There’s an old proverb that says familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t know if it always breeds contempt, but familiarity can definitely breed apathy and a lack of appreciation. This is certainly true for our animals.
Concerning our livestock, when you work with them day in and day out, or have your livelihood tied up in them, it’s easy to lose sight of what magnificent creatures they can be.
This is certainly true for cows. Cows have reputations of being big, dumb, slow brutes but nothing, and I mean nothing could be further from the truth!
Cows are actually very interesting animals with lots of unique attributes, and I’ll tell you about 18 of them in this article.
1. Cows are Fast
If you’ve ever watched cows moseying from place to place, you probably think like most people do: cows are slow, right? No, no they’re not!
Cows are surprisingly fast, with the average cow able to run at least 15 mph (24 kmh), and more athletic bulls can top 25 mph (40 kmh).
There are very few people alive that can outrun a cow, and that means you had better have a plan if you ever getting close to cows that might be agitated or aggressive.
Also, cows have a shocking amount of endurance, and most of them can maintain their top speed for at least a couple of hours, and some can go even longer than that. Pretty athletic, wouldn’t you say?
2. Cows Have a Great Sense of Smell
Cows have a remarkably good sense of smell. Their sense of smell is so good, in fact, that they can remember more than 50 unique odors associated with their relatives, close friends in the herd and even their favorite people, and that means you.
Cows also rely on their smell to find food, fresh water and to parse out the choices bits of food from a selection, the latter being especially important if they are eating in a pasture.
They also rely on their sense of smell to detect approaching predators that they didn’t spot, and avoid harmful plants and other hazards instinctively.
3. Cows are Colorblind
Cows, like many other animals, are color blind and specifically they are red-green colorblind.
Cows cannot perceive red or green tones at all, and this means they see those colors as any variation on a shade of gray or even pitch black. Colors that are close to red and green on the color spectrum will appear muted or dim.
This means that cows are left seeing blues, yellows and grayscale in the world. It works well enough for them, and they can definitely make their way around, but they won’t see that beautiful green pasture the same way we do, that’s for sure.
4. Cows Enjoy a 330° Field of View
Cows might lack color vision, but they make up for it with a truly panoramic field of view. Like most prey animals, cows have their eyes located on the sides of their head in a slightly protruding manner.
This can let a cow see nearly all around itself at all times without even moving its head. They rely on their vision to spot approaching predators and react in time, so keeping an eye on, well, everything all at once is key to their survival in the wild.
But, the consequence of having this wide-angle view is that cows have generally poor depth perception and only have a very limited field of view in which they have binocular vision at all, usually between 30° and 50° right in front of them.
5. Cows Can See Great at Night
You might say that the visual system of cows is one of extremes: They don’t have full-color vision, but they have a very wide field of view.
They have a very wide field of view, but poor depth perception. They have poor depth perception… but great night vision!
It’s true, cows can see extremely well at night. If you’ve ever lived out in the country and listened to a herd of cows moseying about the farmyard or the pastor at night with nothing at all wrong, that’s why. They can see just fine to find food and move around.
This also means that cows that escape in the middle of the night have a big advantage over their human pursuers!
6. Your Cows Will Remember You
Some cow owners believe that their cows only respond to them and come running because they are the one that feeds them. This is partially true; cows are indeed highly motivated by food.
But that isn’t the whole story! Your cows will actually remember you, whether they like you or if they dislike you.
Cows can remember your face and other physical characteristics, they will remember your unique smell and even the sound of your voice.
If your cows like you, they will actually start to miss you when you haven’t been around or when they haven’t seen you in a little while. Nice to know you are wanted, huh?
7. Cows are Quite Intelligent
Cows are surprisingly intelligent animals, and a far cry from the stereotype of the big, dumb goofballs that some people seem to think they are.
Cows have an excellent memory, good problem-solving skills, and are even good navigators, able to find their way around vast areas and still return home after searching for food.
Cows have demonstrated surprisingly good problem-solving capabilities, particularly as it concerns getting food or, sometimes, escaping from enclosures. Underestimate their intelligence at your own peril!
8. Cows are Surprisingly Social
Another factor that is related to a cow’s intelligence is that they are surprisingly sophisticated socially.
Any given herd of cow will be a complex web of relationships, with familial and fraternal bonds taking precedence but also a herd “pecking order” of sorts with more dominant cows, males and females, being near the top and most other cows showing deference to mothers that have calves.
