At the word “cowbell,” our first thought might be of an oft-parodied musical instrument (“More cowbell!”). But after that, we may fall into a bucolic scene: a line of cows, the leader wearing a gently dinging cowbell and guiding its fellows back in from the pasture at milking time.

A European cow wears a huge cowbell and a crown of evergreen branches and flowers.

This cow is decked out for a celebration, and the huge bell indicates she belongs to a wealthy farmer. Stock photo.

The cowbell isn’t just to create a pleasing agrarian scene for you and me—it has a surprising history, both practical and cultural, especially in Switzerland. There, some farmers would have all cows wear cowbells if they were freely roaming, making them easier to locate. The larger a cowbell, the more wealthy the farmer. Cowbells would also be elaborately decorated for special celebrations. The cowbells may have scared away predators, but some believed they also kept evils spirits away. (This last can be seen in many cultures around the world.)

Cowbells aren’t used much in the United States today. They simply aren’t needed on our smaller, fenced farms, or a farmer may prefer using a quieter GPS collar.

But the cowbell’s purpose has been revived at the Servais family’s Hamburg Hills Farm in Vernon County, Wisconsin.

Lotus the Guernsey cow sporting her cowbell.

Photo by Lisa Servais

Meet Lotus. Isn’t she a beauty?

Lisa Servais’ daughter won Lotus as a calf from an essay contest. She’s a Guernsey, which is a smaller, more docile breed than the big Holsteins most people initially recognize as dairy cows.

For two years, Lotus lived with the younger cows, but when she had a calf, it was time for her to move into the milking herd with the adult cows.

“She had a really hard time with the Holsteins, which are bigger and a more aggressive breed,” says Lisa. The Servaises’ herd is made up of Holsteins, so as the only Guernsey, Lotus was getting picked on by the bigger cows. She had to compete for her feed and was generally having a hard time socially. “We had to keep her separated from the main herd. Logistically, that was difficult.

“Then our herdswoman read somewhere that cows respect the cowbell, so we thought we’d try it,” says Lisa. “And to our surprise, it worked!”

Why? Well, since we can’t ask the cows themselves, we have to make an educated guess based on what has been observed elsewhere. The image of a bell-clad cow at the head of a line meandering back to the barn is not simply artistic imagining. In Switzerland, if a farmer didn’t put bells on every cow, they would identify the leader and put a bell on her, and as she naturally led the cows around, the other cows naturally associated the dinging of the bell with follow-the-leader.

So in Lotus’s case, the cowbell may be telling the big Holsteins that, despite her small size, she is a leader.

Regardless of the cow psychology behind it, the big kids have stopped picking on Lotus, and she’s fitting in with her Holstein “sisters” much better now.

A closeup of Lotus and her cowbell.

And now for her closeup. Photo by Rachel Schroeder, via Hamburg Hills Farm Facebook page.

Want more fun and quirky stories about how Organic Valley farmers care for their animals? Read more in our Animal Whisperers series!