Holy Cow

Ever get that feeling when you’re in a field and there’s a sleeping cow and you’re trying really hard to push it over but it just won’t budge? No matter how much you try the cow just remains stationary? Yeah I get that a lot too. You think to yourself, “Perhaps I’m just too weak” and walk away, relatively disgruntled.

Cow-tipping, believe it or not, was considered as a form of entertainment for rural citizens in the 1970s who lacked any alternative. This seems to have been falsely passed down as an urban legend, however, because scientific studies have revealed that cow-tipping is simply not possible for one person to accomplish on their own. Simple physics defies it and therefore cows are pretty amazing. Other key factors also serve to disprove this myth, such as the fact that cows normally enter deep sleep lying down anyway, and it’s probably quite hard to sneak up on a herd of cows that are in light-sleep mode. The myth seems to rely on the presumption that most cattle are slow-moving, dim-witted, and weak-legged animals, and thus easily pushed over without much force. They are, however, very well aware of their surroundings and are very difficult to surprise, due to their excellent senses of both smell and hearing.

But let us consider a situation in which you are confronted by a singular, upright cow in deep sleep, and you attempt to overturn it. Would it be possible? In 2005, Dr. Margo Lillie, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, led a study with her student Tracy Boechler to answer this very question. They concluded that tipping an average cow would require almost 3000 newtons of force at the optimal angle. Based on the estimation that a single person can exert about 660 newtons of force, this meant that a minimum of at least four people would be required to apply enough force to push over a rigid cow. Since a cow also has the ability to brace itself and withstand the pushing force, they suggested that five or six people would, most likely, be needed. Therefore Lillie and Boechler concluded that it is improbable for cows to be tipped over in this way and Lillie stated that “it just makes the physics of it all, in my opinion, impossible.”

Biologist Steven Vogel even thought that in their study they had overestimated the pushing ability of an individual human. He used data from a paper published by Cotterell and Kamminga from Cambridge University, who had estimated that humans exert a pushing force of 280 newtons. This would suggest that at least 10 people would be needed to tip over a non-reacting cow. Taking into account the fact that standing cows are not in deep sleep and have alert reflexes like other animals, he says “If the cow does no more than modestly widen its stance without an overall shift of its center of gravity, about 4,000 newtons or 14 pushers would be needed – quite a challenge to deploy without angering the cow.”

Yeah, stay away from cows. They’re pretty strong.



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