This sort of family structure also extends to other, friendly animals for cows that have been well socialized, and even people like I talked about above.
Your cows might accept you as one of their own, or they might not, depending on how you treat them! You don’t want to get on their bad side and be exiled, so take good care of them.
9. Cows Can Live Longer than 20 Years
Most cows that are kept on a farm, particularly those raised for meat, don’t have very long lifespans.
This is because they are either raised and cared for only so they may provide meat for our families and for our society, or else the rigors of high-volume milk production drastically reduces their quality of life and accordingly their years on Earth.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and cows that are treated gently, kindly and well cared for can live for two decades or even a little longer. Your favorite cow might be with you for a significant portion of your own life.
10. If Cows are Happy they Make More Milk
Here’s another mystery of cow life, but one that makes sense to me. If cows are kept happy with a fulfilling life, plenty of friends and lots of enrichment activities cows will produce more milk across all situations than cows that are stressed, uncertain and unhappy.
There has been a lot of ink spilled on the subject scientifically, but I don’t need to read all that stuff to know the reason why: any living thing, including humans, will work better and longer when happy and treated respectfully.
11. Cows Have a 4-Chambered Stomach
It’s often been said that cows have four stomachs, but that’s not entirely true. Cows have a four-chambered stomach. This is because of cows, like goats and sheep, are ruminant animals.
Their food goes through several phases of digestion, and is pre-processed, in a manner of speaking, by the microorganisms that make up their gut flora.
Furthermore, their food can be regurgitated to be chewed, swallowed and processed again in order to extract maximum nutrition.
This is because grass and other plants, typical things that cows eat, don’t contain a whole lot of resources to begin with for such a big animal!
12. Cows are Strictly Herbivorous
Speaking of food, you might not know that cows are strictly herbivores. Herbivores eat only plant, not animal, matter but there is one exception for cows: being mammals, they of course consume animal protein in the form of milk while they are young.
But once they grow up and reach adolescence, to say nothing of adulthood, they eat pretty much nothing but plants at that point.
They can eat a great variety of plants, not just grasses and hay, but they don’t eat meat, insects or anything like that.
13. There are more than 750 Recognized Breeds of Cow
You probably already know that there are several types of cows commonly kept as domesticated livestock, but did you know there are more than 750 different recognized breeds of cows all around the world? It’s true!
From “super-producer” meat and milk domestic breeds to heritage breeds that are a lot closer to various wild cattle, there is a truly dizzying array of bovines out in the world.
14. Cows are Sacred Animals in Some Places
Like I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, getting too familiar with something, enough that it becomes commonplace, means you are likely to become somewhat apathetic to it. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that cows fall victim to this sentiment.
But elsewhere in the world, cows are really serious business, actually serious as it gets! In fact, to Hindus, Buddhists and to certain other cultures around the world cows are literally sacred, or even divine.
15. Cows Can Go Up or Down Stairs
There is an old wife’s tale that says cows are completely unable to navigate stairs, and accordingly if you want to keep cows in place without a gate all you need to do is set up a small staircase and they won’t even try to cross it.
I’m here to tell you, that’s not quite true! Cows are unfamiliar with staircases and would prefer not to navigate them, but they definitely can, they will, and they have in the past.
There are even some pictures out there of cows that have escaped in urban environments making their way up staircases!
16. Cows are Strong Swimmers
Cows are so big, so dense and so heavy that I always thought they would sink like a stone and that is part of the reason they seem very shy around large bodies of water. Turns out, I was wrong once again.
Cows are shockingly good swimmers, and although they cannot deal with a current very well their immense strength, combined with the reduction in weight that the water provides them means they can swim for a very, very long time before they get tired.
17. Cow Dung Has Many Uses
You probably already know that cow dung makes great fertilizer, but did you know it has a lot of other uses?
It sure does. Cow dung can be used as a building material, for making paper and even as biofuel.
Sounds pretty gross, and none of these uses are common in North America, but it’s nice to know that you can make use of cow manure as more than just fertilizer if you have to.
18. Cows are Covered in Hair, Not Fur
We think of most animals that are covered with a short coat of fur as having exactly that: fur. Cows of course have a short coat of fur, or at least most breeds do. Except, they actually don’t: they have hair!
Strictly speaking, the short, insulating hair that cows have is hair because it grows short and serves no other purpose besides insulation.
Don’t worry, lots of people, including lots of scientists, still argue over whether or not this is just semantics, but I, for one, think it just sounds good: cow hair!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.