Bovine barometers: Can cows sense when the storms are coming?

Many believe that farm animals can sense when bad weather is approaching, though cattle may not be the best forecasters.

COLUMBIA, Tenn. -- Many believe that farm animals can sense when bad weather is approaching. One Old Farmer's Tale suggests that cows lie down before a storm. 

Coincidence? Or is there a scientific reason?

"There may be some truth to it," says Justin Rhinehart, Beef Cattle Specialist University of Tennessee. "You know, we deal a lot with weather patterns coming through and affecting things like reproduction, calving, so it does come up from time to time." 

He says there's no doubt that the weather drives animal behavior, but cattle may not be the best forecasters.

"I don’t think we understand it enough to base a lot of planning around it," Rhinehart said. "If we see cows laying down, it may indicate that storms are coming through. We would likely know that prior to the cows laying down, with the technology we have for weather prediction now. But, it may be something like, if you see all of your cows laying down in a field you might not want to mow hay and risk getting rained on." 

As part of his work with cattle, Rhinehart says researchers are constantly learning about the amazing things these animals can sense, including a sense of direction.

"Across the globe they tend to graze north to south, they line up their midline, that direction," he said. ''There are a lot of hypothesis as to why that may happen, there are some thoughts on magnetism, and specific cells in their eyes or certain parts of their brain."

Rhinehart says don’t rule out the fact that cattle behavior may be a response to barometric pressure, but it’s also possible they are simply taking a nap.

"We might call something a myth if we don’t have the science behind it or understand the science enough to satisfy ourselves," he said.