Explained: Fluffy Cows' Existence, in Iowa and on the Internet

They're here, they're steer, get used to it.
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A #fluffycow, ready for its photo shoot (Phil Lautner/Lautner Farms)

Internet, there is a new meme among us. It is beefy. It is fluffy. It is adorable. Its name is #fluffycow.

Well, technically, the thing should really be named #fluffybull: the animals in question here tend to be male. They're show steer. But as Farm Progress sensibly notes, "'fluffy bulls' doesn't have quite the same ring to it." Plus, the name could be seen as "a little emasculating to the bull."

So what do you need to know about the phenomenon that challenges so many of our conventional assumptions about cattle, coats, and the proper use of hair products? Nothing. But what might you want to know about it? If you're anything like me, a lot. Below, a brief explainer: 

So what, exactly, is a #fluffycow?

Basically, it's a cow or bull (or adorable, adorable calf) that has been primped and pampered into fluffiness. To delighful -- and sometimes slightly terrifying -- effect.

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A fluffy steer, grand champion of the 2012 Fort Worth Stock Show (Lautner Farms)

How did the #fluffycow meme start?

It started with a farm in Iowa called Lautner Farms, which regularly participates in stock shows. One of Lautner's pictures of a fluffed-up show entrant was posted to Reddit (thread: "Check out these fluffy ass cows!"), where it made an understandably quick trip to wider audiences. From there, the #fluffycow meme trended on Twitter. And, earlier today, it was documented in a Buzzfeed listicle headlined "11 Reasons Fluffy Cows Are The New Micropigs."

How do the cattle get so fluffy? Are they bred to be that way?

Again, pampered into fluffiness. The coifs the creatures are sporting are the result of some painstaking hairstyling. The ranchers, rather than nature, have created the amazing hairdos you see on the fluffy cows. With the help of young members of organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America, the ranchers are doubling as bovine aestheticians. 

And their strategy is, like so many winning beauty routines, a matter of ongoing maintenance. It can take months of "daily care" (and sometimes twice-daily care) to coax the cattle into their full, fluffy-coated glory. There's the washing. And the clipping. And the special oils (meant to give cows' coats that special touchable, fluffable softness). 

Oh, and the blow-drying. And the hairspray. (The hairspray!) "Styling a cow for showtime," per one report, "can take around 2 hours and requires hairspray to keep all that fuzz in place and oil to make their coats shine."

So, wait. If they're getting primped for shows ... that means the fluffy cows are going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder? They're getting all fancied up just be sold to be eaten?

Yes. (Sorry.) As Lautner Farms explains it, the intricate beauty routine "is all in an effort to earn the attention of a judge, who evaluates the animals -- not just for the presentation of their hair, but for other merits like carcass quality (for market animals) or breeding traits (for heifers and bulls)."

And, to be clear:

At the end of the day, programs like 4-H, FFA and junior breed associations are not only teaching youth how to prepare for a big event and present their animals to the best of their abilities, but these kids also learn from a young age that these cattle will ultimately provide tender steaks, juicy burgers and beef by-products (like insulin for diabetics, for example, or simple things like makeup and deodorants) to feed and nourish families.

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A newly weaned calf (Matt Lautner)

What do ranchers think of all the #fluffycows stuff?

Actually, the whole thing has caused some vehement debate in the cattle-raising industry. One the one hand, publicity! On the other hand ... it might not be in the best interest of cattle ranchers to have "beef" and "adorable" used in such close proximity to one another.  "Not everyone associated with the beef industry," Farm Progress puts it, "was pleased to have the attention of the media and John Q. Public focused squarely on the beef biz -- or more to the point, on the show cattle segment in particular."

As Beef Magazine asked on its Beef Daily blog: "Should We Fear Lovable Fluffy Cows?" (The answer: sort of. "In my opinion," wrote the columnist, "we're doing ourselves a huge disservice by referring to our show stock as 'cute,' 'fluffy' or any other affectionate tag you might use to describe a kitten, puppy or baby. However, I do believe this is an opportunity to speak to our consumers now that we've got their attention. Let's seize this chance to direct the conversation where we want it to go.")

Wait, #fluffycow reminds me of something, but I can't quite remember what ...

That would probably be Emo Cows, a meme from the early 2000s. You're welcome.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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