Cow cuddling? It's a thing at this northern Michigan dairy farm

When dairy farmers and cheesemakers Jackie and Henk De Vor started charging for something they dubbed “cow cuddling,” they heard a few community mumbles.

Comments floated back to them, things like, “Do you believe those city people?” and “If I wanted to cuddle cows, I could visit my neighbors for free.”

But when a cow-cuddling customer got time with the herd, magic happened.

Some swore it was healing, others just left happier. And demand grew so quickly that Jackie and Henk were for a while guiding cuddlers through their pasture some nine hours a day, an hour-long visit at a time, growing so busy they had to halt the visits for a time to catch a breather and get more food making done.

Today, there's still strong demand and a robust repeat business for the mid-morning cuddling slot they offer a few days a week, fitting it in between the making and selling of the De Vor Dairy Farm and Creamery's wildly popular Dutch-style gouda and the homemade ice cream crafted from her cows' cream and the just-picked fruit of local farms.

None of it surprises this humble (decidedly noncity) couple who for the most part just wanted to share how wonderful and relaxed they felt when they hung out in the pasture with their cows.

At one point Jackie recalls saying, “I wish everybody could have a day in our life.”

But necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

The cuteness factor prompted one couple to purchase a calf. The idea of taking guests into their pasture to sometimes literally lie on the ground and cuddle the cows was born of the need for income to start flowing while they waited for the necessary permits to sell their products.

When the couple purchased the former Shetler Family Farms in January 2021 for a herd of around 100 Jersey cows and a few Guernseys, they were downsizing from a massive enterprise in Decker, with 4,200 cows.

When some red tape led to a delay in opening the retail part of the enterprise, Henk recalled something prevalent on farms in his home country of the Netherlands, where he grew up and where he earned a degree in agri-business and studied the craft of cheesemaking. There, a wellness practice called koe knuffelen (literally translated cow hugging) was widely used.

“Where I come from they do cow cuddling for handicapped people and those with special needs,” he said. “You can find more love from animals than people sometimes . . . Plus, we like that we have families coming in that learn more about the farm. These days people don't always know where their food comes from. They think it grows on a shelf.”

Birthday cuddles of an unexpected sort

This mid-summer morning, Jackie greets her cow-cuddling guests outside the cheesemaking room and aging cave, not far from the milking stalls, swapping her food prep-perfect hair net for a jacket and boots, and inviting them into the fields to meet the celebrities behind the food.

For some, cow-cuddling is about healing; for others, it's about the novelty and fun.She starts by calling over Chewy; this cow earned her name by a tendency to take a guest's coat (or arm) in his mouth, and she also comes running like a puppy to her name. Chewy greets a guest who has come for a 31st birthday celebration, but the official cuddling begins with the calves whose huge sandpaper-rough tongues reach out for constant licks.

The cuteness factor of the calf kisses is rivaled only by the huge doe eyes, a look so compelling that a couple of summer cuddlers have gone home with the purchase of a calf — toting it home in the backseat of an SUV.

As the group moves to the pasture, ducking carefully around the electric fence, Jackie fields questions about cow breeds, ages, personalities, and cheesemaking.

Even that is different here, using methods traditional to the Netherlands down to the imported wooden boards used for the aging. Since happy cows, they insist, make the tastiest milk (and cheese), the group meets the source of the delicacies as they mingle with cows like Minnie.

This, the day's most curious cow, peeks over one guest's shoulder and then gives it a nuzzle. Her twin Monica is a bit more shy, but still curious as the herd moves in tandem, munching grass like a multi-headed mower but with a far more pleasing sound.

The herd stops to linger in some welcoming shade, offering the chance for more up-close encounters. On sleepy afternoons, the cows might lie down with a visitor in the grass. Cashmere and Chickadee whom Jackie dubs “pure love,” invite cuddles, but a visitor may want to watch out for sweet Honeybee, who is known for her tendency to mischievously steal a hat.

There's a high degree of serendipity in which cow is drawn to whom, Jackie says. Two notoriously shy cows went up to a new guest last fall and laid protectively at her feet. Later, the couple learned that the woman had just found out she was pregnant; convinced there was a bond between the baby and the cows, she's heading back for some cuddling with the newborn.

The cows have names like Chewy, Monica, Cashmere and Chickadee. One severely disabled boy comes often with his whole family; he evokes a strong protective response from the cows — and goats too — and responds in a way he's not done with traditional therapy. For other guests, it's about the novelty and fun. Jackie and Henk set up a charcuterie board and champagne in the middle of the field for a couple's anniversary surprise, hiding it behind a tractor.

Factor in the cost of the liability insurance, and the couple probably is taking a loss on the cuddling, even at $75 an hour for one person, and $120 for four, Jackie notes. But guests who book the cuddling generally also go home with some ice cream or gouda — young, aged, or flavored with spices like cumin. And they seem more likely to return, having forged a connection with those from whom the cream comes. The ancillary benefits make business sense too.

“The people who come for cow cuddling learn a lot, and they end up leaving with a different view on farms,” Jackie says. “That's more important to us than the money. They fell in love with the whole process. And they fall in love with the animals. That's the best part.”

Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in Michigan travel destinations, food and wine. She's a past winner of a Mark Twain award for best journalist in the Midwest.
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