longitudinal butter


This just in: cows tend to align north-south when left to their own devices! I find it stunning that no hunter, over the course of a hundred thousand years of organized language, ever figured it out – but better late than never, right?

Apparently they might be sensitized to the magnetic field of the earth – a lot like many fish, whales, birds and bats. Really, think about all the times you’ve been lost in the countryside, hobbling together makeshift compasses out of paper clips floating in water, when you could have just asked a herd of dadgum cows.

I decided to test this theory with the precision of my prep school science labs, because, well, shit: we’ve got cows, and I know which way is north! So I looked at all the random pictures from the farm to see if there was a north-south trend among our lovely milk-providing friends in the fields.

Picture #1 – It’s about 2am, summer 2002, and I hear a bunch of rustling in the field outside. I grab my camera, tiptoe outside, walk as silently as I can into the meadow, and stop somewhere in a patch of grass. It’s a new moon, and there is absolutely no light anywhere – total pitch black. So I lift up my camera, press the button, and the flash lights up:


needless to say, I was scared SHITLESS

Cows orientation: all facing south

Picture #2 – Summer 2003. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I grab her and take a self-picture of the both of us. Unbeknownst to me, cows lurk on the field behind us, and across the street:


Cows orientation: 75% of them facing north

Picture #3 – Late summer 2004, it’s unbelievably hot, and I’m thinking the cows must be miserable. I stand on our fence and snap this languid shot:


Cows orientation: all except two facing or sitting north/south

Picture #4 – Spring 2006, and I’m taking pictures of the farm for our rental listing. I figure the gals are in the field, and indeed, they do not disappoint:


Cows orientation: 7 of 11 facing north or south

So there you have it: it’s all absolutely true. I don’t know how you can possibly get more verification. So next time you’re fiddling with your GPS or pulling over to a shitty gas station to ask directions… well, you know what to do.

0 thoughts on “longitudinal butter

  1. Matt

    I grew up on a farm that raised beef cattle and never noticed, of course, but if I had had to guess why they mostly all faced the same direction, I would’ve guessed it’s because cows general move about the pasture as they graze, however slowly, and they move in a herd. It’s a shame my grandfather’s have passed, both were farmers, I would’ve loved to ask them about this.
    By the way, is the BBC article’s last line (below) some kind of British humor?
    “…and if Scottish cattle are the exception to the rule!”

  2. Bud

    If Scots cows are like my Scots-American family, they might orient themselves east-west just to be contrary (if it suited them).

  3. Schultz

    Do ya think they might just be avoiding direct sunlight? I’m glad to see lots of dollars going towards life changing research like this.
    From my 6 year old:
    What’s a Cow’s favorite activity?
    Going to the MOOOOOOOOOOOVIES!

  4. dean

    My dad, whose family raised cattle when he was a wee lad, always told me that cows would face the same direction mainly to avoid brrezes blowing against their broad sides. He would always tell me that cows would tell them when a thunderstorm was coming because they’d all orient in the same direction away from the coming wind. Once again, rural farmers of SE NC are ahead of the curve.

  5. jje

    Wait, wait – my new favorite cow joke:
    What are the two dirtiest animals in the barnyard?
    “Brown chicken, brown cow…”
    (Okay, it’s one you have to sing out loud to get. *wink* )

  6. CM

    jje, can i be the first to say i don’t get it? is it because i live in new jersey? (and yeah there are cows here but not where i live)
    my fave is a knock knock joke…
    PERSON 1: Knock knock.
    PERSON 2: Who’s there?
    PERSON 1: Interrupting cow.
    PERSON 2: Interup-
    Ya have to do it to a kid. Hours of laughter!

  7. wyatt

    cm– i always went with “impatient cow”. and the kids can mix it up with different animals: impatient duck, interrupting howler monkey…
    i skimmed the primary source for the geomagnetic cows in PNAS, and was pleased that they corrected for magnetic declination, and discussed local slope and sun time. but Ian’s nocturnal data collection clearly eliminates any solar dependence. however, they didn’t mention the effect of these:
    and it was probably funded in euros, not dollars.

  8. erica

    jje – also our current favorite! CM – if sung aloud, you make it sound like the soundtrack to a bad porno (bawhn-chicka-bawhn-bawnh).

  9. jje

    Yep, what Erica said! It’s even funnier when you have a gaggle of toddlers and preschoolers singing it oh-so-innocently at a playdate.
    My other current favorite, not cow-related:
    Grasshopper walks into a bar.
    Bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you!”
    Grasshopper replies, “What? You have a drink named Kevin?”

  10. Schultz

    The cow magnet is very interesting.
    However, the potato gun that is advertised is a piss poor rendition of the real deal. My old PVC potato guns would fire a whole potato over 100 yards including fire out of the barrel. The fuel for this? The worst hair spray you could buy.
    See the travesty here:

  11. Ian

    I also like how the cow magnet is recommended for children ages 8 and up – you know, as long as you’re eight, you can play games with your cows’ gastrointestinal system.
    1. Feed cow the magnet
    2. Continue to feed cow nails and barbed wire, worry-free

  12. janet regis

    ( the latest research i heard ( no pun intended) on RADIO 4!! )is that humans have a natural compass too ……….!


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