Terry Slotty pointed his pickup truck with the black-and-white Holstein seat covers toward the flat field recently greened by the rain.
“When we were out here before, this field was crispy-brown crunchy,” Slotty said. Today, he hoped, it would be full of a natural resource that had been in short supply in recent weeks.
The news has been lousy with stories of the hot, arid summer of 2012 devastating lawns, water budgets and food production, but no one has reported the drought’s impact on one crop of particular importance to Sauk Prairie — cow chips, also known as cow pies, dung or poo.
“Due to the weather, the cows weren’t producing,” said Ellen Paulson, chairperson for the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw committee. “When it’s hot, according to what I’m told, the cows don’t eat as much. And what was produced, they just dried up too quick.”
In a normal year, the cow chip throw’s volunteers get together in late July in a field on Highway O outside Sauk City. There they collect the chips for the annual throw held every year for the last 38 years on the Saturday before Labor Day.
This year the cow chip committee canceled the chips harvest.
“We canceled it because there were no chips to be had,” said Marietta Reuter, who’s helped organize the cow chip festival for more than two decades. “To send 18 people to find 12 chips would’ve been a big waste of time.”
Reuter added, “This has been the biggest struggle in the 22 years I’ve been doing this.”
The cow chip throw committee is rather discerning when it comes to its dung selection. As area farmers changed their cattle from grass-to-grain diets, the committee would find a new field with grazing beef cattle for their annual harvest.
“They eat a high-fiber diet of grass out in the pasture,” Reuter said. “We need that grass in there to give it the fiber, to give it a thicker chip.”
When the drought hit, the field’s grass yellowed and withered, and the cow’s diets were supplemented, said Slotty. Due to the heat, the cows stuck to the shade, ensuring whatever chips were produced were concentrated in one spot and trampled.
The extreme heat got whatever was leftover. “The chip’s life cycle progressed very quickly in a 100-degree heat,” Reuter said.
The committee is confident it has enough chips for this year’s throw, scheduled for Aug. 31 for the corporate event and Sept. 1 for the public.
“We generally pick more every year than what we need,” Paulson said. “There’s always a stash from the year before just in case something like this happens.”
Slotty said the chips are stored in a barn in an undisclosed location. “They always joke what if someone came and hosed them down the night before,” Slotty said.
Slotty and another volunteer have been going out periodically to pick-up chips on their own this year, and he said they’ve collected between 400 and 500—about half what they’d get in a normal year.
The chips are quality though, Slotty said: 6-to-8 inches in diameter, about the size of a ping-pong paddle, with some real heft. They should be dry and ready in time for the throw in a couple weeks.
The cow chip throw prides itself on its quality chips, which can fly incredibly far. The current state record is 248 feet, and the committee offers to pay the top women and men finishers $200 toward their trip to Beaver, Okla., should they want to participate in the World Championship Cow Chip Throw.
Slotty said some competitors have accepted, going on to win on the world-cow-chip-throwing stage. “Beaver can’t believe some of the distances we get here,” Slotty said.
What he’s worried about is next year. The Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival attracts 40,000 visitors, a few hundred of them participating in the throw.
As he surveyed pasture, Slotty said another year like this one, and it’s possible there won’t be enough superior chips to go around. He flipped one chip, its wet belly facing up, onto the truck bed.
“It’s not like you can go out and buy them,” he said and chuckled. On the way back into town, he added, “You can’t get too serious about throwing poop.”