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One hundred and twenty miles west of Kansas City, researcher Joe Craine kneels in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to grab a handful of grasses.
From the road, this looks like an unbroken wave of green. A close look at Craine’s hand shows a variety of grasses, a small sample of the preserve’s hundreds of different species.
The prairie is so diverse, in fact, that to study it, Craine and researchers from Texas A&M University don’t actually study the plants themselves. They study poop, collected between 1994 and 2016 everywhere from Texas to Kansas to Montana.
“Somewhere on the order of 50,000 cow pies got shipped to Texas for this study,” says Craine, who co-owns Boulder, Colorado-based Jonah Ventures.
What he’s found is a trend in the nutritional quality of grasses that grass-fed cattle (and young cattle destined for grain-heavy feedlots) eating. Since the mid-90s, levels of crude protein in the plants, which cattle need to grow, have dropped by nearly 20 percent.