Say What? Common Myths in Agriculture

Spend any time around farmers’ markets, school activities, fairs, and other similar events and you’re likely to hear agriculture ‘facts’ from adults and children alike that can make you scratch your head. Iowa is one of the leading agriculture states, so you’d think most of us have had our fair share of time on a farm or around others who have a farm. But I think you’d still be surprised to hear some of the misconceptions in agriculture.

A recent family outing to a local farm over the Easter weekend was one such event. This local farm offers many activities for families throughout the year – a pumpkin patch, Easter egg hunt, and a cut-your-own-Christmas-tree experience, among others. They have farm animals you can feed, ponies to ride, a corn pit, massive hay bales to climb, and a huge mud kitchen as well as several other activities. One of my daughters’ favorite activities is feeding the goats. While my daughters were feeding the goats, I overheard another child ask their parent why the farm only had boy goats (since they all had horns). The parent responded that it was kind of strange that there were only boy goats.

It got me thinking…what other misconceptions do children and adults have regarding agriculture topics?

Misconception 1: Only male goats have horns
Despite the misconception that only male animals can have horns, some female animals such as goats can have horns. The horns of a male (buck) goat are typically much thicker and longer than the female (doe). Animals with horns typically use their horns to defend themselves from predators or members of their own species, and for dominance.

 

Misconception 2: Cotton is from sheep
The fluffiness of cotton can cause some people to think it comes from sheep. Cotton actually comes from a plant and is one of the planet’s most widely-used natural fibers. Cotton has been cultivated and used to make fabrics for at least 7,000 years.

Cotton plants
Cotton is native to the Americas, Africa, and India. The plant requires a warm, dry climate with lots of sunshine. In the U.S., these growing conditions limit cotton cotton1production to the southern U.S. region. According to the National Cotton Council of America, 98 percent of the U.S. cotton is grown in 14 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas).

Cotton takes about five months to grow from a planted seed to a ripe plant ready for harvest. Cotton plants grow into green, bushy shrubs about three feet in height. The plants grow pink and cream-colored flowers. Once these flowers are pollinated, they drop off and are replaced with cotton bolls. Inside each cotton boll is fluffy white lint as well as the cotton seeds. The cotton must be removed from the seeds before it can be made into items such as clothes.

Cotton harvest
Clear into the 1950s, cotton was picked by hand and the seeds were removed by hand which were both labor-intensive activities. As early as 1793 though, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that was able to extract the seeds from cotton bolls.

Cotton Gin eli whitney

Image Source: Wikipedia

Today, cotton is entirely machine harvested.

John Deere cotton

Image Source: John Deere

Some of today’s high-capacity gins can turn out as much as 30,000 pounds of clean, cotton fiber in one hour. This video shows how cotton is grown and harvested.

Cotton uses
While you may think cotton is only used in materials such as clothes, cotton is also used in many items we consume. The oil from the cotton seed is extracted and used in products such as potato chips and crackers as well as beauty products. Cotton seed is also sold as livestock feed for animals such as dairy cows.

Educational resources
IALF has several lesson plans devoted to cotton. Check out our King Cotton Lesson Plans for 3-5 grade, 6-8 grade, and 9-12 grade. We also have several books in our Lending Library such as Where Did My Clothes Come From and In the Garden with Dr. Carver. These are available to check out for free.

To get back to our original question does cotton come from sheep? No, sheep produce wool. You can learn more about wool in one of our previous blog posts.

Did you know? John Deere’s Des Moines Works production plant is one of the locations that build John Deere cotton pickers.

Misconceptions 3, 4, 5 & 6: Milk is…
More than 47 billion pounds of milk was sold in the U.S. in 2018. Despite this large number, many people still have quite a few misconceptions on where milk is from and how it’s produced. The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture asked recently what common questions agriculture education professionals hear about various topics. The topic of milk came up and some of the questions show us there is definitely confusion of where your milk comes from. Examples of these questions include:

  • Beef cows make the milk I drink from the store.
  • Chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
  • Milk is cow urine.
  • (When viewing a dairy cow with an udder) – Is that a bull?

Milk comes from dairy cows, not beef cows. dairy_cow2A dairy cow is bred to have a calf so they can continue to produce milk. Once the calf is weaned, the mother continues to lactate for another 10-12 months. This is the milk collected for human consumption. The key to a good milk output is a good diet. Dairy cows eat 45 kilograms of feed (a mix of hay, grass, and grains) and supplements with minerals. On a hot day, one dairy cow can drink the equivalent of a bathtub of water. This YouTube video, Milk – How It’s Made, gives you a peek inside milk production. And, no brown cows don’t make chocolate milk.

