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The Smell of Research

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Twice a week for the last month, Conner, Alyssa, Helen and I have helped Ira and Seth with the rotational grazing project by collecting fecal and forage samples from 24 calves on 12, one-acre paddocks. The goal is to gather information about what the cattle eat and how plant communities respond in different grazing situations. This kind of data collection calls for four dedicated scholars to spend their afternoons trudging through the grazing paddocks with sample bags and plastic spoons in search of green grass and fresh cow patties. It's a less than glamorous job, but someone has to do it.

As self-appointed fecal collectors, Helen and I cautiously ambled through the paddocks armed with a flimsy plastic spoon, a backup spoon for recon purposes, paper sample bags and attentive eyes. Growing up in a cattle-raising family, I understand the struggle of coming home after working cows and having to leave your boots outside so you don't track poop into the house. Those cow patties are sneaky. I could never step out of the pickup and still wind up with poop on my shoes. So naturally, I thought it would be a piece of cake to find fresh poop when I only had one acre to collect from. I was wrong. It was ironic to me how hard it was to find cow patties when I actually had to look for them. Granted, I wasn't looking for just any cow patty. I was on the hunt for the freshest stuff I could find that had the ideal consistency for scooping. Consequently, this was usually the smelliest as well. At first, I poked and prodded at each patty I came across until I finally became skilled enough to spot a fresh one from across the pasture. By the end of the month, I had examined enough cow patties that I think I could have accurately aged them, give or take about five minutes. If not by sight, then by smell.

Meanwhile, Alyssa and Conner collected forage hand-grab samples from each paddock. The goal was to gather forage the cattle were eating by carefully selecting the most delicious looking grasses and grabbing it by the fistful. Although less stinky and less messy than scooping poop, Alyssa and Conner had obstacles of their own. Most were in the form of prickly forbes that would do some damage to an ungloved hand.

helen in the forage analysis lab

Once all the fecal and forage samples for the day were collected, Helen took them back to the forage analysis lab to weigh, dry and grind them. She then ran the ground forage samples through a near-infrared spectrometer to analyze their protein and energy content.

As of last week, our grazing project came to a close and Conner, Alyssa, Helen and I were finally relieved of our sampling duties. For a month, we fought off ticks, grasshoppers, thorny plants and the sweltering afternoon heat for the sake of research. Here's to hoping our efforts pay off and conclusions can be made from the crap…I mean data, we collected.

Courtney Hemphill is a 2014 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture from Lohn, Texas, where her family farms wheat and cotton, and runs a small commercial cow-calf operation.