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John McCartney and Herald staff | jmccartney@heraldnet.com
Published: Friday, August 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Drought leaves Wisconsin cow-chip throw without ammo

SAUK CITY, Wis. -- It's very seldom someone talks about the quality and amount of cow dung, but in one southern Wisconsin city that's all they've been talking about lately.

The drought has caused a shortage of flattened, dried cow manure -- or cow chips -- for the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival, which attracts about 300 throwers and 40,000 spectators to Prairie du Sac, Wis.

"This is my 24th throw, and it's never been this difficult to find chips," said Marietta Reuter, who helps organize the festival that runs Friday and Saturday.

They use the chips from a local beef cattle herd that mostly eats grass, because the diet helps keep the chips dense and strong.

The hot, dry summer -- which has caused crop, water level and other problems across the nation -- caused the grass to brown and cattle to stay near their barn for food and to keep cool. That means the manure in the pasture wasn't able to dry and flatten in the sun.

The committee that runs the festival usually goes out once in July to shovel the manure and let it dry in wagons in the sun. But this year they had to skip it because of the poor quality.

Instead, a few organizers went out sporadically and collected about a third of the usual amount -- 200 or 300. Every year they keep the good ones that don't break -- so they will dip into the 150 to 200 in reserve barrels for this year's competition.

When searching for chips, they look for them be about the size of a ping pong paddle.

"If it looks like it has air bubbles on the top, it's bad chip," Reuter said. "It won't be worth it because it will be light and airy. But if it's thick and solid and grassy, it's a good chip."

Once they dry, they don't really stink anymore.

"A lot of people are afraid to pick it up," said Terry Slotty, who runs the throw every year. "They look at it, and it looks like what it is but once they touch it they notice that it's very dry."

The men's record was set in 1991 at 248 feet. The woman's record is from 2005 at 157.5 feet, Reuter said. The festival will give the top finishers $200 each toward a trip to the World Championship Cow Chip Throw in Beaver, Okla., should they decide to go, Slotty said.

Reuter's brother, Russ Ballweg, who is the festival's grounds chair, said they are already planning on a backup plan for next year.

"We are probably going to have to go out more often and pick so we can get our reserve back up a little bit," he said.

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