It was over a month ago, and I was in the process of presenting a program to a local civic group. The lady in charge of the program got up to introduce me. She suppressed a little smirk as she giggled an introduction: "I would like to introduce Bill Eagle. Bill used to work for the Natural Resources Conservation Service where he used to try and help people solve their land use problems. He also used to spend some of his time collecting cow poop…"
Sheesh, I know people who collect stamps, and coins, but cow poop?
Interestingly enough, what she said was true. I was a member of a very exclusive group, a group that called themselves Oregon's fecal team. There were seven of us, and we were part of a pilot project sponsored by NRCS and Texas A&M. We had six sites east of the Cascades and one here in the west. I was responsible for the all the poop collections west of the mountains, and it was with great pride that I carried out my duties.
Why poop, and why should poop be so important? NRCS had contracted with Texas A&M's Grazing Land Animal Nutrition Lab to gather fecal samples from selected clients at regular intervals. These samples were gathered fresh and sent to Texas to be analyzed for crude protein, digestible organic matter, fecal nitrogen, and phosphorus. The theory behind this was that it was a lot more accurate to measure what had passed through a cow than trying to estimate what would enter it.
With the use of a computer, the lab was able to determine pasture quality, herd nutrition, food palatability, and overall health. They could even tell if the animals being tested were gaining or losing weight. I was told that if this program were successful it could have the potential of saving the cattle industry millions.
Science can be simply wonderful.
I used to make a big production when I went out to do my fecal collections. I would make sure to take an ample supply of plastic bags, latex gloves, plastic spoons, and water bottles, as well as a camera. The camera was to be used to take pictures of the herd and the state of the pasture on which the animals grazed.
"Hey folks," I would say to those in my office. "I'm on my way to collect some poop."
I knew that this knowledge would just thrill those working around me.
I would arrive at my fecal collection site, climb the fence, and then wait around for the cows to do their stuff.
I felt kind of awkward the first few times that I did this. The cows didn't know me, and they did not want to share any of their leavings with strangers. I worked at winning their confidence. I wanted my collections to be close by and fresh. I found an old apple tree, and I went about feeding them some apples. This helped, but the thing that seemed to help the most was when I discovered that they loved to be sung to. It was amazing what music would do for those cows. I think I got my best results from my rendition of the Sons of the Pioneers' old chestnut, "Cowboys Cattle Call." This particular song seemed to encourage poop. Their tails would lift and their sphincters would open in harmony to my yodels.
I would take my samples back to the office, put them into a Styrofoam container, and freeze them.