beauty. It was her peculiarity of always wanting to be the centre of attention and reacting terribly jealous even over trifles that made me understand why Michaël has an ambivalent relationship with her. ‘She is the most beautiful and she knows it,’ he says. When it comes to grooming, Amina shows herself to be exceptionally affectionate. Apparently, Amina once tried to apply for the position of lead cow, which ultimately also fuels Susi’s ambitions for this rank.

Michaël is glad that Galia won the day in rowdy battles that flared up again and again over several days. ‘Amina as lead cow, that would be a disaster.’ Remarkably, even the usually reserved Ambre joined in these fights and defended Susi’s claims against Amina. When I approach Amina to untie her, she always seems offended that I didn’t untie her first.

Orée, in the next place, is similarly fine and as distinguished in build as Ambre. However, she has nothing to do with aristocratic flair. On the contrary, she manages like no other in the stable to always put her hind legs in her own excrement. No other horse is so difficult to keep clean. Apart from that, she is sociable and reserved, I have never seen her start a fight. Yes, you could even call her pacifistic.

Next to Orée is Lentille’s place. Her proportions are balanced, her posture appears athletic. She has dark fur, especially on her face, where she is almost black, except for the pretty, light grey fringe on her forehead, and she usually moves with a graceful lightness of foot. The surprisingly long, almost blonde hair that grows out of and around her ears adds an ironic touch to this grace.

When untying, her still youthful age shows; she does not only row her head, but also turns her butt this way and that, she would like to go off in all directions at the same time; she is still full of the joy of movement that decreases in older cows.

For a few weeks now, the space to the left of Lentille has no longer been empty, but occupied by the impressive, two-year-old, not yet fully grown, but completely well-muscled Eol. He looks as if he has had too many protein shakes, but apart from a few carrots he has only ever eaten grass and hay. When he stands directly in front of me, takes me in his gaze and exhales, noisily pressing two powerful streams of air out of his nostrils, I feel, no matter how calm Eol may be, an instinct to flee that is deeply rooted in my cerebral hemispheres. I hope I will be able to gain his trust in the coming weeks and months. When I untie him, however, he behaves pleasantly.

Finally, at the very back of the stable, behind Eol, is Pampelune’s place. Named after the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, she stands out with her broad, beefy head, which she likes to wear unusually low. This gives an ill-tempered, sometimes belligerent appearance.

The main thing that characterises the young lady who is untied in the stable is her boundless impatience. It gets worse when Églantine, her calf, jumps out of the stable as soon as I open the stable door, due to a beautiful curiosity, while Pampelune still has to wait. Pampelune then rows her head as if she were under power, as if she had to drive a galley, and the more she rows, the more she almost rams her right horn into my belly each time, the more difficult it becomes for me to reach the catch that connects her collar to the chain with my hand stretched out over her neck and forehead. When the clasp is finally undone, Pampelune takes off like a steam engine. And if Eol is standing in the stable aisle and dawdling – he likes to sniff a bit at the collars hanging right by the entrance – Pampelune pushes him aside as if he were a piece of cardboard with a fierce blast of her horn.

Then they all stand outside in the fresh air, and all the little ones drink with their mothers: Galia stands there with her drinking Alchémie; pregnant Susi and pregnant Ambre stand there, their offspring still in their bellies; Amina stands there with her drinking Silex; Orée stands there with her drinking Page; Pampelune stands there with her drinking Églantine. Only three animals stand all alone: the young bull Jade (Ambre’s son), the almost fully grown bull Eol (Susi’s son) . . . and Lentille.

Surrounded by mothers who can take care of their offspring, Lentille stands in the play yard with her dark face, her beautiful eyes, her funny, exaggeratedly long ear hair, and looks into the distance.

Does it depress her to have to watch the maternal happiness of others day after day? Or has she already forgotten her dead calf?

She scratches her back with the tip of her left horn, right at the top, just above her spine. When I am within two steps of her, she stops her grooming and moves a metre away. I pause. I know she barely knows me. It’s not unusual that she doesn’t let me get close.

It doesn’t take long before she scratches this hard-to-reach spot again with her left horn. I approach her leisurely. She interrupts her movement and turns her head towards me. I stretch out both hands and scratch her exactly at the spot I assume she wanted to touch with the tip of her horn, but just couldn’t reach. She stops and lets me massage her. I interrupt my crawl. Lentille looks at me, throws her head back and tries again to reach the obviously itchy spot with the tip of her horn. I barely massage her five centimetres behind the horn tip.

When I see the tip of her horn, she puts her head forward again. On her coat, on her whole back, I can feel how she relaxes.

I suppose I have gained her trust.

Soon she turns around, faces me head on and lifts her head. Raises it, shows me her surprisingly light grey neck compared to the head, so that I feel invited to cuddle her there. I think this is the posture that best expresses friendship; in this posture a cow’s horns are furthest from the position they occupy in battle. Each time my fingernails travel from low down to her chin, her neck seems to grow even longer. And I enjoy that she trusts me.



The small-town old flat is a few stone’s throw from the courtyard; a decrepit radiator gurgles, a cool breeze passes through moderately tight window frames, an old wooden door that I found on the dusty screed and placed on two trestles serves as my desk.

Nothing in the flat reminds me of a farm; it’s a good place to think about cows. I stock up on books, bury myself in readings, and while I read, thick white flakes stroll through the streets like tiny autumn leaves from an incalculably mighty tree, stroll between the rows of houses, charmingly turn all the corners, and before the fun becomes too much and the wandering around too boring, they lie down. Two days later, when everything is covered with a solid blanket of snow, storms follow. They, too, bring snow, but whipping; the fleet of flakes chases horizontally past as if the sky has tilted ninety degrees; countless crows toil in this torrent, the pitch-black birds outside my window row hard against the white sea of flakes. Then the wind, the sky empties, and the small town shines up in a thick white winter coat.

There is plenty of work on the farm even in these days and weeks, but the sale of the farm’s products only brings in modest amounts; Michaël can only keep me busy for two short days a week. Thoughts of Lentille drive me; I start to write this essay. I read about animal ethics and animal psychology, search for studies and radio reports.

A Swiss veterinarian, responsible for animal welfare at the corresponding federal office, is asked in an interview how farm animals are doing in Switzerland. They are doing ‘well to very well’, he says, and the Swiss animal protection law is strict. He does not say: unfortunately, we cannot ask the animals how they are and therefore we cannot know.

For a moment I think the question the journalist has asked his interview partner is a trap. But the journalist seems satisfied with the answer he receives, just as the vet seems satisfied. It remains unmentioned that a question has just been posed that is difficult to answer, that, strictly speaking, cannot be answered at all.

Perhaps people do not like those questions in which the answer eludes them, which is why they subsequently get used to dealing with the matter superficially: the veterinarian is proud that there are good laws in Switzerland, and he concludes from this that the animals in his country are doing well, some apparently even very well.

Fortunately, people researching animal welfare do not orient themselves to animal welfare laws; they want to hear the answer from the animals, even if they do not speak. Animal Welfare Science is the name of the growing, establishing discipline that I encounter in many texts. And one day, while researching, I come across an article with the title ‘Animal Personality – Personality in Farm Animals’. This sounds like a close, individual approach, as if psychological processes in the animal are also being used to understand its behaviour, its existence, its needs and its dignity. Is this the key to finding out how Lentille feels?


© 2022 MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Berlin. All rights reserved.
Photograph © Markus Spiske

Urs Mannhart

Urs Mannhart, born in 1975, lives as a writer, reporter and organic farmer in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

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Translated by Christine Müller

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