Educational resources
Dairy is a popular agriculture education topic as it’s easy for children to relate to. Who doesn’t love a glass of milk or a piece of cheese? IALF has more than a dozen books in our Lending Library on the topic of dairy. We also have several free lesson plans on milk and cows.

Did you know? Iowa is the 12th largest milk-producing state in the U.S. There are approximately 1,360 licensed dairy herds in Iowa. Source: Midwest Dairy Association

Misconception 7, 8 & 9: Eggs are a dairy product
In the past, families had their own cows, chickens and other animals to produce their family’s food. As modern agriculture progressed, more people were able to leave the farm life behind and move into cities in search of their fortunes. However, this move of people away from the farm has led to an increasing lack of knowledge of where our food comes from. This is even true for something as simple as eggs. When asking both young and old, there are quite a few misconceptions of eggs.

Eggs are a dairy product.

You need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs.

Brown eggs are from farms, white eggs are from the store.

Let’s break down each of these misconceptions.

  1. Eggs are a dairy product – While eggs may be shelved in the dairy section of your grocery store, eggs are definitely not a dairy product. The definition of dairy includes foods produced from the milk of mammals such as cows and goats. Eggs come from poultry, and in the grocery store that means mainly chickens.
  1. You need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs – Unless you want fertilized eggs, you don’t need a rooster (male chicken) for hens (female chickens) to lay eggs. A hen will produce an egg once every 24 to 27 hours and it will form the egg regardless of whether the egg is actively fertilized during its formation. Learn more about how a hen produces an egg. 
  1. Brown eggs are from farms, white eggs are from the store. Nowadays, both brown and white eggs are available from the store. Egg color is determined by the genetics of the hens, according to the Michigan State University Extension. White-feathered chickens with white ear lobes lay white eggs. Red or brown-feathered chickens with red ear lobes lay brown eggs.
    Hens

    Hens on farm

    Different regions of the country have a variety of preferences in shell color. White eggs are the most common in most places except the New England states. Those states prefer brown eggs. No matter the shell color, nutritionally there is no difference. Eggs are among the highest quality protein source you can get and is a crucial ingredient in many recipes.

Did you know? Iowa is the number one egg producing state in the United States. Iowa farmers are responsible for about 1 in 5 eggs consumed in the U.S. each year. Iowa’s economy benefits from the egg industry as well as contributing to more than $2 billion in total sales and more than 8,000 jobs. Learn more about Iowa’s egg industry.

Educational resources
IALF has quite a few educational resources related to eggs and poultry in our Lending Library as well as free lesson plans. Search our Lending Library and lesson plan sections for terms such as ‘eggs’ and ‘chicken.’ We’ve also written several posts on our blog regarding eggs and chickens.

What are some common misconceptions you’ve heard or have about the agriculture industry?

~Melissa

Resources

 

Agriculture Products Differ with Geography: Iowa vs. Panama

-Traveling leaves you speechless

-Adventures are the best-the journeyBefore participating in a study abroad, I had heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action for me. This, accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level, really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to those in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the difference in climate and soils. After returning to the states, I had an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the agriculture industry!

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn. So, it’s a given that this is the first question I asked myself. The short answer is, that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.

So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being that they plant non-GMO crops and use minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One downside is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a high percentage of clay. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I believe that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.

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This Panamanian corn is hand planted at 29,000 plants/ac and yields 130 bu/ac.

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This ear of corn grown in the southern peninsula of Panama only filled about 2/3 of the entire ear.

 

 

 

Agroforestry – what is it?

Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforestry production I visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of subsistence farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows best in a partially to fully shaded area! This, and the need for a tropical climate, are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people consider themselves to be one with the land, they choose not to apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.

Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for bees or other pollinators to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential. 

While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re subsistence farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global agriculture industry that many never have the chance to see.

It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the agriculture industry in Iowa, and the Midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa is an ideal location for corn production, and on the other hand appreciate why some crops are better grown in varying areas. So I encourage you to go out and learn about a foreign agriculture product that you’re interested in and/or are confused with how it’s grown! Our goal of becoming more agriculturally literate doesn’t stop with corn and livestock production in Iowa, it fits into a much larger scheme of things!

