I've recently heard that cows have a similar social structure to elephants with a dominant female who holds a lot of influence. Farmers can apparently use this to their advantage, knowing which cow is "in charge". A friend of mine described how his wife's family kept a specific cow for years because she made managing the herd a lot easier. And my own observations of my local cow herd definitely implies that there is one cow who is braver than the rest and most of the herd clusters round her.

The dominant female in elephant herds is the matriarch.

I've also heard (via the film Zootopia/Zootropolis) that the term "bellwether" is used for the sheep that leads the herd: from Collins

  1. (Breeds) a sheep that leads the herd, often bearing a bell

I'd like to know, what is the word for the chief cow? Is the chief cow referred to as the matriarch, similar to elephants? This would make sense given the cow/bull/calf terms also used for both elephants and cattle, but I can't find a reference that says this definitively.

Since it's a single word request, here's the sample sentence:

"Don't mess with that cow, she's the ________."

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    I would say "Bossie". – Hot Licks Feb 8 '19 at 19:01

I come from a family of Angus producers (that is, we raise the breed of black cows called Angus). Every herd has what is known as a “boss cow.” (Beef cattle don’t wear bells.)

Here are a couple of posts that explain the boss cow and how she becomes that.

The boss cow:

There’s always a boss cow. She’s the one who leads the herd down the road when it’s time to change pastures, and the one who is first to start the daily trek to water. She has pushed, shoved and bunted her way to the top of the hierarchy.

Does every herd have a boss cow?:

Does every herd have a boss cow, and do they have certain actions that display it?

I bought 7 heifers in December, and one of them seemed pushy to the point that we named her, "The Boss." It never appeared to be anything that would cause damage, but she would often just walk up and push another heifer to the side for what I saw as no reason. She would root her way into the feed trough wherever she wanted, but again, nothing destructive, but just pushy.

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    Ah, this and the comment by @HotLicks regarding Bossie rang a bell with me. Apparently bossy is related to the Latin for ox. Etymonline backs this up. – Pam Feb 8 '19 at 20:24

The “Bell Cow” and thoughts on Leadership

In other words, the bell does not make the leader. The leader gets the bell. The cows are already following the lead cow.


Bell Cow Dictionary.com

a cow, especially the lead cow of a herd, having a bell attached to a collar around its neck so that the herd can be located easily.

  • This is good, it's not a term I'd heard before. But now the philosophical question of: is it still a bell cow if she doesn't have a bell? None of the cows are belled by the farmer. – Pam Feb 6 '19 at 14:52
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    lol ... thats a separate question! Is a soldier a solder when out of uniform? – lbf Feb 6 '19 at 15:27
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    If a bell cow loses its bell, it certainly can no longer be a ringleader. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 2 '20 at 14:30
  • This reminds me of "A bell for Ursli"--one of my favorite picture books. – Conrado Sep 2 '20 at 15:32

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