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Published August 16, 2010, 02:48 PM

Cow pie patrol

TOWNER, N.D. — What goes up must come down. That’s gravity. What goes in must come out. That’s the rule of mazes, freeway tunnels and, in bovine and all other species I know of, digestion.

By: Ryan Taylor, Special to Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — What goes up must come down. That’s gravity. What goes in must come out. That’s the rule of mazes, freeway tunnels and, in bovine and all other species I know of, digestion.

I’ve been combining my knowledge on the two rules of digestion and gravity as I venture into a new area of modern ranch management and cattle nutrition.

Here’s the deal. I walk nonchalantly into a herd of my grazing cows and look for five to 10 fresh cow pies — really fresh cow pies. I reach down for a little piece of each pie, so to speak, about a spoonful, and put it in a resealable plastic bag for a little laboratory analysis.

According to the folks at the lab, the sample would be even better and fresher if I could catch a spoonful in midair, or next best, from the pie that just hit the ground that very second. I want to send the best sample I can, so this becomes a waiting game for me and my cows.

I stand there amidst the herd with sharpened senses, my eyes furtively searching for a rising tail or a look of alternating bovine concentration and relief, my ears tuned keenly to listen for the sound of a “plop, plop, plop.” Like a stakeout in law enforcement, it’s tedious.

The reward is a nice bag full of . . . used grass to send to the college lab down in Texas.

Analyze this

I always thought Texans were a little full of . . . used grass, and now I know why. It’s because ranchers from all over the country and continent bag it up and send it to them. It has to be part of the reason for their reputation.

Actually, they are smart enough to have created some high-tech economic development by analyzing the seemingly low-tech cow pie.

Brace yourself for some technical language. The Texans in the lab use near infrared reflectance spectroscopy to judge the fecal samples for the protein and energy in the grazing cow’s diet. Then they plug the data into the nutritional balance analyzer to help ranchers make nutritional decisions for the cowherd. But it all starts with 10 spoonfuls of fresh cow pie.

You see, the cows are out there grazing plants ad libitum, which, I think, is how the old Latins used to say their cows got to eat whatever they wanted and as much as they wanted. Clipping and analyzing a square of grass in a pasture and figuring that’s what the cow would eat really would miss the mark. It’d be like heading to the family dining buffet and figuring a kid would eat a little bit of everything when it’s really just noodles and ice cream.

So the cows pick what they want to eat, and today’s astute cowboy just follows them around with a Ziploc bag.

Forget what you’ve heard or seen in the movies about the cowboy up on the hill sitting tall on his horse, a fresh breeze blowing over him as he watches his herd graze off in the distance. Today’s cowboy who wants to fine tune the ranch for a little finely tuned profit needs to ride down that hill, listen for the “tell tail” plop, get off his horse and get down on the ground.

The things we do in the name of science.

At least we can get back up on our horse once the bag is full and resume our post up on the hill.

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