Health & Fitness

Mooving along: How to handle a cow on the trail

A steadfast cow blocks the Sky Trail a couple of year ago at Crockett Hills, a 1,939-acre East Bay Regional Park above the Carquinez Bridge.
A steadfast cow blocks the Sky Trail a couple of year ago at Crockett Hills, a 1,939-acre East Bay Regional Park above the Carquinez Bridge. Sacramento Bee file

This cow was massive, wide as she was tall. She had her hooves dug in on the single-track trail on a hillside ridge at Crockett Hills Regional Park and wasn’t going to make the effort to move, simply for a few humans to pass. This was her turf, after all. The hikers were the interlopers, allowed to be there, yes, but warned on signs placed at the trailhead to defer to cattle grazing the range.

So a stalemate ensued. The recalcitrant cow – her less-hefty posse, including a calf or two, ringed like her backup singers on stage – engaged in several minutes of metronomic tail swishing and horizontal cud chewing while casting impassive, wide-eyed bovine stares at the group, which stayed rooted in place not 10 feet away.

Finally, a trail runner loped by, weaved between the idling hikers, clapped his hands and gave a guttural yelp. The cow lifted her head, turned with surprising swiftness for such a big girl, and loped off down the hillside, ending the standoff.

So did the bold runner react the way you are supposed to when encountering livestock on public open space property where cattle are allowed to graze? Or did the, uh, cowed hikers take the more prudent and safe course of action – or inaction, as it were?

Both, it turns out, made mistakes in dealing with the seemingly immovable cow. That’s according to a new downloadable brochure, “Sharing Open Space: What to Expect From Grazing Livestock,” published by University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Standing stock still and waiting, the brochure states, will not compel the livestock to move, especially if they are well-acclimated to humans in their habitat. The better strategy, it states, is to slowly move into the cattle’s “flight zone,” the physical space where it loses its feeling of safety and will flee. The “flight zone” could range from 6 to 12 feet for most cattle, but as little as 3 or even 1 foot for cattle that often encounter humans.

Stepping into the “flight zone” usually is “all it should take to get them to turn away,” the brochure continues. “Patiently repeat this process until you have room to move down the trail without entering their flight zone.”

Waving one’s arms, clapping and yelling? Not recommended, according to the brochure: “Loud noises … near a cow can scare her, making her run, kick, panic or charge.”

Sheila Barry, a UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources adviser, one of the brochure’s three authors, said hikers often are at a loss when encountering cattle.

“(Cattle) don’t necessarily react how you expect them to, because of that issue with the flight zone,” Barry said. “So, you think, ‘Hey, I’m getting really close, why aren’t you moving, cow?’ Most will move off, eventually. But there’s part of it that’s just not predictable.”

Attacks on hikers by livestock in open space areas are extremely rare, Barry said, but the UC extension and livestock experts want to educate people to better understand cow behavior in hopes of defusing any potential clashes.

“Actual quote-unquote ‘attacks’? Extremely rare,” she said. “There are people who report aggressive cattle, but even that’s rare. We get 2 million visitors to East Bay parks – and although I’m sure not everyone’s reporting every time they feel uncomfortable in a situation – they only get, in some years, maybe seven reports, maybe a dozen. It’s really nothing compared to aggressive dogs people (encounter) on trails.”

Yet, the sheer bulk of cattle – some weigh as much as 1,500 pounds – can be intimidating for trail users. Barry says people need to understand that livestock are “prey animals” so they “naturally experience and express fear and protective behavior,” especially when protecting their calves. The brochure advises people to keep their dogs on a leash and away from cattle, which perceive dogs as predators, and to never allow a dog between a mother cow and her calf.

You can determine the countenance of a cow by reading its body language.

“When cattle get nervous, they usually lift their head, a posture called ‘high headed,’” the brochure states. “If cattle feel threatened, they may follow this head raising with aggressive behavior or running off.”

What to do if you encounter a visibly nervous cow? Step back, give it space, then slowly emerge into its flight zone.

Most of the time, the only injuries that occur in encounters between cattle and humans are the result of human fears.

“From what I’ve heard from parks reports, the most prominent thing is that people get injured trying to run away,” Barry said. “They get scared and there are lots of things to run into – barbed-wire fences, holes. I heard once of someone climbing a tree to get away and then falling out of the tree. And if the cattle are reacting crazy, too, that wouldn’t be a good situation.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.



▪ Keep dogs close and under complete control.

▪ Continue to move past cattle rather than staying in their presence. Step slowly into their flight zone only if necessary to move them.

▪ Move slowly around cattle and use a normal speaking voice.

▪ If an animal appears to be uncomfortable or agitated, step back.

▪ Approach from the front or side; avoid the blind spot behind them.

▪ If you see cows that are clearly injured, notify park personnel so they can contact the livestock owner. Do not approach an injured animal.


▪ Don’t physically intervene if a dog is chased by or interacting with cattle.

▪ Don’t approach cattle from behind.

▪ Don’t get between a cow and her calf.

▪ Don’t make quick movements, or flap your arms.

▪ Don’t shout or make loud noises.

▪ Don’t “rescue” or touch calves that seem separated from their mother.

Source: University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources