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Cow Chips and Wood Ticks

September 1, 2012

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.

If throwing cow dung doesn’t float your boat how bout the Kentucky Derby of Cooties? Dick Kuhnert probably didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a fateful spring day years ago when Kuhnert, seated at the Oxbo Resort’s tavern in Sawyer County, picked one of those pesky wood ticks off his arm.

Kuhnert placed the tick on the bar and watched it scurry around. A real thoroughbred, he thought. Oughta race this little devil.

The International Wood Tick Races was born.

Ahhh, the arrival of spring in Wisconsin. There is nothing like it after a winter season that lasts about 9 months, give or take two or three.

Wisconsin folks are genetically programmed to celebrate the sweet season. Our immigrant ancestors loved the populism of a good festival, and when the weather broke, seasonal rites of spring were found in towns and villages across the state: bare-chested men held wrestling matches in pens filled with smelt  (those are a kind of fish); money was raised for charity by guessing when the old junker would drop through ice on the local lake; clergy blessed the newly brewed batch of seasonal beer.

 Now, going stronger than ever at a time when many spring and summer traditions have fallen by the wayside, you can add this to the cultural roll call: Wood tick races.

Every May hundreds of contestants will gather at the Oxbo Resort along the beautiful Flambeau River. Some will bring Ziploc bags, others will have matchboxes, each will carry the hopes and dreams of owning the fastest tick in all of cootie sports.

Here’s how it works. Bring your fastest tick, or select one from the Oxbo Resort stables (not making this up), or take a walk in the woods before the race. Entry fee is a buck per tick.

Two ticks are paired up in each heat; they race from the center of a bulls eye to the outer edge.

Elimination rounds culminate in the championship race. Winner takes the pot and is inducted into the Wood Tick Hall of Fame (the bar).

One other thing. After each heat the losing tick is smashed by a gavel belonging to the mayor of Oxbo, “population 10 people and 6 dogs,” according to the Chamber of Commerce. Not that participants have any sentimental attachment to their, er, teams; most owners relish finishing off the pests. It’s like a contest and a public service.

Dick Kuhnert is no longer with us, but his son, Randy, officiates. “Randy has attended Wood Tick Judging School and studied his father’s notes from past races,” organizers assure us.

I realize that many of you prefer good ole American traditions though and cow dung and wood ticks just don’t get it. How bout this? For those of you who are sick of watching local town ball players easily maneuvering around the bases in practical cleats, your not-so-big-league dreams have come true! 2011 marked the 50th Anniversary of Snowshoe Baseball in Lake Tomahawk, where the teams must play wearing snowshoes on a field of wood chips. This is not just a one-time event. You can catch the Snowhawks defending their turf many times this summer. Where do they play? Snowshoe Park, of course!

And if cow dung, cooties, and baseball aren’t enough for you, try one of these crazy celebrations:

The Cheesecurd Festival…a weekend of worship devoted to the little squeaky globs of milk solids.

World Championship Snowmobile Watercross…..yes, they really do race snowmobiles across open water!

UFO Daze complete with a parade, food, drink, lectures by guest speakers and nightly watching for the alien carrying flying saucers!

Lumberjack World Championships; a proud tradition of logging in the Northwoods

Bratwurst Days

Burger Fest; Due to its invention here in 1885, Seymour is the “home of the hamburger”. Celebrate this designation with hot air balloons, a burger eating contest, a bun run, a ketchup slide, and the grilling of a 150 lb. Burger, which shall be served to attendees.

Wife Carrying Championships; (one of my personal favorites).  All you fellas need to do is find a woman who you can physically carry through a race course of sand, water and hurdles to win great prizes based on the woman’s weight. Sound good? There’s also a Wife Ferrying (woman pushed in cart) competition and a Pike (stuffed fish) Carrying Contest for the kids.

Rutabaga Fest

Watermelon Fest

Sputnik Fest; In 1963, a part of the Russian space probe Sputnik crash landed on a street in the city of Manitowoc. What a perfect reason to have a ‘cosmic cake’ contest…or an ‘alien animal costume’ contest…or a ‘Miss Space Debris’ competition.

Beef A Rama & the Parade of Roasts; Minocquans celebrate their love of beef in an interesting way. A roast-cooking competition that incorporates a grand level of presentation. Chefs march their finished product down the street in a parade that may involve costumes for both participant and roast. Not to be missed.

So here’s to great American traditions and a salute to the wild and wacky citizens of Wisconsin….a state that has it all. Of course it does. It’s where I grew up!

Chatty Grandma


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  1. Jeannie permalink

    Yes mam . .. that is where I grew up too. I have heard about some of these contests, but you found some novel ones. . . about those ticks .. . I am getting a gavel tomorrow!!

  2. Ann permalink

    Yeah, that snow mobile race across a lake really does attract worldwide contestants.

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