The summer before I moved away from Iowa for the first time, after high school, I hatched a very vague plan to try and do all of those quintessentially Iowan things that I had failed to experience in the previous 18 years. I did my time detasseling, had shot up industrial food service-sized cans of ketchup and mustard and mayo with a shotgun, and spent plenty of humid nights standing around a keg with a group of friends in an otherwise empty field. I ate a lot of sweet corn and Muscatine melons. But there were still some things left on my Hawkeye bucket list; cow tipping was one of them.
Whenever I told people where I was from while visiting family in California, checking out colleges on the East Coast—anytime I was outside of the Midwest—the first thing they would invariably land on was corn. More pop savvy individuals might make a Field of Dreams joke, while the less geographically and linguistically inclined would ask if that’s where they grew all of the potatoes. (Hey, Iowa and Idaho are both words that start with an “I,” so . . .) And then there were the cow tipping comments, always something along the lines of “So what do you do for fun, go out and tip cows?”
With my hippie-ish parents and vegetarian upbringing, I always felt vaguely un-Iowan in a sense—or at least not quintessentially Iowa. This despite belonging to the fourth generation of Blackmore’s born in the state. Because if I didn’t go out cow tipping for fun in the summer, or ice fishing in the winter, or compete in the demolition derby or live on a farm, etc., etc., then I had to be doing it wrong, right?
They say that clichés are clichéd because of the very fact that they’re rooted in reality. In the case of cow tipping, however, it’s all a myth. That’s right: There’s no such thing as humans wandering onto pastures in the dark of night and knocking sleeping cows down into the mud—a fact supported, as Modern Farmers’ Jake Swearingen points out, by both a dearth of YouTube documentation (for a counterpoint, do a search for catfish noodling) and scientific research:
Despite reams and reams of articles debunking the idea, cow tipping, like crop circles, continues to exist as a strange rural legend—the difference being there’s at least photographic proof of crop circles.
Apparently even the stalkiest of corn-fed Iowa boys, drunk on Milwaukee’s Best and that spot on the All-Conference defensive line, is no match for the hulking figure of a Black Angus that weighs in at 1,300 pounds.
Swearingen spoke with Margo Lillie, a doctor of zoology at University of British Columbia who looked into the physics of cow tipping, and the hard math supports the idea that the favorite pastime of rural America as perceived by urbanites is a figment of the imagination. According to Lillie’s calculations, tipping a cow “would require at least five, and probably more like six pushers,” Swearingen writes. "'It just makes the physics of it all, in my opinion, impossible,’ says Lillie.”
So I’m somewhat vindicated on a personal level, although it would be nice if it was one of the far more institutionalized abuses that livestock suffers in Iowa and other states where cattle are raised at an industrial scale. And seeing that I spent that last summer doing little more than drinking beer in a series of backyards and fields of varying remoteness, I realize in hindsight that I said farewell to my home state in the most quintessentially Iowan way possible.