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The Problem with Cows

Essay by Chris Frasier

Livestock – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

COWS SURE ARE DUMB. At least, that’s what I’ve been reading lately in the popular press. A man who was convicted last year in Oregon for shooting his neighbor’s cows defended himself with the idea that cows aren’t smart enough to control their grazing.

As someone who works with cows every day, I’m relieved. I had naively never viewed cattle as logically challenged. I had just thought they were slow animals prone to following the herd. But now I see that many of my problems result from their dull thinking.

For example, when I forget to close a gate and cattle help themselves to a pasture before it’s ready to graze, I used to think it was my fault. But now, thanks to this new insight, I see that it’s just those dumb cows.

They should understand photosynthesis, the Krebs Cycle, and how grass plants store energy. If cows weren’t so dense, they could take over many of the management chores that occupy my time. This would give ranchers time to pursue other things, like fine arts, perhaps leading to a renaissance of sale-barn ballet.

Another sign that cows show poor judgment is their drinking problem. Of course, this is different than human drinking problems, but then cows aren’t intelligent enough to distill and drink addictive substances.

No, this has to do with water. Twice a day, cows saunter right up to streams and ponds, put their noses in the water, and drink. Then their instincts take over, their tails go up, and you-know-what comes out. Right into the water. It seems they just can’t get over their primordial fear of predators lurking near the water site, so they lighten their load. This hardly creates an atmosphere that makes predators like us feel welcome.

If cows were more sophisticated, they would do what we do, and pay a dollar a pint for out-of-state water in no-return plastic bottles. But you don’t see any cow tracks near the pristine streams shown on those bottles’ glossy labels. Which brings up another issue: it’s almost impossible to entice cows with slick marketing campaigns.

The problem with cows, it’s been said, is that they come from the dumb side of the family. When brains were distributed, their cousin the buffalo (or bison, as they prefer to be called) got a second helping, and cows went away empty. Even Ted Turner, a well-known animal behavior expert, has praised the highly intelligent bison as he fills several Western ranches with them.

Everyone knows how intelligent bison are. This fact is well documented by huge piles of bison bones lying at the bottom of 25-foot cliffs. You see, when Indians dressed up as dogs and chased a few bison over a creek bank, most of the herd went dutifully along. That’s because bison understood the role they played in the colorful history of indigenous peoples. Cows, in contrast, can hardly be coaxed across a highway for fear of becoming road kill.

Speaking of highways, commuting is another form of intelligence that cows don’t have. While humans long ago realized the benefit of living in one county and working in another, cows continue to live and work in the same place. Since their work consists of grazing, and since grass tends to grow in low areas, some say cattle spend way too much time along creek bottoms.

Building fences or herding them out of these sensitive areas is apparently just too much work for some people. But if cattle would think more like we do, they could solve this problem. By fostering riparian blight and high rates of violent crime, cows would be forced into leaving work as quickly as possible and heading an hour or more into the hills to get home.

The really frustrating thing about cows is the educational opportunities they’ve wasted. After generations of domestication, you’d think they would have learned a little more from their human caretakers. But not much has rubbed off on them during their thousand years of contact with a truly superior creature.

Now that I realize my shortcomings are really due to dumb cattle, however, I’m feeling much better about myself. It’s a shame I hadn’t thought of this before.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I think there’s a gate open somewhere.

Chris Frasier is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado ( He manages the family ranch in Limon, Colorado.

High Country News