Good Moos: Cow Tipping Is a Myth

Cows aren't easily toppled.
Cows aren't easily toppled. / Bosca78/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to urban legends involving livestock, cow tipping might be the one that gets milked the most. As these tales go, groups of inebriated young people sometimes sneak onto farms and creep up near dozing cows, using brute force to knock them over.

It’s pointless, cruel, and fortunately for the cow, not really a thing that ever happens.

The bovine-friendly people at Modern Farmer investigated these claims and found them to be largely unsupported by things one looks for in substantiating stories—like physics, facts, and common sense.

The most glaring evidence against cow tipping is that cows don’t sleep standing up. They settle down on their bellies. Even then, cows only grab about two hours of shut-eye each day, since their instincts have taught them other species find them appetizing and they should be on guard.

Sneaking up on one is therefore not easily accomplished. And once you’re near a cow, no amount of frat guy beer strength is going to produce the force necessary to topple a 1400-pound animal. Cows, while sometimes appearing to be stationary objects, are able to shift their weight and balance to resist such attempts. It might take five or six people to create enough force moving quickly enough to catch a cow by surprise and send it toppling.

This theory was borne out by a 2005 report by the University of British Columbia Department of Zoology, which used math to determine you’d need a small army to move a resisting cow. Tracy Boechler, a student participating in the work, told The Register that “a cow of 1.45 metres in height pushed at an angle of 23.4 degrees relative to the ground would require 2,910 Newtons of force, equivalent to 4.43 people.” Good luck trying to get several drunk people doing that math on a napkin.

That’s not to say it’s completely impossible. Given enough people, some trickery—like roping a cow’s legs—and possibly a younger and lighter cow, maybe one college student stunt or two has successfully upended a cow. But it’s difficult enough to consider it largely fiction.

So why has the myth persisted? Probably because it has an element of humor to it, however misguided. Tipping over a cow in a drunken stupor has a kind of Far Side quality to it, and sharing a story you heard from a friend of a friend will probably elicit a chuckle from someone. But cows get the last laugh.

[h/t Smithsonian]