Rosie

8 Great Spring Lessons about Animals, Plants & Seasons

Agriculture is always good topic for teaching science, but spring is probably the most popular time to include topics related to plants, animals, seed, seasons, etc. Why? Because classroom learning becomes more real and relevant when we can make connections to what is happening outside of school. Students can tell the weather is becoming warmer. They see leaves beginning to develop on trees, young calves in pastures, and tractors planting seeds in fields. These changes that happen outdoors in the spring can spark beautiful science conversations in elementary classrooms!

Below are eight of our favorite lessons and books for teaching elementary students about seasons, and plant and animal life cycles in the spring.

  1. Farm by Alishea Cooper. The farmer or farm animals are the main characters of most farm-themed books.  Not this one.  The farm itself takes center stage.  Through lyrical writing and beautiful illustrations, this books takes the reader on a journey to learn about what happens on a farm in the spring and throughout the year.
  2. Eggology. Incubating eggs is a popular spring activity in elementary classrooms. This lesson provides teachers with many ideas and resources for turning an incubating experience into a rich science learning experience. Through three engaging activities, students learn how the basic needs of a growing chick are met during incubation
  3. Hatching Eggs in Room Six. Whether you incubate eggs in your classroom or not, this book is a prefect way to introduce students to the concept of incubation. It highlights the life cycle of chickens, parts of an egg, incubation, and caring for freshly hatched chicks.
  4. From Chicken Little to Chicken Big. Chickens are a perfect animal to learn about when discussing life cycles and physical characteristics. In this lesson students identify different breeds of chickens, examine their physical characteristics and sequence the life cycle of a chicken.
  5. Animal Life Cycles, This lesson goes beyond chickens to help students learn about animal characteristics and life cycles. Students are introduced to six major livestock species, discover that all animals need air, food, water, and shelter to survive, and compare and contrast animal life cycles.
  6. Seed Germination Necklaces. Planting a seed and watching it grow is one of the simplest, but most mesmerizing things you can do with students. Unfortunately, most of the magic of seed germination happens underground where students cannot see the changes that happen as the seed swells and roots and leaves emerge from the seed. This lesson solves that problem by germinating corn and soybean seeds in a clear bag.
  7. Soybean Life Cycle Sequencing. The soybean plant is an excellent plant to use when teaching life cycles, because it has a very typical life cycle and it is grown throughout Iowa and most of the United States!  After reading My Family’s Soybean Farm by Katie Olthoff, students works as a group to sequence pictures of the soybean life cycle stages and complete a worksheet to match vocabulary introduced in the book to the stages of the soybean life cycle.
  8. Growing Plants in Science and Literature, More than Empty Pot. Students will use the story of The Empty Pot to explore literature and science, practicing story mapping and learning about the needs of plants and the importance of soil and water. Like the characters in the story, students will plant and observe the growth of seeds.

 

Now it’s your turn!  What is your favorite way to incorporate agriculture in into lessons in the spring?

-Cindy

 

 

 

Incubating Chicks: Tips For Classroom Success

Spring has arrived in western Iowa, and with it comes new life. Newborn calves are following their mothers on shaky legs. Bird are singing in the trees. Bunnies are scurrying into their nests or racing across lawns from one sheltered spot to the next. Chicks are emerging from beneath their feathery mothers. But how do you allow a student to experience the wonder of spring? Bring the farm to your classroom by hatching chickens! From egg to embryo to chicken, students are fascinated with all of the stages of the life cycle.

3 chicks in tote

Two and three day old chicks from a classroom hatching project.

Here are a few things to consider when planning your own hatching project:

1. Do a trial run. This will take an extra couple of weeks. Ensuring the incubator incubatoris working properly is essential to a successful hatching project. This test will also ensure the eggs from your supplier are fertilized. You probably won’t achieve 100% hatching success, but a trial run will give you a good idea of how many eggs you can expect to hatch in the classroom.

2. Timing is everything. It takes 21 days for a fertilized egg to hatch into a chick. The day you set the eggs in the incubator is very important. To make sure students are present to see the hatching process, choose a day that is early in the week. That will help ensure the chicks aren’t born on a weekend when the students are not around to watch them hatch. Don’t start too early in the week either. Chicks that are scheduled to hatch on Monday could begin as early as Sunday night. Starting the eggs in an incubator on a Tuesday or Wednesday is ideal. Have students help select a day to start by counting out the days on a classroom calendar.

3. Find a reliable fertilized egg source. Begin contacting hatcheries well before your program is set to begin to learn about their particular shipping process. The price of fertilized eggs can range from $2 to $5 per egg so make sure to shop around. Be sure ask if shipping is included in that price. Most hatcheries offer an educator package. If you are not picky about the breed of chicken that will be hatched, this could be an economical way to go.

