Why Farmers Are Painting Eyes Onto Their Cows’ Rear Ends

Why Farmers Are Painting Eyes Onto Their Cows

Don’t be fooled by the generations of farmers out there: Some truly inventive things are happening on farms. After all, when your line of work requires you to constantly battle the elements, competitors, and increased automation, coming up with creative ways to maintain your livelihood is just part of the job. But recently, a strange farming trend combining paint, eyes, and cow butts has emerged that’s truly revolutionary. We promise that it actually makes a lot of sense!

Being Hunted

The practice is based on that feeling you get when you’re being watched, or worse, followed. It’s how we imagine a mouse must feel right before it’s gobbled up by a snake. There’s something about that feeling that brings out our caveman instincts…

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A Cow’s Life

When we feel threatened, we know one thing for sure: Whatever is out there watching us must not be very friendly. We rely on that instinctive feeling to get us out of danger, but it doesn’t always save us in time…especially when you’re huge, slow, and a cow.

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At A Disadvantage

Bovines aren’t exactly known for their swift feet or clever minds, which puts them at a serious disadvantage in the wild. Cows are, after all, one of the most popular animals on the market, and not just in the human food chain.

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Low On The Food Chain

In Botswana in particular, cows are extremely popular among lions. All non-vegans can relate — there’s nothing quite as tasty as a juicy hamburger…which for African farmers is the whole problem.

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Cows Vs. Lions

You see, cows are such a favorite among lions in Botswana that they’re being slaughtered by these predators left and right. Farmers can’t keep up with the non-human predators’ taste for beef, and their herds are being diminished in the process.

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Creative Thinking

At the end of the day, tenacious shepherds and smaller pastures can only help the cows so much. If these farmers want to save their herds and their livelihoods, then they have to get creative. Thankfully, in 2015, a team of researchers had an idea.

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Unconventional Idea

It was an…unconventional idea, to say the least. This team of researchers from Communications Biology had a theory that some farmers couldn’t help but scoff at: What if all it took for the cows to stay alive was a little paint?

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Painted Eyes

Well, no, it didn’t involve disguising the cows as predators themselves, but close. Ecologist Neil Jordan’s theory was simple: Have farmers paint eyes onto their cows’ rear ends. Yes, the idea is rooted in science. “It seems like a bit of a wacky idea, but it does have a sound basis in animal behavior theory,” Dr. Jordan told ABC News.

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Element Of Surprise

Dr. Neil Jordan of the University of New South Wales and his team of researchers put their theory to the test by recruiting 2061 cows in Botswana between 2015 and 2018. Their theory hinged on one factor: the element of surprise.

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Ambush Predators

Lions are ambush predators, meaning they rely on the element of surprise when it comes to catching prey. And think about it: If you came across a cow with a face painted on its butt, you’d be thrown off your game, right?

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“Psychological Trickery”

That’s what farmers are banking on. It’s what Dr. Jordan calls “psychological trickery”: The eyes “trick” the lions into thinking that they’ve been spotted by the cattle, when in reality, the cows are facing the other direction entirely, completely none the wiser.

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Strategic Eyes

The whole “eye” thing may sound weird, but it’s actually a pretty common evolutionary trait in animals. Different kinds of butterflies, fish, and birds have “eyes” on their wings, scales, and feathers that make them seem more alert to predators than they really are.

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Being Watched

You know that creepy feeling of being watched we were talking about? We humans have used that to our advantage, too. In 2012, signs placed near bike racks in several countries featured a pair of eyes that successfully decreased the amount of bikes being stolen.

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The Experiment Begins

To test that all it takes is a pair of eyes to ward off predators, Dr. Jordan and his team of researchers split those 2,061 cows into three groups: 683 cows had eyes painted onto their butts, 543 cows had cross marks, and the control group of 835 cows were left unmarked.

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Painting On The Eyes

The process of painting eyes onto the cows’ butts was as simple as it sounds. They used a paint stamp to imprint the eyes onto the cows, and used black paint on white cows and yellow paint on brown cows. Then, they waited…

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Fewer Cow Deaths

And the results they collected were astonishing. The group without painted eyes saw 15 cow deaths from lion attacks, while the cross mark group saw four deaths. The experimental group, however, all survived without a scratch…which may leave you with an even bigger question.

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What About The Lions?

With the cows no longer a huge part of their diet, what are the lions going to do? As it turns out, the cows weren’t the only victims when they were being killed by predators. The lions who kill are indirectly affected by their own predatory actions, and not in a good way.

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Lions Killed

“When lions kill cows, farmers lose money, and the lions are often killed in retaliation,” Dr. Jordan said. “We’re estimated to be losing about 20 times as many lions to these sorts of retaliatory killings…than are taken by the trophy hunting industries.”

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Saving Cows = Saving Lions

According to Dr. Jordan, there’s a “culture of killing” when it comes to managing predators in Africa. That’s why he worked in conjunction with African farmers and the Predatory Conservation Trust. Saving cows from lions actually helps the lions in the long run…

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There’s Hope

Of course, the painted eyes experiment is still in its early stages. When it comes to that instinctual desire to hunt, all animals are likely to pounce on prey they think they can take. Still, you have to admit, Dr. Jordan’s theory is pretty genius. I mean, even humans are doing double takes on those peepers!

