Cattle: Part 2: Stampedes, Horns, and Intelligence

I’ve already done a post on Cattle Terms. Here are some other issues I’ve noticed, the place where other annoying mistakes are made.

One of our milk cows, Ivy, getting a chin scratch from my brother.

Stampede: This is another thing that annoys me. Basically, a stampede is weaponized cattle, which seems cool, but it won’t work as well as one thinks. This tactic has been used in literature at least as far back as The Jungle Book.
In a modern book, two or three riders chased twenty head of cattle across a flat and into the enemy, trampling them. This inaccuracy made my brother so mad he almost put the book down.
So, how do most books get this wrong? Even in confined spaces like a narrow corral, most cattle will do their utmost to avoid going near a human unless they think going through the human is their only way out.
The stampede in Jungle Book used buffalo, and most likely would have worked, for multiple reasons. Firstly, wolves drove the buffalo into a canyon from two directions. There were cows and calves in one herd. As I mentioned before, cows are very aggressive if they think their calves are in danger. Wolves and tigers are going to get the cows very angry. Being in a canyon, the herd couldn’t spread out and the crush of bodies would force the huge animals to trample anything in front of them, including Shere Khan. That is why this case worked.
In the other book, there was nothing solid to stop the cattle from going around the people. The cattle had no reason to trample armed men when they could have gone around them.

When it comes to writing, I’d suggest not going with a stampede. It’s not nearly as good of a tactic as the movies and books seem to think, but if you must, here are some tips:

You need something to keep the cattle from scattering. They cannot be expected to run anyone over if they’re in an open field so you need a canyon or something similar. (If you’re using fences, they’d better be strong enough to stop a bull.) Most modern domestic cattle are pretty hard to get riled up to the point the herd wants to trample a human. Cattle don’t run for long distances uphill. It’s hard work. Running downhill is easier, so they’d get more speed headed downhill.
Cattle are not battering rams. Don’t try to use them to knock down a good fence or something big. They won’t want to run into a dead end. Cattle are smart enough to know where the fences are. They’ve got to be really spooked to run into something that will cause them pain.
Get them really spooked. Lion King used hyenas, Jungle Book used wolves. These are natural predators of bovines, so it got them panicked enough to become aggressive or at least not care what they step on. A stock whip could help in this case. Keep in mind the characters causing the stampede need to be able to keep up with the herd or the herd will slow once they’ve left the threat behind. Cattle can run much faster than a human, but not as fast as a horse or large canine.
Another advantage Jungle Book and Lion King have is wild animals, not domestic animals. Wild animals haven’t had the aggression bred out of them so they’re a better option for killing something like a lion cub. Some wilder breeds, like longhorns, will be easier to stampede than our herd of Angus. Young cattle are also more likely to run fast than old cattle.
Don’t use a herd of bulls for this job. Bulls don’t herd well. They’d rather fight with each other. If whoever is trying to get them to stampede pushes them too hard, one might get sick of that person and trample him or her before going back to fighting other bulls that got within his personal space. Getting a bull to run when he doesn’t want to is dangerous. You could get them to run, but it generally takes more work.

On to some other issues:

Horns: A common mistake is the idea that bulls have horns and cows don’t. Horns are dependent on the breed of cattle, not the gender. Horns grow throughout the life of the animal, though they grow the most in the first few years. Some cattle are polled, meaning they never grow horns. (Most beef cattle are now bred to be polled.) Others are dehorned, where the horns are removed, normally when they’re young and the horns are small. This is done for safety. A cow or bull can cause damage with their horns by goring people, horses, or other cattle.

Breeds: Cattle come in different breeds and colors. Dairy breeds produce more than enough milk for their calf, so the owners can milk the cow without starving the calf. Some of our milk cows can raise two or three calves. Beef breeds produce enough milk for their calf, but most don’t produce enough for a family and a calf. If you’re doing a book set in a historical era, research the breeds of cattle used and be careful about mentioning color if you’re unsure of what breed would be used.

Sweating: One book I read mentioned sweaty cows. Cattle pant to cool themselves. They don’t sweat.

Mooing: Cattle are normally pretty quiet. Most loud mooing happens when a cow gets separated from her calf. The cow moos to tell the calf where she is. She will make a quiet moo when she’s near the calf. Cattle will sometimes moo to communicate, though it’s not constant like a cow looking for her calf. A calf will bawl if it’s hungry or lost. Bulls will bellow to challenge another bull.
Cattle will also bawl if they’re in pain.

Personality and intelligence: Cattle aren’t at the top of the intelligent animals list, but they can be very clever. (Some youtube videos of cows pumping water can attest to that.) They have a good memory when it comes to places they’ve been, so if they’re taken along the same path a year after they traveled that path, they often know where they’re going.
They each have their own personality too. Some like being scratched under the chin, others would prefer treats. Some are wild while others will follow you around like a dog. Some will tolerate cats and dogs in the barn, others will come unglued if a cat runs under them.

If anyone has more questions about cattle, I’ll do my best to answer them.


About Jessi L. Roberts

I live and work on my family’s cattle ranch in eastern Montana. I have a flock of chickens, a hyper golden retriever, some cows, and a few horses. I enjoy fantasy and science fiction and my head is full of wild sci-fi story ideas, some involving apocalypses and others involving aliens. I have been published twice in Havok Magazine, an imprint of Splickity.
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9 Responses to Cattle: Part 2: Stampedes, Horns, and Intelligence

  1. FaithSong says:

    This is a good post. *nods*
    One thing that irritates me in stories is when someone milks a cow to feed a newborn baby… Because babies that young can’t digest cow milk. 😛


  2. Pingback: Cattle: Part 1: Terms | Jessi L. Roberts, author

  3. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article!


  4. Pingback: Things I Dislike in Books | Jessi L. Roberts, author

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