If time is not an issue you might want to contact your local feed supply store to see if there is a farmer in the area who has a rooster and is willing to provide or donate fertilized eggs. The success rate for this method varies, so make sure to candle early in the process (and be sure to do #1). Candling is the method which uses a bright light source behind the egg to show details through the shell and is so called because the original sources of light used were candles.

egss hatching

Chicks beginning to hatch.

4. Sanitation is extremely important. Just like a newborn baby, chicks are susceptible to germs and illnesses. If you are reusing an incubator, make sure it has been properly cleaned, sanitized, and dried. Even new incubators require cleaning with a 25% bleach 75% water solution. You should always wash your hands before and after handling eggs as well as maintain good hand washing practices when the chicks arrive.

5. Be patient. While it is possible to candle (see above) eggs as early as day three, you might get a better picture if you wait a bit. Also, the first week is very important in embryo development and the least amount of changes to its environment, the better. Try candling at day seven or eight.

6. Prepare your students. students with preschool smilingChildren are always excited to learn something new and need to make sure to use gentle hands as well as soft voices around the incubator and subsequent chicks. Reminding the students that these eggs are not toys, but have a real living chick inside, will assist in the learning experience.

7. Have realistic expectations. Not all of the eggs will hatch, and not all chicks will survive even after hatching. Students are better able to handle the experience if you are truthful with them about what could happen. A typical success rate for a classroom hatching project can be 40-70%. This can be an excellent math lesson! For example, if we have 10 eggs and only 40% hatch, how many chicks will we have in our class? This can preparechick emerging from shell the children for the reality of the chick life cycle.

8. Locking down the incubator. On or around day 19 you will want to “lock down” the incubator. Doing so assures the chick can get into a proper hatching position. To do this, shut off the automatic egg turner for the last three days. Eggs will also need additional moisture during this time to make sure the egg membrane does not dry out too much, making hatching harder on the chick.

9. Relax and enjoy. Counting down three weeks can seem like a really long time. When hatch day arrives, it is easy to worry. The more you know about the process, the more comfortable you will feel. Spend some time researching the process and ask questions of others who have hatched eggs in the past. If you chose, you can try taking your questions to social media, Facebook, or blogs such as this one. See if there is a group in your area that can help you out. One thing I have learned is that chicken people are excited to share their experiences. Trust that the incubator is the best environment for the chick to hatch and let it do its job. Once chicks hatch and are completely dried out they can be moved to a tote lined with newspaper and small wood shavings. They should have access to chick feed and water from the first day.  You’ll want to have a heat source for the new chicks to huddle under if cold. On the flip side, they should have plenty of room to move away from direct light if they get too warm. Chicks can regulate their own temperature if given the right conditions.

10. Coordinate the pick-up or delivery. These classroom chicks should have a home well in advance of hatch day. Try contacting your local FFA or 4-H chapter to see if they would be interested in caring for these chicks as a project. While 2-3 day old chicks are a great, albeit noisy, addition to a classroom, they will get smelly quickly and should not be kept in the classroom for an extended period. (Unless you find the teacher is willing to clean out the wood chips and chick droppings often). Once again, proper hand washing techniques should continue to be practiced.

Using the above tips and tricks should help your classroom hatching unit be a success.

student created thier own chick

Preschool student created his own chick at center time directly after the hatching presentation.

Watching something hatch is a memorable experience you too can share with your students.

-Melanie

Calving on the Farm

 

A day old calf…a very large, day old calf

There is something wonderful about being eye to eye with a newborn calf.  The soft, warm, eyes and long eyelashes have a profound way of looking out into the brand-new world. They are patient and accepting, even welcoming as if to say, “Well what’s gonna happen next?”

The calf has undergone quite a journey.  A cow’s gestation period is roughly the same as humans. While it may be commonly considered nine months,  anyone who has first hand experience will tell you 40 weeks is actually ten months. For the past 38 to 44 weeks (the approximate range for cattle) the mother cow has fed and protected her young as all mammals do, inside her uterus. Just like a human mother, the cow has been carrying her offspring, protecting it, nourishing it and keeping it just the right temperature as it grows insider her.  From the outside looking in, this is pretty unremarkable.  But as calving day approaches, a dramatic event is about to unfold.

A cow and nursing calf.

The first sign that a cow is calving is when she begins to “bag up” which is a way to say her udder is filling with colostrum in preparation for her calf’s first meal. As soon as this happens, the farmer will make an effort to keep this cow under observation. This can be a difficult task since most cattle will go off by themselves when their time is near.  We watch our livestock and only aid in calving assistance when it is apparent the calf will not come on its own.

