The intelligence of cows

By Ruth Nunez

A quick call to Jim. What’s going on, Jim?

“Right now we’re moving all the cows –51 pair in this pasture– over to good grass at Rasmussen’s. And, you know, some of ‘em are about as bright as a dead flashlight, this mornin’. I come out here to feed them… I let out a war whoop and some of them walk to the gate in two minutes. Some of them walk to the gate in 45.”

Could it be they’re not hungry?

“No, they’re just not used to the routine. But once they get the idea that there’s fresh grass over there, why… You’d better get outta the way, because they’re gonna run you down.”

So how smart are cows, Jim?

“Well, I’m in the cow business because they’re a lot smarter than any other animals I’ve worked with in agriculture. The four dumbest animals in the world are [in ascending order] sheep, turkeys, chickens, and tourists.”

Oh wait, Jim… you don’t want to say that, do you?

“Well sure I do! You ever been on a cattle drive, on your horse, and you need to cross a road, and the tourists are watching from their cars? They ain’t smart enough to just sit still and let the cattle walk around them. Instead, they won’t stop moving! They seem to think they need to help you herd the cattle with their cars, and pretty soon the cows get all balled up and excited, then you have chaos. So you know that right there’s the dumbest animal on the face of the earth [he means the tourist, evidently].”

LOL (as I try to move him away from the tourist rant). Well, is a cow as smart as, let’s say, a four-year-old child?

“Oh yeah. But listen, when I grew up we had sheep. And I will freely admit that there’s been more money made on sheep than there will ever be made on cattle. But those sheep would get up, they’d walk across that center crik [creek] from the pen, and the crik would be swollen with rain and 8 feet deep. The sheep would walk right into it and commit suicide! Greg and I’d have to rope them nasty, smelly things, pull ‘em across there every day, and pretty soon you’d want to just grab your rifle and put the whole bunch of ‘em in the crik. [I know he doesn’t mean this!]”

So sheep are dumber than cows, then, is that what you’re saying?

“That’s right. A whole bunch dumber. And then you’ve got turkeys. When the thunderstorm comes over, the turkeys will run out there and stand out there, lookin’ up, with their mouths open and drown on the hillside!

“And then you’ve got chickens. You go in the chicken pen every day and every day the chickens trample each other, smother each other, running to the other end of the chicken house! They know you, they know you have food, and they run the other way.

“And then, of course, you have tourists. Like I said, you go on a cattle drive and you see a confrontation between a cow and a tourist. Hey! Just put the car in park and let the cows go around! Right there’s the dumbest animal on the face of the earth.”

Jim, I may have to edit this so you don’t make any enemies!

“(Bellowing laughter on the other end of the line.) OK.”

So seriously, cows are pretty smart, aren’t they?

“Darned right they’re smart. They can smell a hole in the fence from 2 miles away! And the ones around here are good mothers. They take care of their babies and each other. They crowd up when it’s cold and take care of each other, too. Darned right they’re smart.”

Would you ever say that there’s been a time when a cow’s been smarter than you?

“Oh yeah, I’ve been outsmarted lots of times! You’re darned right!”

But by a cow?

“Oh sure! Yesterday, the cattle tore the corral down out there at Nielsen’s. There they were, headed up to Pleasant Valley Road. Boy they were going, but they were going someplace. So I got ahead of them, and fell. But they made it back into the gate, the right gate, before I had the other roadside gate shut! They knew right where they came from. Back to where they belonged.”

So I guess we’ll say that you’re still smarter than the cows.

“Well I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.”

Everything else OK, Jim?

“Everything else is going well. We’re going to finish two stretches of fence this week and get started on a third one. We’re going to get the hole fixed in the corral at Nielsen’s, and we’re going to get started on the water system at Watt ranch. All of those projects are going on this week. And we’re getting started to get ready for irrigation season. So far we’re keeping up.”

OK, try to keep it together, then, Jim. And don’t do anything unintelligent today, alright?

“Alright. You have a good day today too! Take care.”


  1. My Border Collie agrees with Jim: sheep are just too dumb to bother with. Yet when we get the chance to head to the sparsely-populated Uinta Mtns on the WY-UT border for some hiking, he eagerly herds free range (BLM) cattle off the trail. For a town dog, he does a bonnie wee job of it!

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