Apparently, cows can't tell that I'm a vegetarian.
February 14, 2010 6:52 PM   Subscribe

I can find plenty about bear safety and mountain lion safety, but little similar info about cattle. What safety measures can I, a city boy, take in order to keep from being stampeded, gored or otherwise killed or injured by cattle as I am a guest in their pastures? What behaviors can I look for in cattle to give me a feel for how they feel about us when we're near them?

My wife's family has a great little farm (properly called a "ranch", I suppose) in Kentucky's Bluegrass Country. As the property is really pretty, I like to roam and explore and make photographs and anything else a city boy might want to do in such a setting.

But then, there are the beeves. The property is such that most any time we want to walk anywhere, we encounter cattle, either at our destination or on the way to it. It is rarely possible to ensure that there is a fence between us and the cattle for the whole journey; if we can, we do, but it's rare. We usually come within 100 feet of the cattle, and sometimes we will be 50 feet or closer.

A rather ignorant description the animals: The herd numbers 30-50 or so. It consists of mostly cows, a half dozen of which(whom?) will have calves at any given time. They're mostly brown or black. A lot of them have white faces. They look like fairly standard cattle; that is, if you asked a talented kid to draw "cows," he'd probably come pretty close to these. There is always a bull or two. Irrespective of sex, all the adults have short pointy (no doubt razor-sharp) horns.

Cattle behaviors I've noticed which seem relevant: The calves are usually pretty wary of us. We wouldn't have much of a chance to come between any mother and her calf, but we wouldn't take that chance anyway. As we walk past, the herd seems to orient itself so the constituent animals are always facing us. There's usually lots of mooing as they see us. On one or two occasions when we were near the herd, one of the bulls has started scuffing its front feet on the ground. This has only happened when we momentarily entered a field they occupied in order to quickly get to a different field.

My wife and her family seem mostly unconcerned with the beasts. MIL grew up on the farm, so she's pretty used to them. The advice she's given mostly consists of "avoid them" and "wave a stick and yell 'Ho!' at them." This "Ho!" business is effective close to half the time, but most of the time, they just stare at us and look (to me) miffed.

Obviously I'm inclined to trust my family since they've all been around the cattle in some degree their whole lives. However, if I had a little more concrete info as far as behaviors I can engage in or cues I can look for from the cows, I would feel a lot more comfortable with this part of my vacation.
posted by The Potate to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Cows and steers are very seldom aggressive. (Although, as you've already noted, you don't want to get between mama and baby.) You can shoo them off with strong body language.

Bulls are another matter. Beef-breed bulls—as opposed to dairy breed—are relatively benign, but I would be very reluctant to share a pasture with one anyway. They may or may not find your posturing amusing.
posted by bricoleur at 7:11 PM on February 14, 2010

So, to answer your specific question, scuffing the feet means get on the other side of the fence with all possible dispatch.
posted by bricoleur at 7:12 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't get between a calf and its mother and avoid the bulls. (Bricoleur's advice is consistent with what I received) As a suburban kid whose best friend at college lived on a farm that was the advice given me. Actually they laughed at me first about worrying about it at all. Then they said to avoid the bulls and the bullshit.

Drunkenly, one evening we tried "cow tipping". I was told that cows sleep standing up or at least rest that way and if you hit them just right on the side they fall over pretty easily. 27 years later, when it rains, my shoulder still hurts. I ran into this cow at full speed and all that happened was I got a stinger down my arm, the cow looked back at me and I was on the ground scrambling to get up our of the mud and who knows what else. Cow tipping to me is an urban legend.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:34 PM on February 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What you are asking is akin to asking A-Rod to explain how to hit a curve ball. Your wife and in-laws have been around cattle so long that what they see or don't see is simply second nature. I'm willing to bet that one of your in-laws has been injured or threatened by a cow or bull at some time and learned something from it.

The issues for you, a city boy, are that cattle are easily spooked, really pretty dumb and out-weigh you by a factor of five to eight. This is a bad combination. My advice to you is to always stay on the other side of the fence until you start feeling like you understand them a little. Having managed a dude ranch, I was always amazed at the people who would run up to cows and horses and scream with joy at being amongst them. As we picked them off the ground and reminded them of the instructions we had given them earlier, they were very indignant that the big beasts didn't know that they just wanted to pet them.

In time, you will get to understand them a little and will be able to move around them without spooking them or enraging them. That is the time to relax, but not the time to let your guard down. The best interaction I've ever had with cattle involved a knife and a fork.
posted by Old Geezer at 7:35 PM on February 14, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It's not that they can't tell you're a vegetarian, it's just that, as a vegetarian, you're competing with them for the same scarce resources.

If what you are describing are herefords the horns are not razor sharp - but a blunt object backed up by half a ton of angry pot roast still is going to leave a mark.

Mostly they're turning to face you because for herd animals situational awareness is an important part of not dying. Lot's of mooing is likely to equal, "Yo! Where's the hay?" Scuffing the feet and doing nothing else is kind of like a big dog going woof to let you know that it's a big dog and is fully aware of your presence so don't even think about it.