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Funny Yet Revolutionary

But as many farmers know, this isn’t even the most bizarre thing to pop up as a solution to scare away predators. In fact, the most wild methods are often the most low-tech, and besides scarecrows, some of these outlandish tricks are blowing us away at how simple and effective they are.

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Underpants + Farm = ?

If you’re a farmer, go get some underwear! Yes, underwear — the article of clothing people rely on the most for cleanliness and personal hygiene — could also be the key to a farmer’s well-being…and not in the most obvious sense.

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Thinking Creatively

When you’re battling the elements day in and day out, you have to learn how to approach problems creatively. Farmers can’t always throw money or technology at whatever issues arise, especially when the health of their land is in question.

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Farming Is Their Livelihood

And that’s exactly why farmers are fishing out a pair of tighty-whities from their dresser drawers. Farmers depend the most on their land, not just because the land produces crops or feeds their livestock, but because it’s what keeps a roof over their heads.

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A Game Of Chance…

Even with the advanced farming technology nowadays, there are times when farmers find themselves at a loss as to why crops that once grew fast and strong are now stunted and scrawny. So much of farming, it turns out, is a game of chance…

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It’s All About Soil

And it all comes down to soil. Farmers experiment with tillage practices and other farming methods in order to make growing crops more efficient, but they do so at their own risk: With the wrong soil treatment, their livelihood could be at stake.

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Good vs. Bad Soil

The difference between good soil and bad soil is the difference between success and failure on a farm, so it’s essential for the soil to be tenable. But how can you know you have good dirt without spending boatloads of money on soil analysis?

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“Did You Soil Your Undies?”

You see, that is why farmers are burying their underwear. First asked by the California Farmers Guild in 2017, the question “Did you soil your undies?” isn’t as weird as it sounds…as long as you’re asking a fellow farmer, that is.

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“Soil Your Undies” Challenge

The “Soil Your Undies” challenge is a simple way of testing the soil health of your farmland. All you need is a pair of 100% cotton underwear, a shovel, and enough patience to get you through two months, when the underwear will finally be, well, “harvested.”

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Why Bury Underpants?

To a non-farmer, this may sound like a completely bizarre challenge. What’s the point of it all, you ask? According to the Guild, “Cotton is an organic material and breaks down naturally.” But why bury it in the first place?

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All Hail Creepy-Crawlies!

The health of your soil — whether on farmland, in a garden, a pasture, even a vineyard — is dependent on one thing: life. The more creepy-crawlies that call your farmland home, the better, especially for the sake of your crops.

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“Healthy Soil Is Hungry Soil”

“Healthy soil is hungry soil,” according to the Farmer’s Guild. “With proper management, the ground beneath your crops should teem with millions of tiny life forms — bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms…” The list goes on!

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Waiting Game

The more lifeforms eating, transferring, and decomposing nutrients and other materials, the better your soil. All you have to do is bury the 100% cotton underwear deep enough so only the elastic band is showing, and then wait.

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Reaping Fascinating Results

What happens at the end of the two months? For the farmers participating in the “Soil Your Undies” challenge — and for you right now! — they just had to wait and see. From California to Oregon to Scotland, the challenge has reaped some fascinating results.

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Two Months Later…

Some farmers discovered that the conventional tilling methods they had sustained for generations are no longer healthy for their soil. When it came time for Scottish farmer Iain Green to dig up his underwear, he was surprised by what he found…

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If after the two months of waiting you dig up nothing but a dirty elastic band, then congratulations! Your healthy soil is teeming with hungry microbes that have munched the underwear to bits. If the underwear is still fully intact, though, then that may be a reason to worry.

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“The Underpants Were Eaten Away”

Iain Green found mixed results from his fields. “We have quite a wet field here…that has been starved of oxygen, and the underpants were hardly touched,” he said. “However, with our arable fields, which are cultivated heavily, [the underpants] were eaten away.”

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Kid-Friendly Science Experiment

Farmers aren’t the only people burying their unmentionables. The “Soil Your Undies” challenge has inspired teachers to move the classroom outside, where students can see for themselves just how lively (or barren) the surrounding soil is.

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Soil Health Awareness

The challenge has also spread the word about the importance of soil health. The “Soil Your Undies” challenge in Oregon, for example, has grown into a campaign for soil health awareness. Newspapers, radio, and TV stations have all sung the praises of the challenge…

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Unexpected Benefits

And for good reason. “It was…a simple and cheap way of testing soil,” Iain Green said, and he’s not alone in thinking this. One farmer, Amanda Volsen, wrote on AG Week about her experience with the challenge, and how it had unexpected benefits on her own future.

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Underpants Are The Future

“My husband is the sixth generation in this family farm legacy,” she wrote. “We hope that our farming practices in the present will set [our children] up for success in the years to come.” Who knew that a pair of tighty-whities could impact future generations?

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