Cows in Holland

September 1, 2022

When I was 16 I visited Europe for the first time. I stayed with my sister and her boyfriend in Soest. Then I rode a train to visit Paris. My memory of that train trip was staring out the windows at the Dutch cattle. The cattle stood, heads bowed, grazing on the grass in the fields. At the time I lived on a farm in Quebec and I saw cows all the time. But something about these cows caught my eye. The pasture seemed unnaturally green and the cows, remarkably well-fed. The scene, for me, screamed prosperity.

This summer I spent ten days in the Dutch countryside. My son and I took a trip, by train and bicycle. We saw a lot of the Netherlands, from Groningen in the north to Tilburg in the south. But what was weird for me, was, we didn’t see a lot of cows.

We did see a lot of Dutch flags. Then someone pointed out to me that all the flags hung, or fluttered, upside down. The Dutch flag is three horizontal stripes: red, white and blue. But all the flags we saw were blue, white and red.

At one point on our bike trip we rode down a lane and then the bike path stopped. A man stood there. He pointed to a tiny ferry, only big enough for a few foot passengers or two bikes. We climbed aboard. The fare was €0.60 each. The ferryman gripped a steel cable with two wooden paddle-type tools and walked backwards along the ferry deck, pulling the ferry across the river.

“This is the first time in the Netherlands that I’ve seen a Dutch flag the correct side up,” I told him.

He shrugged.

“The farmers are mad,” he said. (Nearly everyone we met spoke flawless English) “This country has a problem. The Netherlands has 17 million people. We have 25 million cows, and 50 million pigs. It doesn’t work. So the government told the farmers to get rid of half the cows and half the pigs.”

That night we slept in Zwolle at the house of a man named Hans, whom we found through the Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends on Bikes). It’s a Dutch organization we joined for €10 each. Members can stay at one of 5,500 homes across the Netherlands, for €22.50 a night (including breakfast).

Hans poured me a beer and spoke about the Dutch farmers in more detail. The problem, he said, is that Holland imports 80% of the animal feed. And Holland exports 80% of the agricultural products. Only the poop, he said, stays in his country. To cut greenhouse gas, his country needs to lose some livestock.

Back when I was a kid, Dutch cows grazed on grass, and their poop fertilized the fields. In today’s high-intensity agriculture, the cattle mostly stay in the barns eating the imported feed, and there are not enough fields to spread all their poop. Much of the countryside through which we rode smelled faintly of animal poop anyway.

At Schiphol Airport on our way home I bought the international edition of the New York Times, and a young Gouda cheese. The main article on the newspaper’s front page described invasive new software that tracks, to the second, the activity of office workers. Apparently, even lawyers get their paycheques docked if they do too few keystrokes during their work day.

Then I noticed some fine print on the cheese, which said the milk that made the cheese came from “cows are out on the meadow six hours per day for at least 120 days per year.”

Apparently the Dutch have software to track the whereabouts of their cattle.

We did see a few cows in the fields on some parts of our trip. We also saw a lot of corn growing, which seemed odd, because I don’t know that corn is a big part of the Dutch diet.

It would be nice to see the cows again.