How to Pet a Cow

Several years back I visited Thailand at the same time some friends were staying in a villa nearby. They had their 18-month old daughter with them, as well as the grandparents from both sides making it a jolly family affair. I got on well with the kid and she used to clamber all over me, perhaps mistaking me for a climbing frame, but at the beginning of their trip she objected to being picked up by her grandmother. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: although I know little about small children, I know a fair bit about cows.

If you want to stroke a cow in a field it is quite easy to do so, but you have to go about it the right way. Cattle are easily startled so if you approach them they’ll run off. If you walk up to them slowly, they’ll run off again. If you keep this up you’ll be chasing them around the field all day. What you have to do is walk into the middle of them and stay very still. Cows are incredibly curious creatures and once their initial timidness wears off they’ll build up the courage to approach you, very slowly and in a herd. If you stay still, avoiding sudden movements, they will form a circle around you and close in incrementally. One will step forward gingerly and then leap back, but another – seeing nothing bad happened – will move into its place, bringing the rest along. This will repeat until they’re in touching distance. Then you hold out your hand. They’ll look at it with enormous black eyes, their ears twitching comically, and eventually one will stretch its neck forward to sniff it. It will recoil as if you stink, but it’ll come back for more within half a minute. Soon it will lick your hand with a giant tongue that feels like sandpaper. A cow’s tongue is very thick and rough, which is necessary because they eat by wrapping it around long blades of grass and pulling it into their mouths. This is why cows need proper pasture whereas sheep, which eat by nibbling with their teeth, can get by on much shorter grass, e.g. fields which cows have already grazed.

Anyway, you’ll notice once it starts licking you that its tongue is very rough. You’ll also have seen by now that a cow’s tongue can reach a good two-inches into either nostril which contains a veritable reservoir of snot. Pretty soon the cow will be licking your sleeve, coat, and everything else covering you in a white slobber and by that stage you can stroke its head and do pretty much whatever you want. The rest will join in and, unless you move, they might push you over. Not out of meanness, they just don’t realise you’re not there to be leaned on. It can be quite disconcerting sometimes, surrounded by cows, and especially so when you’re walking through a field and they start chasing you. If this happens, simply stop and walk towards them and they’ll leave you alone for a bit. This works with heifers, bullocks, and cows. If there’s a bull in the field, don’t go in there at all, and don’t even think about trying to stroke it by standing very still. How can you tell it’s a bull? Don’t worry, he’ll let you know. Every farm occasionally gets an ultra-friendly cow that walks straight up and starts slobbering all over you within thirty seconds. I remember trying to spread straw in a cowshed one winter and had a bullock licking my jacket the whole time with its giant, rasping tongue. By the end I was soaked, but it’s actually quite fun.

I thought of this, well over 15 years after I’d last set foot on a farm, when I was in Thailand. My friends’ toddler would play with me because I sat there and let her come to me. By contrast, her grandmother would approach her and try to pick her up, which she didn’t like. Looking at it, there’s a lot you can learn about toddlers by dealing with cows. The snot levels are approximately similar, for example.

The reason I wrote this post is because this morning I came across this video of a beaver leading cows around a pasture in Canada.

The important thing to realise is that this doesn’t have much to do with the beaver being a beaver, but rather an intriguing object that is moving around and doesn’t startle the animals. You could get the same effect with a football on a piece of string, or a remote-controlled car. Like I said, cows are extraordinarily curious creatures. A lot like toddlers, in fact.

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26 thoughts on “How to Pet a Cow

  1. The easiest way I found was to go to the Walkabout, ask where on the South Island they were from and would they like a pint of snakebite?

  2. As the son of a dairy farmer, I agree with all you said.

    I would add two things though:

    – don’t be trying to get too clever with cows with calves at the teat, especially if you’re walking your dog. All the recently reported deaths of those killed by cattle have tended to involve that combo.

    – A good rule of thumb is, the cuter the cow the meaner the bull. Jersey and Guernsey cows are very cute, the bulls are mean bastards. Beef breeds like Herefords and Galloways tend to produce pretty mild-mannered bulls that you would have to seriously provoke to get any trouble from.

  3. As the son of a dairy farmer, I agree with all you said.

    Good!

    don’t be trying to get too clever with cows with calves at the teat

    Ah, I only have experience with heifers and bullocks. Never got involved with calves that hadn’t been weaned.

    A good rule of thumb is, the cuter the cow the meaner the bull.

    I don’t have much experience with bulls, either. That’s interesting, though.

  4. (i) Notter otter: the caption says beaver.

    (ii) I watched a sea otter on a West Highland beach once. Quick and lithe it was, not a potential cowherd.

    (iii) You can approach cows successfully: you approach very slowly from the front, murmuring gently. True, they might turn up their noses and wander off, but it used to work, sometimes, with the herd in the pasture next door to my boyhood house. Of course, maybe they were just used to me; it was my lunchtime route home from school.

    (iv) On the other hand I did once try it on a herd of stirks late one Spring: I ended up vaulting the hedge.

  5. Having said which, your chances of meeting a dairy bull in a field are pretty much zero: they’re all detained in secure accommodation. On our farm that involved lots of concrete and steel.

  6. “The snot levels are approximately similar, for example.”

    Indeed. And similar shit levels, too.

    A well written and entertaining post, Tim.

  7. Cows weigh around half a ton iirc,

    People are killed by them every year – admittedly, usually there is small yappy dog involved, but even so.

    Best avoided imho.

  8. Best avoided imho.

    Kinda hard when you’re sent into a pen to spread straw around.

