Germany is known for its efficiency—and that includes its bovine population. A century ago, a dairy cow produced 7,700 pounds of milk a year; today, its descendants are doubling that output. But farmers want more.
Nikita Teryoshin documents this quest in Hornless Heritage . It’s an unsettling look at dairy farming in Germany—the EU’s biggest milk producer—where cows are forced to make as much milk as possible in decidedly sub-bucolic conditions.
“I wanted to update the old-fashioned image of a cow in a green meadow that we know from ads and milk packages,” Teryoshin says, “to show the dystopian side of the milk production.”
Germany’s $14 billion dairy farming industry rests squarely on the backs of 4.2 million cows—the majority Holsteins, a sturdy piebald favored around the world for its high milk yield. Though farmers have selectively bred for this trait for centuries, artificial insemination's arrival in 1950 revved things up. Today, farmers use genomic selection to design ever-more-profitable “turbo” cows that can produce more than 88,000 pounds in their lifetimes.
Most of the dairy cattle spend those lives perpetually pregnant in cow sheds and feedlots designed to further boost supply— just a third get to graze. Heifers are first inseminated after they turn one and separated from their calves nine months later so milking can begin. Machines do the job twice or more a day in milking “parlors” or cramped tie stalls, where roughly 20 percent of German cows are chained.
It's not fun: Cows that once lived 20 years now wind up in supermarkets before their fifth birthdays, culled due to lameness, infertility, and mastitis, a condition that causes painfully swollen udders. But while life expectancy has decreased, production has increased. Last year, Germany produced a whopping 8.6 billion gallons —enough for 104 gallons per person per year.
Teryoshin got a crash course in the industry four years ago, when he ventured out—along with 150,000 others—to the EuroTier agricultural fair in Hanover. The crowds gawked at the latest in animal husbandry, including a Matrix -like robot that suckled a fake cow. But what struck Teryoshin most was an ad that read, Don’t let cows waste your money . “It seemed impossible that you could think that a cow is wasting your money when you’re already taking everything away from it,” he says.
That prompted him to begin Hornless Heritage . Teryoshin visited farms, insemination stations, laboratories, auctions and even a Best in Show, where owners primped their Holsteins and paraded them before a crowd. He got an up-close glimpse of seemingly happy cows like Lady Gaga—a black-and-white Holstein that’s won bovine beauty pageants—as well as clearly unhappy ones, such as those with bloodied legs he saw on a factory farm. He documented everything with a Nikon D800 and hand-held flash, illuminating the mundane horror of an industry where animals are reduced to commodities.
Of course, it's not just Germany: The United States far surpasses Germany in milk production, and most its cows live on factory farms. But for Teryoshin, grappling with the industry in his own backyard helped him think about his own priorities and values. “I stopped drinking milk and eating dairy for a while,” he says. His photographs might make you lose your appetite for the stuff, too.
- Racing to understand Antarctica's most terrifying glacier
- Aston Martin's $3 million Valkyrie gets a V12 engine
- How the CIA trains spies to hide in plain sight
- Facebook's dirty tricks are nothing new for tech
- How to use Apple Watch's new heart rate features
- 👀 Looking for the latest gadgets? Check out our picks, gift guides, and best deals all year round
- 📩 Hungry for even more deep dives on your next favorite topic? Sign up for the Backchannel newsletter