“Basically, you run up to the cow and tip it over” -informant
Cow tipping is a hobby usually found in rural areas where cows are common. The idea is to surprise the cow and push it over, because it looks funny.
The informant tried to go cow tipping with her friends on a weekend up in rural California. However, she found that it is harder than it sounds, because cows are easily frightened and will run away if you run up to them. Furthermore, cows sleep lying down, so you can’t surprise them when they’re asleep. The informant, although disappointed that she could not successfully cow-tip, still had fun with her friends in the adventure. She learned about cow-tipping from back home in Washington, because she lives near rural areas where the custom is more popular.
I have heard of cow-tipping before, because my father grew up on a farm and told me about the custom. However, he also warned me that it is very dangerous, because cows are heavy and might try to kick you. I believe that I’ve seen cow-tipping in literature before as well. I feel a little bad for the cows who are tipped, because it sounds painful and annoying to get stuck on your side like that. I don’t think I would ever actually attempt to go cow-tipping, although it is kind of funny when you talk about it. I think it reflects the need of rural youth to find creative ways to entertain themselves, because they don’t have access to many of the distractions that are available in a city or even a suburb. It would be exciting to get in a little trouble and do something mischievous like cow-tipping, which probably would annoy the dairy farmers. I doubt that adult would partake in this custom, as it seems more suited to the humor of children and older youth.
“You like grab a chicken, lay it on the ground, hold it, so the chicken lays with its head on the ground. Chickens don’t have binocular vision so they can only see with one eye at a time. So one eye is down and one eye is up. You hold the chicken calmly, not in a mean way, and it lays there calmly and you wave your hand down and over it… round and round, up and down, over the eye… it’s like snake charming. You release. And the chicken will just lie there for minutes. It’s totally mesmerized. Someone showed me how to do this on a farm in eastern Oregon. And then I showed my sons when we were children. We went to an apple farm and I captured a loose chicken. People just do it for fun.”
The more I asked the informant about this practice, the more insistent he was that it was magic, but then his wife jumped in and said that the practice was not magical and it just disorients the chicken. She said it must have to do with biology. The informant was still insistent that it was magic.
At first glance, this seems like just a fun activity or a way to pretend to have magical powers. On the other hand, it is easy to see how it could serve a practical purpose, or maybe once served a purpose in the past. After all, the “hypnosis” calms down the animals, which might help a farmer round up some loose chickens or calm down a bunch of chickens who are running around and giving him or her trouble.
This informant spent his youth on a farm in Madison County, Nebraska. His parents farmed many acres and they raised several kinds of livestock. He first learned this folk remedy from one of his friends in high school. He is not sure how it came up, but it’s never difficult for immature minds to reach constipation and other digestion problems as their source of conversation. My informant has only heard of this remedy and doesn’t know anyone who has ever tried it.
The cocklebur is a plant with spines at its leaf bases. As far as other properties, it is poisonous to livestock, and animals will avoid it while foraging. Less picky animals, such as pigs, will commonly eat the plant, get sick, and die.
To make the tea, one just has to mash up cocklebur leaves, add water, and mix the combination. The plant is sickening, so when it enters the animal’s system, the animal will do what it can to reject the poison. In the process of cleansing the animal’s body, all of the other stomach contents are emptied, curing the livestock’s constipation. In fact, it gives the animal a case of diarrhea.
The consequences of using the tea may not seem beneficial at first, but without treatment, constipation could be fatal or cause serious health problems for the animals. This folk remedy and others are commonly shared among farmers to prevent the death of livestock when a specific medicine cannot be procured. Oftentimes, the wellbeing of a farmer is dependent on the health of his livestock, and this sort of information could really be helpful.
My informant was raised on a farm in northeast Nebraska and, in his youth, he was active in maintaining the farm with his parents. One day, about 50 years ago, one of the family’s cows became sick. The cow became bloated and my informant’s father had to explain that cows are too stupid to know when to stop eating. This particular cow had eaten too much alfalfa. This situation can be especially problematic if the alfalfa is really fresh because, according to other farmers, it expands as it is digested. If nothing is done, there is a significant chance the cow will die.
It seemed likely to my informant that this remedy may have originated when someone gave their cow something to chew on to help it cope with the pain of the bloating, and the cow recovered. My informant believes that chewing on the rope might ease the stomach and allow the cow to burp and let out some of the air that has it bloating. Also, this method has proven effective, because if the cow is dumb enough to binge on alfalfa to a point where it endangers its own life, it can surely chew on a rope for hours on end.
At the time my informant first heard of this remedy, he did not know of a medicinal cure for the bloating. Considering the cows had to be fed, housed, and cleaned, uncommon problems like bloating went without a definite cure and farmers had to ask each other what to do in these situations, and in this way, folk remedies spread from farm to farm.
My source grew up on a farm in northeast Nebraska and recalls learning this indicator when he was 7 or 8 years old. His grandmother owned three dogs during his childhood, and one day he saw them all eating grass at the same time. He found this odd, so he asked his grandmother if she forgot to feed the dogs. She hadn’t, and explained to him that when dogs eat grass, it’s an indication that it will rain soon. Sure enough, it rained later that day. Afterwards, most of the time he saw the dogs eating grass, rain quickly followed.
It is not out of the ordinary for a dog to eat grass, and it is actually typical if a dog has an upset stomach. But then again, a coming rain is not likely to make a dog sick. My informant suggested that there might be an atmospheric change that occurs before a rainstorm that might make dogs believe they have a symptom of an upset stomach, so then they would decide to eat grass. There is no proof to support this explanation, but it makes sense to my informant considering the likelihood of rain after he saw his dogs eating grass.
However, there were several times that he would see the dogs eating grass and it wouldn’t rain. In these cases, either the dogs were sick or it was a dry season. This supports another folk superstition that his grandmother once told my informant. She would say, “In a dry spell, all signs fail.” My informant’s grandmother knew many folk superstitions, and she would tell them to the family when appropriate. No one else in the family desired to memorize them all as she had done, but they would remember the ones that she had told them over and over, and they shared those between each other. These superstitions were likely shared in the same way by many other families. This particular superstition is likely to be shared mostly by farmers because their occupation and livelihood is dependent on weather patterns, so if there is any way farmers can make use of a weather indicator, they certainly will.
Annotation: This particular folk superstition can be found in John Frederick Doering’s article: “Some Western Ontario Folk Beliefs and Practices” in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 199 (Jan. – Mar., 1938), pp. 61