After the cow’s water breaks, the calf needs to start moving through the birth canal. If this process takes too long, the calf is at risk of suffocating as it is no longer getting as much oxygen through the umbilical cord inside its mother. The umbilical cord will break shortly after birth and the cow’s body prepares for that by starting to reduce the blood flow during labor. During the spring we watch our cows, especially the young heifers, closely. We usually start intervening and assisting the cow no more than one hour after we know the water has broken. We also step in to help the cow deliver when we begin to see the hooves emerge from the cow.

“Pulling” a calf is a process where straps are applied to the calf’s feet, and then, well, we pull. First, the cow needs to be secured in a chute or by “tying her off” with a rope around a pole, tree, or even a tractor if we have to pull in a field. The process is not easy (on the cow or the farmer) so we only do this when absolutely necessary. It prevents the cow from moving and hurting the farmer or herself. Next, we fit nylon straps over the calf’s hooves and apply gentle pressure on the puller. Working with the cow, we pull when she has contractions. First come the hooves (front feet) and next the head. Once the head is out, we continue to draw out the rest of the body. Shoulders come in a gush and the midsection of the calf is exposed. Usually the hips offer the second wave of resistance, but this is a good thing. If the cow is still standing, and if the calf has inhaled any amniotic fluid this “hanging period” allows the lungs to clear out. After the hips are exposed, there is a rush of calf and fluids where the newborn drops to the ground.  Whoosh!

Mother cow cleaning off her calf

Drying off the calf is the next important job for a mother cow. She will lick the calf with her tongue to clean it and to stimulate blood flow which warms up the calf and helps it begin to move its limbs. As a calf moves around on its knobby knees and wobbly legs it is determined to stand. Standing is the only way the calf will receive the nourishment from its mother that it needs to survive. The calf has to stand to reach the cow’s udder. Slowly, the calf will need to make its way to her udder. The colostrum  is the first milk which provides antibodies to assure the health and well being of this young calf, who might be only 30 minutes old. The suckling calf will also stimulate the

“after” photo of cleaned up calf

mother to expel the placenta or “after birth”. If this does not happen on it’s own it can be very dangerous for the cow and cause infection. Again, livestock farmers watch their animals closely intervening only when necessary. Plus, removing a placenta that doesn’t get expelled is a pretty smelly job.

 

A Red Angus cow and calf pair.

Once “paired up”, that is the cow has accepted the calf as her own, the calf will grow quickly each day. It will learn about its new environment, and make sure to stay close to mom. “Mom”, who is a full-grown cow, can weigh around 1200 pounds depending on the breed. Because of their size, cows can be intimidating to humans – especially kids who are less than a 10th of their size. But calves are a lot smaller, and well, who doesn’t like to learn about baby animals?

My job as a farmer can be tough, but it makes my job as an educator easy. When we talk about the calves (or lambs, or chicks, or piglets), students are hooked.

And the questions pour in.

“How big is a baby calf when it is born?” The students eyes are open wide and incredulous when they hear. A newborn calf can weigh up to 70 pounds! That is bigger than two preschoolers combined!

“Does it hurt them when you put on the ear tags?” The ears of a calf are mostly cartilage without a lot of nerves. We never intend to cause our livestock pain, or any discomfort, but the little pinch of the ear tagger can assist a commercial cattle farmer in making important decisions regarding that calf. The tags play an important role in helping us identify the calves, the offspring of one cow and one bull. Decisions need to be made about to whether or not that was a successful pairing based on how well the calf is growing. We target specific traits and use genetics to determine which cows to pair with which bulls for optimal outcomes. Also, when it comes time to vaccinate, it is important to keep tack of which calves got what vaccines.

Preschool students make their own ear tags.

During my classroom visits, the students get a chance to make their own ear tags which we hang on their ears with yarn. Numbers on the right side of the tag identify the cow. Numbers on the left identify the bull, and the large number in the center of the ear tag is the order in which the calf was born on our farm. The tenth calf born in a season is tagged 10, the eleventh one born is tagged 11 and so forth.

“How does the momma cow know which calf is hers?” A mother cow can tell which calf is hers by smell and by sound. The cows can identify a calf’s cry even in a large herd. Cows and have a sense of smell that can detect scents five miles away.

“How long will a calf get to stay with its mommy?” How long the pairs stay together depends on each farmer and their particular operation. The optimal time on our farm, is 7-8 months.  We like to have our young calves weaned, that is, no longer paired with the cow, when the grass is still good, and the weather is nice.

