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Here’s How That Cow Got So Large

The sad fact is most steers are slaughtered before they reach their full, awesome size, making the Aussie bovine more lucky than freakish

(Associated Press)
smithsonian.com

By now, anyone who’s been within 30 feet of a Wi-Fi signal has likely seen an image of Knickers, the massive Holstein Friesian steer recently photographed in Australia. The big question about the big cow, however, is how the 6-foot, 4-inch, 2,800-pound bovine named Knickers became such an absolute unit.

The first question that needs to be addressed, however, is whether Knickers is truly extraordinary or if, like so much on the internet, there’s more to the story. While Jason Bittel at The Washington Post tried to ruin everyone’s fun by claiming Knickers is neither a cow nor a giant, the wasn't completely successful. It’s true that Knickers is not a cow, but a steer, or a castrated bull. Nick Evershed at The Guardian, however, has come to the rescue, pointing out the term “cow,” which technically refers to a female bovine, is generally used to refer to all bovines, including bulls, steers and true cows.

Bittel also points out that Holstein steers are known to top out at about six feet, so Knickers is indeed a few inches taller than normal. But the photo that made him famous was a taken among a herd of Wagyu cattle, which max out at five feet, making Knickers look gargantuan by contrast. “He looks larger because he’s standing among a herd of Danny DeVitos, not a herd of Arnold Schwarzeneggers,” Bittel writes.

But Evershed points out that Knickers is still quite large: a little taller than the world’s tallest female cow, the beloved Holstein Blosom, who passed away in 2015, and just a couple inches shorter than Bellino, the world record holding tallest steer. In any case, Knickers is very large, even if he won’t be earning any Guinness world records.

The more interesting question is how, exactly, a steer grows so large. James Gorman at The New York Times explains that most of the black and white Holstein cows out in the paddocks average 4 feet 10 inches and max out at 1,500 pounds while bulls (uncastrated males) can reach six feet and 2,500 pounds. Daren M. Sheffield, production records specialist at the Holstein Association USA, says that if a Holstein steer is allowed to live longer, it can grow even larger than bulls due to hormone differences, but most are usually slaughtered at 15 months when they hit about 1,300 to 1,400 pounds.

Knickers has had seven years to bulk up and is too big for the typical slaughterhouse, meaning he gets to keep munching the grass.

“Steers can grow to tremendous sizes at a mature age,” Sheffield says. “It was not uncommon for Holstein cattle raised as oxen [steers raised to do work like plowing] to reach weights of 3,000 pounds.”

Gorman reports that genetics probably has to do with Knicker's size, though exactly what genes and mutations are responsible are not known. Min Du, who researches growth biology at Washington State University, tells Laura Geggel at LiveScience that it’s hard to speculate without examining the bovine and a range of conditions could be involved. “But the most likely reason is due to some sort of mutation or something that occurred in the growth hormone or the growth-hormone receptors,” Du suggests.

Others have speculated that Knickers suffers from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, the disease that causes gigantism in humans and afflicted Andre the Giant.

But the truth about Knickers is that, he may just be lucky, not unusual. Animal breeding geneticist Sonja Dominik writes at The Conversation that Knickers is very big for Holstein cattle, but is not off the bell curve for the breed. “So where does Knickers sit on this curve? The answer is: a long way towards the big end, but not quite into genuine freak territory,” she writes.

Geoff Pearson, who owns Knickers, thinks his beast stands out because the vast majority of steers are simply never allowed to reach true beefcake status.

“They probably don’t have the opportunity to grow to their full potential,” he tells Kate Lyons at The Guardian. “There could be other animals that could grow to this size but didn’t get the chance.”

That same sentiment is echoed by Sheffield of the Holstein Association. “It’s rare to see an animal like that because they’re not kept that long.”

Our beloved Knickers might not even be the biggest bovine in Australia—another contender, a Guernsey named Big Moo went viral in 2016. One way to settle the question—and to make sure we get more awesome photos and videos of Knickers, whether he's a true freak or not—is to set up a biggest cow showdown, similar to the Fat Bear Week that Alaska’s Katmai National Park hosted.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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