Don't stare at them, because in a lot of animals that equals a challenge posture. Be aware of what they're up to. You're unlikely to be charged en masse. The thing to worry about is one of the males deciding to play the alpha male dominance game with you. Everything I've seen has been more of a shoving match than the "charged by a bull" thing you're thinking of. If one of the males breaks off and starts following you, particularly if he starts shaking his head from side to side and/or approaching you at a fast walk, that's the time to turn and face him, look big and make noise. Now he has to wonder why your not running away despite his very best game face and everything. If that doesn't convince him that you are not to be trifled with, remember that he corners can outrun you for short distances, but he corners like a cow.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:03 PM on February 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you do get to the point where you are relaxed with them and encounter them closeup, don't let them step on your foot. If they do, then hope the ground is really muddy so your foot has somewhere to go.

that's what I learned when I visited a friend's farm in college
posted by CathyG at 8:20 PM on February 14, 2010

Best answer: Cattle are a prey animal: they orientate towards you because you are a predator; they are watching to see if they need to (a) run away or (b) defend themselves and their calves. Don't stare at them: that's what a predator does when it is hunting. Keep an eye on them, certainly, but don't stare.

It's unlikely that the herd would stampede you, unless there is a threat coming from the other side of the herd, towards you. More likely, the herd would shuffle as quickly as possible away from you if you appeared threatening.

As always: use common sense and if an animal is staring at you and pawing the ground or heading your way, make haste for the nearest tree or fence.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 8:47 PM on February 14, 2010

Best answer: Yeah, when they start swishing their tails like an irritated cat and shaking their heads you might want to back away slowly. I wouldn't get any closer than you have to, and stay out of fields with bulls in them unless you are literally crossing the extreme corner of a field to get to another fence. I'm actually surprised from your description that the bulls are mixed in with the cows, but that could be because I'm most familiar with dairy farms, where if they have a bull these days he lives in solitary splendor in his own pen.

Cows are generally completely uninterested in people unless they think you have snacks. The mooing sounds like they suspected you might possibly have snacks. The foot scuffing is definitely a sign to move on. I would not take buckets with you, if for some reason you would take buckets anywhere, or anything a not very bright mammal might take for a snack dispenser.

We had a dairy farm down the road from my house, and every now and then a cow would make a Great Escape and wind up in our front pasture eating flowers. I would wrap a lead rope around the cow's neck and take her home like walking a dog. Cows are not savage killers except in the most extreme cases. The worst danger in most instances is that an overly friendly cow might wander up and try to lick you. Cow saliva is gross and harder to clean off than superglue.
posted by winna at 8:50 PM on February 14, 2010

Response by poster: This is great info. Thanks, all. Seeing all these Tucson Rodeo commercials has kind of put me on edge and made me less excited about bovinity in general. I'm definitely becoming less uneasy about the farm-walking portions of our trip next month.

I thought Temple Grandin would have something to say about this. When I was browsing some of her stuff at the library, I must have browsed right over the articles I was looking for. Since I read about it, the times I can remember when the bulls made their presence very apparent, we had scared away the cows and calves to reveal the bulls who, like Grandin said, were standing firmly with their sides to us. Luckily, as I described, these were very brief occasions during which we were already evacuating the premises.

I really appreciate both the scientific-type descriptions and the anecdotes. If anyone else has anything to add, I would enjoy seeing it.
posted by The Potate at 9:40 PM on February 14, 2010

Response by poster: And in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not exactly a city boy. I lived on an Indiana farm in middle and high school, but we had corn or beans instead of animals. Any of my friends who had animals had sheep, goats, chickens or the odd single dairy cow. I never found myself anywhere near a herd or flock of anything but geese without a decent fence separating me from the animals.

Seven years in urban AZ has left me fearing soft grass anytime other than winter, fruit and vegetables grown anywhere but CA, rain, sports more strenuous than golf, and any animal that one can't keep comfortably in an apartment.
posted by The Potate at 9:57 PM on February 14, 2010

Best answer: Yeah cows are fine 99% of the time. Even if they start rushing up to you, it's usually an indicator that they've been hay-feed and think you come bearing delicious cow-y gifts.

Walk with a stick, if they get up in your bid'ness wave it around at eye level - cattle don't like this it seems scarier to them.

Bulls and the occasional ornery steer are all you have to worry about, and if they're in a big group together, it's not a major concern. You can tell the aggressive ones almost immediately. They move a lot more + a lot quick, the foot stamping, head toss, etc. Generally, the antsy ones are more concerned about avoiding you than chasing you. Let that be your comfort.

If, for some reason, a bull does chase you, _and_ you're not near a fence etc. Bear in mind that bulls/steers are fast, but they don't turn as good. If it comes to this, you're probably in quite a bit of trouble, but swerving is a much better idea than letting them run you down.

I've grown up with multiple cattle, spend countless hours in the paddock, walking around em, rounding em up, etc. etc. I have never been legitimately chased once. The half steer (we only got one ball, and boy was he pissed), gave us a lot of trouble, but even he never wanted to take us out, just wanted to avoid going in the crush, the bastard.