Over the past 16 years as a farmer, I have assisted in the birth of many calves. It is quite the experience and a joy to be near another living thing during its first few minutes of life. Likewise, it is a joy to share a bit of these experiences with students and watch their curiosity grow as they learn about agriculture.

-Melanie

Vo-COW-bulary: Dairy Breeds Edition

A little while ago we posted this blog explaining some basics of a few breeds of beef cattle. If you remember, we specified that some breeds are better at producing muscle (beef breeds), whereas other breeds are better at producing milk (dairy breeds). That is not to say, however, that dairy cattle are not a part of the beef system! We know that only females that have given birth can produce milk, so the males of dairy breeds are often raised as market steers to be used for their meat once they reach maturity. When a dairy cow has aged and should no longer be used for milk production, she will also be used for meat; primarily in processed products like soup, ground beef, and similar products.

Today, we will focus in on our dairy breeds and discuss what differentiates each of them.

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Dairy Breeds

You may remember that there are quite a few beef breeds in the world. However, there are really only about six popular dairy breeds of cattle. Each of them have different colorings, size, milk fat percentage, milk protein, and milk production.

Holstein

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Holstein cattle on an Iowa dairy farm

Holstein cattle are the big, black and white spotted cattle you see represented in kid’s books and movies most often. However, there are also red and white Holsteins, and those may be noted as a separate breed. These cattle are the most popular dairy breed because they are milk machines!

Holstein cattle originated in the Netherlands about 2,000 years ago! These cattle are huge (about 58” tall at the shoulder) and are known for being one of the largest cattle breeds. They also produce more milk than any other breed of cattle. They can adapt to different diets or management systems, and perform well in multiple environments. One Holstein cow can produce up to 10 gallons of milk every day! Can you imagine all that milk?

Compared to other breeds, Holsteins have lower butterfat and protein content. If this is a concern for a producer, they might choose to crossbreed Jerseys (another common dairy breed with a higher milk protein content) with Holsteins to produce what is sometimes called a “HoJo.” HoJos can produce lots of milk with a higher protein content.

Jersey

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Jersey cattle. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Compared to Holsteins, Jersey cattle are much smaller. This breed is usually a light brown color with a darker face, hooves, nose, and tail. Some Jerseys are a bit darker, almost a grey or dull black, which is called Mulberry.

Jersey cattle probably originated from the coast of France, though nobody really knows for sure. These animals have been shipped worldwide for hundreds of years and experienced a lot of popularity from the 1860s until WWI. They get their name from the Isle of Jersey which is situated in the English Channel just off the coast of France. Today, the breed is the second largest dairy breed in the world. Milk from Jersey cows has superior nutritional value and protein content, which demands a premium price at market, and yields more product when being processed into cheese. Their milk is also high in calcium and butterfat.

Brown Swiss

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Brown Swiss cattle, Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/photos/cows-cattle-farm-rural-agriculture-2641195/

Sometimes also referred to as Braunvieh, Brown Swiss cattle are prolific, docile, and dark brown to silver in color. This breed is likely the oldest dairy breed, originating in Switzerland at least 1000 years ago. Because of the rugged landscape and harsh climate of Switzerland, these cattle can deal well with these tougher conditions.

Brown Swiss cattle have a high protein-to-fat ratio, making their milk excellent for cheese production. We can’t complain about that!

Guernsey

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Little Sark – Guernsey Cattle, © Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License. http://www.geograph.org.gg/photo/1719

 

Guernsey cattle are sometimes called “Golden Guernsey” because of the color of their milk. Their milk is rich and golden because of its high levels of beta carotene, the stuff that’s in carrots that we can form Vitamin A from.

Guernsey cattle hail from the Isle of Guernsey just off the coast of France. They are another spotted cattle breed, but instead of white with black spots, they are white with reddish-brown spots or patches. They are a smaller sized animal (comparable to the size of a Jersey) are said to be efficient feed converters by eating 20 to 30% less feed per pound of milk than larger breeds of cattle.

Ayrshire

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A prize winning Ayrshire cow at the Romsey show 2005. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ayrshire cattle are medium-sized animals (1,200 lbs at maturity), strong, and adaptable. These cattle are another spotted breed, with white and red patches. Historically, these patches could look more brindle or roan, but these patterns are rare in the breed today.

Ayrshire cattle originate from the County of Ayr in Scotland in the early 1800s. Though they are not the most popular breed in the U.S. currently, their adaptability makes them a popular breed in many other countries, including South Africa and Russia.

