Cow tipping is the purported activity of sneaking up on any unsuspecting or sleeping upright cow and pushing it over for entertainment. The practice of cow tipping is generally considered an urban legend, and stories of such feats viewed as tall tales. The implication that rural citizens seek such entertainment due to lack of alternatives is viewed as a stereotype. The concept of cow tipping apparently developed in the 1970s, though tales of animals that cannot rise if they fall has historical antecedents dating to the Roman Empire.
Cows routinely lie down and can easily regain their footing unless sick or injured. Scientific studies have been conducted to determine if cow tipping is theoretically possible, with varying conclusions. All agree that cows are large animals that are difficult to surprise and will generally resist attempts to be tipped. Estimates suggest a force of between 3,000 and 4,000 newtons (670 and 900 pounds-force) is needed, and that at least four and possibly as many as fourteen people would be required to achieve this. In real-life situations where cattle have to be laid on the ground, or "cast", such as for branding, hoof care or veterinary treatment, either rope restraints are required or specialized mechanical equipment is used that confines the cow and then tips it over. On rare occasions, cattle can lie down or fall down in proximity to a ditch or hill that restricts their normal ability to rise without help. Cow tipping has many references in popular culture and is also used as a figure of speech.
Some versions of the urban legend suggest that because cows sleep standing up, it is possible to approach them and push them over without the animals reacting. However, cows only sleep lightly while standing up, and they are easily awakened. They lie down to sleep deeply. Furthermore, numerous sources have questioned the practice's feasibility, since most cows weigh over 450 kilograms (1⁄2 short ton) and easily resist any lesser force.
A 2005 study led by Margo Lillie, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, and her student Tracy Boechler, concluded that tipping a cow would require a force of nearly 3,000 newtons (670 lbf) and is therefore impossible to accomplish by a single person. Her calculations found that it would require more than four people to apply enough force to push over a cow, based on an estimate that a single person could exert 660 newtons (150 lbf) of force. However, since a cow can brace itself, Lillie and Boechler suggested that five or six people would, most likely, be needed. Further, cattle are well aware of their surroundings and are very difficult to surprise, due to excellent senses of both smell and hearing. Lillie and Boechler's analysis found that if a cow did not move, the principles of static physics suggest that two people might be able to tip a cow if its centre of mass were pushed over its hooves before the cow could react. However, cows are not rigid or unresponsive, and the faster humans have to move, the less force they can exert. Thus Lillie and Boechler concluded that it is unlikely that cows can actually be tipped over in this way. Lillie stated, "It just makes the physics of it all, in my opinion, impossible."
Although he agrees that it would take a force of about 3,000 newtons to push over a standing cow, biologist Steven Vogel thinks that the study by Lillie and Boechler overestimates the pushing ability of an individual human. Using data from Cotterell and Kamminga, who estimated that humans exert a pushing force of 280 newtons, Vogel suggests that someone applying force at the requisite height to topple a cow might generate a maximum push of no more than 300 newtons. By this calculation, at least 10 people would be needed to tip over a non-reacting cow. However, this combined force requirement, he says, might not be the greatest impediment to such a prank. Standing cows are not asleep and like other animals have ever-vigilant reflexes. "If the cow does no more than modestly widen its stance without an overall shift of its center of gravity", he says, "about 4,000 newtons or 14 pushers would be needed—quite a challenge to deploy without angering the cow."
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