    You’re right though, they are heavy. Try pushing one out the way, or slapping one on the rump with a bare hand. You always want to avoid being between a cow and a concrete wall with no room to escape.

  9. On the other hand I did once try it on a herd of stirks late one Spring

    I had to look up stirks: must be a Scottish thing. Anyway, it reminds me of a parable a farmer’s son once told me:

    Young bull: Let’s run down the field and shag a cow!
    Old bull: Let’s walk down and shag them all.

  10. I’ve often thought that much of what we regard as human behaviour is mostly mamal behaviour plus a bit of intellectualising.

  11. True about the “ultra friendly cow”. I worked for a year with friesians on a kibbutz, and there was one (555, her number was) who always came over to say hello, and would curl up and let me lean against her like a big settee in the paddock. She seemed to take special care to move slowly around me, and seemed almost human. More so than most of the kibbutzniks, anyway.

    I got into a debate about “nature and nuture” with a couple of Dutch guys who lived there. We set up a little experiment, and picked out a calf at random and gave it loads of attention. We carried her around while she was tiny, stroked her, and if passing we would stop to talk to her. (Most calves seem to be friendlier, presumably they are programmed to bond with mum…) I left the kibbutz before the calf grew up, but I sometimes wonder what became of her. Maybe she amazed later workers there with her friendliness and gentleness. Almost human…

  12. @Sam Vara

    Somewhere that calf (now a cow) is composing a Facebook post about how she was groomed and hastagging it Metoo

  13. “…there was one (555, her number was) who always came over to say hello…”

    Was the bull’s number 666, by any chance?

  14. “Somewhere that calf (now a cow) is composing a Facebook post about how she was groomed and hastagging it Metoo”

    #Mootoo

  15. “Was the bull’s number 666, by any chance?”

    They should be so lucky! The “bull” was a plastic pipette wielded by a nice guy called Ephraim.

  16. Never pet a cow through a fence. Climb up and pet the cow over the fence. Otherwise they’ll lean on your arm and break it.

    Don’t let a cow lick you and then walk near the bull pen. It . . . energizes them.

    I think you have your next book subject figured out here. Good insight into human/bovine psyche.

  17. Splendid notion, bobby. I’ll give Tim the title: The Cow that Murdered the Pope. That’ll bring the punters in.

  18. “Beef breeds like Herefords and Galloways tend to produce pretty mild-mannered bulls that you would have to seriously provoke to get any trouble from.”

    Herefords, yes. My own limited experience of beef cattle (several weeks on an Australian farm) is that you could carve steaks out of a living Hereford bull and get nothing more than a disapproving look. OTOH, the Angus bull had its own extremely large field surrounded by warning signs. Even the Angus cows were aggressive. I remember one treating an electric fence as a challenge and fighting its way through it (although the bull was admittedly on the other side).

  19. Thanks for this. I live next to a dairy farm, and although the cows aren’t out much, sometimes I can go out of the back door and they’re 10 yards away from me. I’m naturally nervous of all animals, but I’ve always wanted to approach them and give them a stroke. “Can an animal bite with one set of teeth?” usually goes through my mind, and I err on the side of caution.
    A friend of mine was brought up on a farm in Llandow near Bridgend, and he recounted the story in the village of how a cow with calf had attacked a man, and on knocking him over had then deliberately kneeled on his chest to kill him. That would tie in with what Recusant said about cows with calves.
    It’s a shame you don’t have children of your own. From what I’ve gathered reading your posts over the years, you’re a big sociable bloke, technically competent and able to put food on the table. You’re in your early 40s’, so there may still be time. There isn’t much else worth doing in reality. In ten years’ time, you could be left with a huge emptiness and an estate that has no heir except for the taxman and second rate hangers on.
    Regards, Andrew

  20. I would love to introduce this moron to my Angus bull. It would not be a pretty sight for the ‘petter’, but the bull would feel no pain! My cows are pretty civil, except of course, when they have a new calf to protect. Then I don’t push my luck.

  21. I would love to introduce this moron to my Angus bull. It would not be a pretty sight for the ‘petter’, but the bull would feel no pain!

    Welcome, Farmer Palmer!

  22. From what I’ve gathered reading your posts over the years, you’re a big sociable bloke, technically competent and able to put food on the table. You’re in your early 40s’, so there may still be time. There isn’t much else worth doing in reality. In ten years’ time, you could be left with a huge emptiness and an estate that has no heir except for the taxman and second rate hangers on.

    Thanks, Andrew. Alas, a degree of emptiness has always been with me and I’ve been advised by a handful of people I trust that on no account should an attempt be made to fill this with kids! That ship’s sailed, I’m afraid.

  23. A friend of mine was brought up on a farm in Llandow near Bridgend, and he recounted the story in the village of how a cow with calf had attacked a man, and on knocking him over had then deliberately kneeled on his chest to kill him.

    Yeah, I heard stories of cows putting one hoof on a man’s chest and putting all their weight on that one leg to kill him. But I suspect there was a calf involved: I only dealt with bullocks and heifers which, by definition, have not the slightest idea what a calf is (at least not one that belongs to them)!

  24. “That ship’s sailed, I’m afraid.”

    No problems with that and yes you wouldn’t create them to fill a need, so your mates are good counsel. Although I would remind you that one of the wonders of life and being a male is that you ever had change of heart then you have a good forty years ahead of you with the ability to sire a child.

    So I would say that it’s far too early for you to say that ship has sailed, even if you think that way now.

  25. As noted cows are such interesting animals, and bulls of most any persuasion are to be avoided. Another thought: some of the French beef breeds are crazy. I have been run over by Charolaise steers while trying to move them more than a few times.

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