Milking Shorthorn

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Dairy Shorthorn cow at Tullamore Show, County Offaly, Ireland, 2012. Licensed by Finnegas under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Milking Shorthorn (sometimes called Dairy Shorthorn) cattle are an offshoot from the beef breed of Shorthorn cattle. Because of this tie, Milking Shorthorns are considered a “dual purpose” breed capable of producing both milk and meat.

Milking Shorthorns, as well as their beef counterpart, are known for their beautiful red and white roan coats. They originated from Great Britain, and their milk has a high protein-to-fat ratio.

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Internationally, there are many other breeds of dairy cattle. Montbeliarde and Swedish Red have begun to make an appearance in crossbreeding systems here in the United States. Others like Normande, Milking Devon, or Friesian are raised for dairy, as well.

Historically, more dairy cattle producers have preferred to keep purebred lines instead of crossbreeding. This has recently changed, and producers in the dairy industry are experimenting more with dairy breed crosses. When crossing breeds of livestock, the progeny (offspring) can contain beneficial traits from both or multiple breeds. This can look like the Holstein and Jersey cross mentioned above where the offspring may produce more milk than a pure Jersey but with more protein than a pure Holstein.

Crossbred livestock also exhibit something called heterosis (also called hybrid vigor). This phenomenon essentially causes the first generation of the cross to grow larger, faster, and produce more milk or meat than the genetics of either parent would suggest. This phenomenon is common across all organisms and was responsible for a crop yield boom in the 1940s.

To ensure the future of their herd, dairy producers look for cattle that are healthy, structurally sound, and have a history of calving easily. Dairy cattle are also measured by their milk production. Producers measure this by pounds of milk (there are 8.6 pounds to a gallon of milk) per lactation (305 days). The USDA reported that in 2018 milk production per cow in the United States was just over 23,000 pounds (over 2,600 gallons) in 305 days. That’s almost nine gallons of milk every day of their lactation!

Farmers also measure percent protein and butterfat content of the milk produced. This varies from breed to breed, herd to herd, and animal to animal. However, most breeds have about 3.5-4.5% fat content and 3-4% protein content. The content of fat and protein can impact what the milk is best used for and can impact the price given to the farmer.

What else would you like to learn about dairy production? Let us know in the comments!

 

-Chrissy

Superhero Crops and Their Origins

Every superhero has their origin story. It’s the story of how it all started – how they came to be a superhero. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Captain Marvel absorbed the energy of the Tesseract. The Flash inhaled hard water vapors and then got his powers when a lightening bolt hit his lab. Wonder Woman is an Amazon and was granted her powers by the Greek gods.

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In agriculture, we can look at crops that we grow as superheros of sorts. Each one has its own origin story too. They aren’t as fanciful or dramatic as many of our graphic novel and comic book heroes. But they are just as amazing! Consider the following.

Superhero: Corn. Secret Identity: Zea Mays or Maize. Nearly 9,000 years ago a grass in Mesoamerica – what is now Mexico – was recognized as having food potential and it was domesticated. This annual grass, teosinte, had a small seed head with 8-20 seeds. The seeds were harvested and became a staple in the diet of the indigenous people. Early farmers collected the seed heads that had the most seeds and planted those again the following year. Do this over and over again for 9,000 years and the seed head evolves from 8-20 seeds to 600-800 seeds! And along the way natural mutations (no radioactive spider or bolt of lightening required) changed those seeds. Natural mutations created blue corn, white corn, sweet corn, and popcorn. For popcorn, the natural mutation was a thick, hard exterior coating on each of d7.jpgthe seeds. The hard exterior coating keeps moisture locked in. Then when it is exposed to heat and the moisture turns to steam, the popcorn POPS open! Sweet corn, too, is a natural mutation of the original. 

Teosinte can still be found throughout modern Mexico. It looks so different from modern corn that scientists had no clue they were related. But when a DNA analysis was conducted, low and behold, they were related. Teosinte found today is the crop wild relative of modern corn.

Superhero: Wild mustard. Secret Identity: Brassica oleracea. This one little plant – wild mustard – has given rise to a number of different agricultural crops that take up a huge section in modern grocery stores. Take a look at broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts and you are basically looking at the same plant! Farmers began noticing that some wild mustard plants had very pronounced flowers or florets. They began cultivating those variety and after hundreds of successive generations we now have broccoli and cauliflower. Farmers noticed that some of those same mustard plants had large leaves. They began selecting for those traits and pretty soon – viola! Cabbage! And kale! Some of those same mustard plants had lateral leaf buds. A few generations later – and Brussels sprouts! Some of those same mustard plants had lateral meristems – and boom! Kohlrabi. 

