I was watching Will trying to entice a small bunch of cows through an open gate by baiting them with protein pellets. The last two cows could not find the gate! After three backtracks he finally coaxed them through. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “My dad told me cows are stupid, that’s why we eat them.” I thought that was philosophical genius! Right there in front of our eyes, akin to Columbus suddenly realizing that the earth was round or a 6-year-old discovering he can burp on command! One of those moments when a person sees there really is a master plan in the universe.

However, I hear story after story about men trying to outsmart cows. Temple Grandin has built a fine reputation defining and manipulating cow behavior – but her techniques do not depend on a cow’s intelligence.

The design of her cattle-handling facilities could also be used in bottling plants, air conditioning ducts and irrigation systems. It’s all about flow.

It is true we can use fear, temperament or food to get cows to do as we ask. Dairymen have perfected the system.

They lure one cow to come in the parlor and stanchion with grain and the rest of the cows follow. They learn the system but hunger is the instinctive reason they come, rather than intelligence.


On the open range, once a cow finds the waterhole they can find it again even if there is no trail. I’m not sure it is all because of their sense of smell.

It’s almost like they have their own GPS, like geese, to guide them. Witness their ability to hide their calf, walk half a mile to water then return to the calf’s hiding place. Instinct or intelligence?

Is it stupidity when you try and run a range bull through a chute three days in a row and he resists? Is it stupidity when you get a roping steer that ducks his head?

How about when an old cow sticks her nose in the ground at her annual “Fall Mouthing?” Is she really thinking, “I don’t want Farmer Bill to see I’ve got a loose tooth”?

Maybe stupid is too harsh a word. We could say learning handicapped, SAT negative, IQ diminished, thinking deprived, thick-headed, brain dead. And stupid compared to what? A creosote post, a box of gravel, a tamping bar?

To be fair to the cow, we must look at the company they keep … cows and, of course, cowboys – who aren’t stupid, but sometimes you can’t tell. PD