Lentille. Scenes from the Life of a Cow

Urs Mannhart

German, Mattes & Seitz Berlin, 2022

“People who are overburdened with too much work and too many appointments should be medically instructed to visit a cow and be close to it while it chews its cud. No specific appointment needed: a cow spends about 10 hours a day busying itself with this activity.”

“I don’t think anyone needs to understand Kierkegaard to develop a sense of what a cow is, nor is the latest knowledge from cognitive biology necessarily required. All you have to do is simply sit down next to a cow in a pasture, next to a beautiful, resting cow that has just laid down and started to chew its cud.”

“Next to Orée is Lentille’s spot. Her proportions are balanced and her posture looks athletic. She has dark hair, especially on her face, where it is almost black, except for the pretty, light-grey fringe on her forehead, and she usually moves with a graceful nimbleness. The surprisingly long, almost blonde hair growing out of and around her ears adds a peculiar touch to her beauty.”

“I’m still standing in the stable when, looking out of the open half of the stable door, I just can’t stop myself from laughing: Amina is standing in the middle of the dunghill, right at the top, as if she were posing for a fashion photo shoot. I have no idea how it occurred to her, or what she’s looking for up there, but I can see her tracks in the snow: she has somehow managed to walk to the top of the two-metre-high dunghill along the narrow piece of wood that is used to push a full wheelbarrow up to the pile.”

Urs Mannhart’s book Lentille is a blend of reportage and essay that delves into the life of a cow. Those who gently inch closer to them will discover that these animals have a fascinating character – and much more besides.

Two days a week, the writer and organic farmer Urs Mannhart works on a farm in the Jura region of western Switzerland, not far from La Chaux-de-Fonds. On this farm lives a young cow named Lentille. Part of a herd of eight, she is about to give birth to her first calf – and this is where the book begins. The birth drags on for quite some time and takes a tragic turn as a result; this dampens the mood at the farm and also raises many questions, including whether Lentille is grieving for her stillborn calf – and whether she is even capable of mourning.

What do we actually know about animals, such as the ‘personality’ of a cow or a pig? For example, what does a cow need to feel content, and how do we tell what this is? And in the agricultural sector, how can we balance using these animals for our benefit with ensuring their well-being?

These questions are on the minds of many people, but they are not easy to answer: ‘We can’t know how animals are doing because, unfortunately, we can’t ask them,’ someone once said.

In an extremely clever and elegant way, Urs Mannhart combines reporting on his current experiences on the farm with an essay on the fundamental questions of animal welfare. We are introduced to Galia, the lead cow who keeps the herd together even when things get unsettled, and to Ambre, the elegant loner, who is rather placid but can be fast when the situation calls for it.

Mannhart repeatedly delves into research on animal ethics and animal psychology, and discusses the subject. He also takes a look at the world of industrialised dairy farms, where the ‘working life of dairy cows’ plays a role and milking robots milk the cows. Where not farmers, but ‘herd managers’, are responsible for managing the livestock – which, in turn, are primarily seen as ‘a package of features’.

But there are also the beloved cows that Urs Mannhart tells about, with great knowledge, full of empathy and never excess sentimentality – making his inspiring book a little gem.

Text by Martin Zingg

Lentille. Aus dem Leben einer Kuh
Mattes & Seitz Berlin
Translation rights
Loan Nguyen, l.nguyen@matthes-seitz-berlin.de
Publication date


Urs Mannhart

Urs Mannhart, born in 1975, is a writer, reporter and organic farmer who lives in La Chaux-de-Fonds. His most recent publication was (Secession) Gschwind oder Das mutmaßlich zweckfreie Zirpen der Grillen [Gschwind or the presumably purposeless chirping of crickets].

Photo: © Beat Schweizer