How dumb are cows? As one of our favorite creatures to eat, cows get a bad rap for being dumb herd animals, but I don’t believe they’re all that stupid, and I see knowledge behind those bovine eyes. My father, who works with cows on a daily basis and has been doing so for 20 years, agrees. He “talks” to cows via head motions and posture, and the cows respond to his bidding more often than not. So, how dumb are cows?
Animal activists came to the side of cows back in 1971, defending bovine intelligence in the face of impending death, pain, and slaughter. Most people believed cows were so stupid they had no idea that they were about to be slaughtered, and actually were not smart enough to decipher pain in reality. On the contrary, cows have the ability to be trained to come when called, obey basic commands, and carry out complex instructions. I’ve seen it myself- my father can tilt his head at a cow in a non-threatening gesture, and a cow will come to him in response.
Hoard’s Dairyman 1971 Christmas issue raised the question about how dumb cows are, and their dairy experts, authors Albright and Kilgour, defended cow intelligence by pointing out that “After the calf is born, the mother forms a bond with her youngster. The unique learning phenomenon is established soon after birth.” and that “the cow is a most versatile animal with unique behavioral traits.”
Cows communicate with one another vocally and via dominance and body gestures, much like dogs. I’ve seen cows open gates by using their tongues to dislodge chains, and have seen cows sneak in and out of pens by squeezing their huge bodies between the fence and their feeding troughs. I wouldn’t consider breaking out to be more than just an accident, but seeing them figure out how to get back in again is a real feat.
Cows also seem to remember what pens they belong to. With 12 different open enclosures that we often gather all the cattle from, most of the cows, even among all the confusion, break off with their own individual herds and guide themselves back to their identical enclosures. Sounds pretty bright to me, as with hundreds of cows running around, they still know where they need to be going.
Cows also play with one another, kicking and frolicking, much like horses do. They know to huddle when a storm is coming, and can seek shelter in odd places, like against fences or under trees. I’ve seen bovine intelligence firsthand, as these curious critters surely know to run when they see the vaccination bag in your hand! Working with cows myself for the last 8 years, I would say that cows are very smart animals, indeed. They may look like they are simply chewing their cud all day long, but they are very well aware of where they are and what is going on around them.
Do they know they’re being slaughtered? Unfortunately, I’ve seen this firsthand as well. The first one to go seems to have no idea, but the remaining ones to the last freak out like none other, trying to escape by bolting and jumping, screaming frantically in fear at their impending demise. I’ve seen cows faint as they awaited slaughter. If that isn’t knowledge of what to come, what is?
personal experience with cattle