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None of this happened overnight. And again, no Tesseract needed. But through careful selection of traits, farmers were able to create multiple different varieties of crops all from the same parent species. Wild mustard species still abound across Europe, Asia, and North America. It is amazing to think that these wild relatives could, through careful cultivation, someday line grocery store shelves.

Superhero: Wheat. Secret Identity: Triticum. About 500,000 years ago, two species of wild grasses crossed – long before humans entered the picture. Humans in the Fertile Crescent (what is now modern Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran) domesticated this grass. It is what we now call emmer wheat. Either on purpose or accidentally and around the time that humans began cultivating the wheat, a third wild grass joined into the mix. Because of this, wheat, as we know it today, has three pairs of every chromosome (most species only have two pairs). This gives wheat approximately 16,000 base pairs in its genome. Talk about a powerful genome! For comparison, the human genome only has around 3,000 base pairs. Wheat has long been a staple crop around the globe. It provides many of the calories needed for societies to thrive. Its complicated genetic history makes it harder for scientists to figure out but gives it a lot of diversity and potential, too. Emmer wheat is still grown today. And as a grass, modern wheat has a lot of relatives that can be found in the wild. 

Superhero: Banana. Secret Identity: Cavendish. There are more than a thousand varieties of bananas throughout the world. But the type of banana that is most often consumed is the Cavendish. This variety doesn’t produce any seeds. The tiny black specs that you might find in some Cavendish are the remnants of seeds that never matured. Because of the way the Cavendish flowers it really can’t get pollinated to produce seeds. The flower grows upside down and the female parts of the flower all mature and start to form fruit before the male part of the flower even opens. This is great for consumers because they don’t have to contend with seeds. They can just peel the banana and eat the whole thing. But for farmers, without seeds, no new plants. But new plants are grown through asexual propagation. That’s right, most bananas are clones of each other! Talk about a superpower! Duplicating yourself into countless copies!

Wild banana relatives are able to sexually propagate and so bananas in the wild will have seeds inside of them with very little fruit. One benefit of identifying, knowing, and studying crop wild relatives (like wild bananas) is to tap into the power of diverse genes. The banana variety that we consumed before the Cavendish was the Gros Michel. A virulent Panamanian disease decimated the banana industry in the 1940s. Farmers had to stop growing the Gros Michel and switch to the Cavendish. Another disease is now threatening the Cavendish. By studying the wild relatives, scientists might find a gene that is resistant to the fungal disease and introduce it to save the Cavendish.

Superhero: Sunflower. Secret Identity: Helianthus. This versatile crop is widely known in Kansas (home of another super hero – Superman). But sunflowers are grown in a lot of states – either for oil or for confectionery (direct seed consumption). The seeds can be crushed to extract their oil. Or the seeds can be whole, ground, roasted, or processed in many other ways to be eaten.

“Plants are regularly challenged by a variety of environmental stresses such as drought, flooding, salt, and low-nutrient levels that negatively affect plant growth and reduce productivity. Though wild plants have evolved mechanisms to meet these challenges, many crops are less resilient. To reduce stress-induced yield loss and improve food security, attention has increasingly turned to the tapping of genetic diversity in crop wild relatives. Sunflower is an ideal crop for such an approach because the productivity of this oilseed crop is clearly limited by such stresses, while wild relative species are adapted to a variety of extreme environments,” from here.

The resulting stress-resistant cultivars could help stabilize production in developing countries in the face of environmental stresses.

Superhero: Carrot. Secret Identity: Daucus carota. Domestic carrots are so diverse that they could be seen to have many different superpowers as compared to their wild cousins. Carrots can come in a variety of colors – white, yellow, purple, and yes, orange. Compare these multi-colored carrots side-by-side in a taste test and you will likely determine that the orange ones are the sweetest. And that might be why you will usually only see orange carrots in the grocery store. Carrots have a number of relatives including the ornamental Queen Anne’s lace flower. Carrots are another great example of selective breeding practices that farmers used over countless generations. The original carrot was a scrawny, spindly, root that probably didn’t have much value. But like a superhero paired with a mentor, the carrot and the farmer grew together. The carrot developed a long tap root to store sugars. The orange color meant it was packed with vitamin A and a healthy part of the human diet. These modern carrots are definitely a superhero as compared to their wild relatives.

Every modern day crop has a back story. And most still have crop wild relatives. What crop wild relatives are you familiar with?

-Will