Oh, also, take a dog if you can. They dislike dogs around all the time.
posted by smoke at 10:03 PM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The first time my wife took me for a walk on her dad's farm (120 acres, approx 40 cattle) she warned me, "If they start to run towards us, just stand your ground and they'll lose interest". They were hay-fed and assumed we were bringing them some, and as expected began to slowly walk, then trot towards us (do cows trot, or just horses?). My wife promptly freaks out and bolts towards the fence, leaving me, the city boy staring down 40 odd mooing hungry cows heading my way in a mildly threatening manner. True to my wifes' advice they did stop running, and I slowly backed away to safety, and much praise for my courage in the face of a bovine flattening.
posted by robotot at 11:01 PM on February 14, 2010

Best answer: The previous answers to this question were quite "mooooving." Hilarious, actually. Some good reading might be one of James Herriott's books. He was a British veterinarian who worked quite a bit with cows.
They are quite insightful in regard to animals and are an easy read.
posted by srbrunson at 12:30 AM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: When I was a kid sharing space with cows, my parents taught me to carry an umbrella and to open it (horizontally) if the cattle got too curious or close. Suddenly making yourself big puts them off. And if it doesn't slow them down, then the umbrella makes a fine stick for poking or thwacking on the nose.
posted by oceanmorning at 12:35 AM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: My in-laws raise some cattle (grass-fed, mostly organic, but not certified, well-cared for cattle) and we've done everything from give them snacks for fun to tagging the ears of the new calves to separating animals going to the sale barn and everything in between. They sure do love snacks. The scariest part of a cow for me these days, other than getting between her and her calves, is giving them snacks. As mentioned, cow saliva is viscous, and a cow tongue is raspy. Like wet, very course sandpaper and very ouchy if you let them lick you. The family cows are used to getting fed snacks by people regularly, because it helps keep them amenable to being checked out medically or loaded into the travel trailer. (It's a relatively small herd, and they're referred to by number, but they sure are loved. We were feeding one in particular some alfalfa before we sent her to the sale barn, and the kids and I all got pretty emotional. She was definitely loved, though.) I think that what got me was that she was in the corral waiting to go, and she was so placid and just wanted her nose patted. So, we patted her nose and fed her the favorite stuff.

But that's cows and calves.

When we went to go see the Angus bull in the field and give some snacks to some cows and calves, my dad-in-law had the kids and I get back into the very large farm truck as soon as that big fella stood up. He was HUGE. Dad-in-law wasn't worried about the bull charging or anything, just that he is SO BIG and dumb that he might accidentally hurt someone who didn't know how to dodge.

We've also got goats out there, too, and let me tell you, I think those things are sometimes scarier. Especially if there's a billy. But even the nannies and weathers will try to hook or butt you when you least expect it, just because that's how they get along, and they're sneaky. Even one we hand fed from birth was trying to hook me at X-mas, ungrateful thing. The difference between goats and cattle, though, is most of the time you can grab a goat by it's horn and play alpha games if necessary. Best just to stay out of the way of the bovine contingent.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:45 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have a look at this low-stress cattle handling video.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:22 AM on February 15, 2010

According to
Woody Allen
, bovine danger lurks everywhere, even in the farmhouse.
posted by Zendogg at 6:49 AM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: P.S., trying to be slightly helpful, the above link includes this information from The Times:

"An article published . . . by the Centers for Disease Control [reported] that about 20 people a year are killed by cows in the United States. . . . In 16 cases, “the animal was deemed to have purposefully struck the victim,” the report states. . . . All but one victim died from head or chest injuries; the last died after a cow knocked him down and a syringe in his pocket injected him with an antibiotic meant for the cow. In at least one case, the animal attacked from behind. "

So statistically speaking your chances seem pretty good.
posted by Zendogg at 6:54 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Originally, it seemed like there was a lot less out there that could go very far to answer my questions. I feel much better informed and therefore much more comfortable.
posted by The Potate at 12:33 PM on February 15, 2010

I was nearly kilt by a steer once, according to its owners. I went into the pasture to check out a new foal, and they didn't realize that the steer was in there as well. I was first alerted to the threat by the simultaneous sound of charging hooves, and my aunt screaming in terror.

Sadly, I was dead in the middle of the 10-acre pasture at the time. Not a damned thing I could run towards, climb up, or pick up to defend myself. Angry lowing, and more screaming.

I did what turned out to be a genius move, but was my only option at the time. I slowly turned around, stood up straight, squared my shoulders, and gave him my best You Are Being A Very Bad Dog And I Am Very Angry glare.

He slid to a stop before me, then kind of hopped up and down and snorted and made a big show. Then he settled down and slunk away, giving me a chance to retreat.

So if it comes down to it? I have to second the "stare him down" advice given up-thread. It's definitely not the first thing I'd recommend, but if it's all you've got, you might as well give it a try!
posted by ErikaB at 8:23 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

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