Rural Life

The World’s Smartest Cow

What my steer, Elvis, has taught me.

Elvis and Jon

I had to punch my new Brown Swiss steer in the nose recently. I’m not proud of it, but he had it coming. Elvis, who weighs 1,800 pounds, had sneaked up behind me and grabbed the hood of my sweatshirt in his mouth. That I was wearing the shirt seemed of no concern to him. I felt my feet lift off the ground. He was dangling me like a Labrador enjoying a smelly sock.

So, I wriggled around and slugged him—more of a tap, really. He seemed startled, even hurt. He let go. Feeling bad, I wondered if a cow could be trained.

He needed it. “We’ve never seen such a friendly cow,” farmer friends kept telling me. True enough. When people enter the pasture, Elvis comes running up to greet them. The effect is rather like a building lifting off its foundations and charging down a hill: You just pray he can stop if he wants to. He sticks out his big tongue and slurps. He grabs at shirts and hats. If you sit down, he’ll happily put his head in your lap. But since his landings are neither graceful nor accurate, it’s not an entirely welcome gesture.

Taking snacks to the donkeys one morning, I’d learned that Elvis loved apples. He came lumbering over, snatched one out of my hand, and let out an enthusiastic bellow. Maybe I could take advantage of this. Soon, when I came to the pasture gate, held up an apple, and yelled “Elvis, come,” he trotted right over. If he got too intimate or pushy, I flicked him on the nose with two fingers. When he backed up, I held up my hand and said, “Stay,” in the clear, enthusiastic voice recommended by dog trainers. To the amazement of me and my neighbors, he did. (“I wonder if you could teach him to sit or lie down,” one of the neighbors asked.)

People in town began showing up to see the trained steer. “Maybe nobody tried to do it before,” my friend Peter Hanks, a dairy farmer and photographer, observed. “But then, he’s an unusual cow.”

Elvis was Peter’s before he was mine. Peter has been farming for 40 years and is, to say the least, decidedly unsentimental about livestock. He’s has been milking cows or sending them off to market—that is, the slaughterhouse—for most of his life. They’re his livelihood: He cannot afford to get emotionally attached to them. He keeps them in big dairy barns, feeds them silage (a sour-smelling fermented mixture of corn and hay), and doesn’t give them names.

So, I was surprised when he showed up at my place one day, hemming and hawing about a steer he called Brownie. He’d never seen a cow quite like him. “He follows me around like a dog,” Peter reported. “He puts his head on my shoulder. He licks me.” And, possibly displaying an unusual ability to figure things out, the steer had refused to get on the market truck. For the first time, Peter confessed with some embarrassment, he hesitated to send a cow to slaughter. Elvis had missed several trucks.

That must be some cow, I thought, wondering why Peter was telling me this story—until I realized that he’d come to the one guy he knew stupid or crazy enough to take in the friendly monster.

Peter was between a rock and hard place. He knew his standing as a farmer would plummet if word got around that he was keeping a marketable steer as a large pet. But he also knew that giving him away would bring even greater jeers.

“Am I guessing right?” I asked incredulously. “You want me to take in this cow that will eat tons of hay every winter—and pay you for the privilege?”

Though truthfully, I’d been thinking about a cow. They don’t seem as intelligent or affectionate as donkeys, but I thought I saw something soulful and philosophical about them. I like the way they stare, with great concentration, at nothing in particular. They appear to understand patience and composure, things I need to learn.

So, Peter and I commenced the weeks of obligatory haggling involved in any major farm purchase. The cow could bring 80 cents a pound at market, he said. But we weren’t sending him to market, I countered. If I did, said Peter, he wanted half of any revenues. For the first two years, I agreed. But after that, any revenue would be mine alone.

We agreed on a bargain price: $500. Some, including my wife, Paula, saw no logic in paying for a creature that performed no useful function, consumed two to three bales of hay daily in winter, and probably never would go to market. Notions of usefulness vary, I parried. This was an unusual creature; he would fit in. I named him Elvis because he seemed like a good old boy.

On the spring day Peter backed his livestock trailer up to my rear paddock and opened the door, five or six of us were standing around, and all said the same thing at the same time: “Oh my God.”

Seen apart from the rest of his herd, Elvis was enormous. Staggering. The ground shook when he moved.

A creature who’d almost never been outside a barn, he seemed mesmerized by everything he saw. He accepted our nervous pats. But he was anxious, at first, about being alone. On day two, when he saw Paula brushing the donkeys in the next pasture, he simply walked through the fence and trotted over to visit. “He’s bigger than our first house,” she said, calling me on the cell phone from the house.

I rushed home from a neighbor’s to find Elvis alone, staring forlornly at the sheep, huddled way up at the top of the steep hill, and the donkeys, who were hiding in the pole barn, peering out at him. I had no experience in trying to get a cow to do something it didn’t want to, so I tried friendly persuasion. “Elvis, let’s go home!” I said hopefully, walking back toward his paddock. He trotted abashedly after me.

We put up a single-strand electrified wire that very afternoon. Once Elvis got buzzed, he never approached the fence again. Maybe he didn’t want to. Everybody who saw him in the following days agreed that he seemed calm and happy to munch hay, take in the sun, and gaze at his new surroundings.

Cows, it occurs to me, haven’t been allowed to be smart. They don’t get the stimulation dogs do, and they haven’t lived in the wild since medieval times. They don’t come in the house, chase balls, or go for walks with us. We regard them as milking machines or walking steaks, if we think of them at all. Like most people, I hadn’t.

But Elvis has changed my ideas about cows. He’s very social, fond of me and my helper Annie and my Labrador Pearl. When I take the dogs out for their morning walk, he moos repeatedly until I bring him an apple. He’s figured out how to move bales of hay into place so he can snuggle next to them (when he lies down, you can sometimes feel the vibrations all the way to the farmhouse). He especially seems to love the view, staring out at the valley much of the day.             

He is amiable, happy to hang out with the donkeys and sheep, given the chance. He coexists peaceably with the chickens—with everyone, in fact. Once or twice a week, he has a burst of cow madness and goes dancing playfully around the pasture in circles. Trees tremble.

Plus, he comes when called, stays when asked, and doesn’t grab clothing anymore. Not all of my dogs will do (or not do) those things as reliably. I’m very happy to have him on the farm. It will cost me more than $1,000 to keep him in hay next winter. A bargain.