It is hotly debated among cow-interested circles whether cow tipping is real or simply an urban legend. Both sides have presented supporting evidence in scientific and anecdotal form. The real questions, however, are not whether cow tipping is real, but whether it is possible and, if so, whether it is legal.
How Cows Are Allegedly Tipped
Stories of cow tipping follow a common pattern: After an evening of partying, a group of young people, usually male, enter a pasture known to contain cows. One or more of the young people sneak up on a cow, which is sleeping while standing. Bracing themselves and placing hands on the shoulder and rump of the cow near its back, the cow tippers shove hard, knocking the cow onto its side, and then flee the scene as the panicked cow rousts the rest of the herd.
In 2005, Dr. Margo Lillie and a student examined the science behind cow tipping. When the math was done, they calculated that the cow tippers would need to exert 2,910 newtons of force, an amount that would require more than four average people. While acknowledging that only two people could possibly tip a cow, Dr. Lillie cautioned that the would-be tippers would have to tip "quickly--the cow’s center of mass would have to be pushed over its hoof before the cow could react."
Dr. Lillie's examination of cow tipping has been replicated by other researchers, and her conclusion was held up: two people maybe, but more likely at least four people.
Cow Sleeping Habits
Cows do not sleep deeply standing up, but rather lie down during most of the night and often during the hot parts of the day. They do, however, stand up and doze while chewing their cuds (regurgitated, half-digested food that needs more oral processing before it can be properly digested by the cow's system). A sleeping cow is not hard to sneak up on if one is careful, but a standing, dozing cow is very difficult to surprise, and when it is surprised, it will run away if possible. There is a myth that cows lock their knees while sleeping standing up, making it as easy to tip them as knocking over a chair. This is not true.
The Cow Tipper's Argument
Those who insist they have been cow-tipping have certain arguments in common. They agree that a single person cannot tip a cow, but two or more working in tandem are more than capable. While it is true that cows do not sleep standing up, they do doze standing while chewing their cuds, and they can be found doing this late at night as well as during the day. It is plausible that a cow could be tipped by two or more stealthy individuals who could see well in the dark, did not mind stepping in cow dung and were able to control their giggling. Considering the fact that alcohol is involved in most cow-tipping stories, however, this seems to be a difficult set of conditions to meet.
Cow Tipping Legal Issues
Whether or not cow tipping is possible, it is a fact that people do attempt it. In Glenview, Illinois, four men were arrested on May 17, 2010, for trespassing and causing a public nuisance when they sneaked onto a farm for the purpose of tipping cows. Despite their arrest, there are no major laws against cow tipping itself. Instead, most localities control would-be cow tippers by prosecuting them for trespassing, public drunkenness and/or criminal mischief.