Is Cow Tipping Real or a Rural Legend?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 4 2013 4:26 PM

Is Cow Tipping Real?

Physics says you’d have more luck tipping a Camry.

A cow is pictured in the late evening light on July 28, 2013 around Sesvenna Alpe near Malles Venosta/Mals, Italy.
Nope, this cow has never been tipped.

Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Modern Farmer.

Let's get this out of the way: Cow tipping, at least as popularly imagined, does not exist. Drunk young men do not, on any regular basis, sneak into cow pastures and put a hard shoulder into a cow taking a standing snooze, thus tipping the poor animal over.

While in the history of the world there have surely been a few unlucky cows shoved to their side by boozed-up morons, we feel confident in saying this happens at a rate roughly equivalent to the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.

Advertisement

The evidence against cow tipping is immense, and backed up by both farmers and the laws of physics (more on that later), but the simplest bit of proof we can point to: YouTube.

YouTube, the largest clearinghouse of human stupidity the world has ever known—where you can watch hours of kids taking the cinnamon challenge, teens jumping off rooftops onto trampolines, or the explosive results of fireworks set off indoors—fails to deliver one single actual cow-tipping video. (The one exception is a Russian dashcam video, which shows a semitruck full of cattle overturning—and cows shaking themselves off and walking away.)

And yet, ask a room full of nonfarmers about cow tipping and you’ll still find plenty of believers. Despite reams and reams of articles debunking the idea, cow tipping, like crop circles, continues to exist as a strange rural legend—the difference being there’s at least photographic proof of crop circles.

So why does the myth of cow tipping persist?

Part of this, of course, is that the closest many people come to a cow is seeing a Holstein along the interstate. Glimpsed at 65 miles per hour, it’s possible to imagine a docile bovine easily overturned by a blacked-out college bro. Approach a cow on foot and you’ll quickly realize how difficult the task of tipping would be. A 1,400-pound dairy heifer is a broad, squarely built animal—there’s a reason the adjective “beefy” exists. You’d have more luck trying to tip over a Camry than a cow.

Nate Wilson, 66, grew up around cows, began milking cows in 1970 and recently retired after selling his dairy farm in Sinclairville, N.Y. “I think I know a thing or two about cattle,” he says. And for him, the whole notion of cow tipping is, to put it politely, bull crap. “There’s more cows that have been tipped in people’s imaginations,” says Wilson, “than in the real world.”

Wilson points out several factors. First off, cows don’t sleep standing up—that’s what horses do. Cows actually spend a great deal of time on their bellies digesting food, as well as dozing on their stomachs. Secondly, cows are naturally wary animals. Observe a group of cows lying down in a pasture, Wilson says, and you’ll see that no two of them point in the same direction—part of their instinct for protecting the herd against the many natural predators cows once faced. Beef, as Wilson jokes, has been what’s for dinner for as long as cattle have existed. As a result, they have “incredibly well developed senses of smell and hearing.”

Wilson says that even after years of working closely with his cattle, they would remain apprehensive when he approached at night. “A group of strangers walking up on them?” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible.” In his many decades of dairy farming, Wilson says he never heard of cow tipping occurring in his own fields or in the fields of any fellow dairy farmers.

But say our hypothetical cow tippers got lucky enough to get close to a cow at night. There’s still the matter of the brute force needed to get the cow over. In 2005, University of British Columbia student Tracy Boechler and doctor of zoology Margo Lillie ran the numbers on cow tipping. Their findings? There’s no way one person could tip a cow. Two people? Maybe—but not in real world conditions.

“Two could do it in theory,” says Lillie. “But it’s not going to be easy, and as soon as the cow responds by bracing herself or leaning into you—which she will do—it will be even harder.” Cows, after all, stand on four legs and will quickly shift their weight to a wider, more stable stance if pushed against. And Lillie and Boechler’s calculations are based on an unmoving cow in equilibrium in which slow, steady force could be applied without pushback—an optimum (and unrealistic) state for cow tipping. Pull out your high school text book and look up Newton’s second law: Force equals mass times acceleration. A cow has a lot of mass, and you’ll want to move that mass quite quickly, before the cow can react. Which means you’ll need to generate a lot more force. Per her calculations, that would require at least five, and probably more like six pushers. “It just makes the physics of it all, in my opinion, impossible,” says Lillie.

The paper, which poured cold water over cow tipping, drew a fair amount of attention online. “I couldn’t believe the number of people responding to one article,” she says, with the weariness of a doctor of zoology who now gets regular phone calls about cow tipping. “Someone, I think he was in Texas, said you can do it if take you take a run at the cow and got somebody [down low] on the other side of the cow,” in effect taking away the cow’s ability to brace itself. “So that’s cheating, but that’s a way of doing it,” says Lillie. “Of course, the guy on the other side of the cow has to move very quickly to get out of the way, which is a stupid thing to do. But the whole thing is just a stupid thing to do from the get-go.”

130904_SCI_tipping-point-sidebar

Adapted from Popular Mechanics, using the work of Margo Lillie and Tracy Boecher.

So, then, here is our working theory of the persistence of the myth of cow tipping: First, the idea itself is funny. Sabina Magliocco, professor of anthropology and folklore at California State University, Northridge, points out that a good myth or legend has the same element as a good joke. “They involve ‘symbolic inversion,’” she says. “You’re putting the world—or in this case a cow—on its side.” A dozing cow being knocked over has a certain Jackass-esque appeal to it, the wham-bam brutality of something large and seemingly immobile suddenly going ass over tea kettle.

Second, starting in the mid-1980s, cow tipping became something of a pop culture phenomenon. Two meatheads spend a drunken evening cow tipping in the classic Heathers. Beavis and Butthead unsuccessfully went cow tipping. Chris Farley ends up with a face full of cow pie after going a failed cow tipping expedition with Rob Lowe in Tommy Boy. Dairy farmer Nate Wilson says he never heard of cow tipping until the late 1970s or early 1980s and wonders if the infamous sequence in Animal House, in which a horse is snuck into the dean’s office, had something to do with it. “Maybe that got the wheels rolling on this,” he muses. That cow tipping plays into certain preconceptions about the paltry entertainment options available to those in rural areas doesn’t hurt, either.

Third, cow tipping is essentially a muddier, drunker, and more dangerous version of the snipe hunt. You take a wet-behind-the-ears kid out into the field, feed him a few brews, and tell him to go find Bessie and give a good shove. You, meanwhile, spend some quality time listening to someone slipping and sliding in a dark and muddy field.

“I think there’s probably as many cow tipping expeditions organized in various tap rooms as snipe hunts,” says Wilson. “Some poor innocent has been hornswoggled into going out on a cow tipping expedition, I’m certain of that.”

In other words, as long as there’s booze, gullibility, and a pasture nearby, cow tipping will live on. Luckily for the cows, there’s very little chance they’ll ever end up actually on their sides.

This article originally appeared in Modern Farmer. The magazine launched in April and its second issue comes out Sept. 10.

Jake Swearingen is digital director at Modern Farmer. He is a harsh but fair ranker of baby farm animals. Follow him on Twitter at @JakeSwearingen

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.