Higher Yields: The Science and Technology of Agriculture

Where do we go from here?

No, I’m not singing a line from the musical Evita. No one would argue there have been drastic changes in the farming industry. When I stop to think about it, I am two generations removed from farming with horses. We’re talking my grandpa farming with horses when he was a boy. Now, some farmers are using machines with GPS receivers, controls that look like joysticks and touchscreen monitors in the cabs.

Winter SunriseI am fortunate to have experienced both types of farming. No, I have not planted or harvested a field with horses, but I have experienced spreading manure with horses. Yes, it was strength building, callus producing work, and I wouldn’t trade a minute for those memories. There are several learning experiences in pitching manure. The two that stand out in my memory are that you only carry so much on your shovel or fork so you don’t slop or drop it as you’re throwing it in to the manure spreader and two, pay attention to which way the wind is blowing as you go to unload the spreader. It can get real messy real fast. It is that minute I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for, which I believe has led to the many advancements we enjoy today. How often have you heard “time is money”, or “time is precious” or thought my time is too limited to add one more thing? It is our desire to be efficient with our time and tasks, technology has helped us advance to where we are today. The world of agriculture is no exception.

Hazy MorningBeing curious, I googled how many farming apps are there. The results, over 700. The topics ranged greatly from the obvious livestock and crop apps, but there were marketing, education, technology and spraying apps. The most interesting app I discovered will assist in identifying any insect, weed, or disease found in the field. It allows for the specific location to be mapped so that the correct treatment can be applied to the specific area instead of the entire field if unnecessary. This tool wasn’t available 10 years ago. Science and technology have changed many things in the world of agriculture. From tractors to hybrid seeds and from power and energy to genetics science and technology has made big advances. These advances have also helped increase yields to feed a growing world population. It will be interesting to see what agriculture looks like for my grandchildren.

nobackgroundlogoThe 115 Partner Sites of the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area tell a very specific story related to agriculture. Some of those stories are about where we have been and others where we are going in the world of agriculture, all of them excellent in expanding our knowledge. So I guess that is where we go from here. Continue to learn about or seek out opportunities to learn about agriculture. It is one thing that links us all together.

-Laura, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area

Why do they do that? – Terraces and Tile Lines

Much of Iowa seems flat, but as we’ve previously discussed there is actually a lot of variety to the Iowa landscape. In addition to this, many Iowa farmers dabble in terracing – creating terraces on the slope of a hill. But why do they do that?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed it, but look closely at Iowa fields – especially in the southern half of the state – and you will see terraces on many hillsides.

One thing that Iowa farmers struggle with is soil loss and erosion from water running across the field. When water after a rainstorm flows across the field it can pick up soil particles and carry those particles downstream. Loosing that soil off the field might make the field less fertile. The steeper the slope or grade of the land (like a hillside) the faster the water will move. The faster the water moves, the more soil it might pick up and carry away with it.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Iowa.

So farmers need to try and slow down the movement of water. Hence, terraces. Terraces are man-made earthen structures that intercept runoff on slopes. They change long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. At each level of the terrace, water has a chance to slow down and the soil has a chance to settle out which keeps it on the field. The result is that cleaner water leaves the field and not as much erosion occurs.

Farmers mound up soil on the hillside creating a somewhat level area with a short steep backslope down to the next level. The top, flat area can still be farmed with crops. The short steep backslopes are seeded with perennial grasses. The roots of these perennial grasses help hold the slope in place.

Sometimes terraces can also include a tile line and drain. In some cases and if there is considerable water build up, farmers can install a tile line and drain. This will allow the soil to settle out and the water to be siphoned off into an underground pipe. This allows the water to run through the pipe down the slope without collecting any soil. The water is discharged at the end of the pipe. This also reduces soil compaction and and enables good root development.

In Iowa, terraces are a fairly common practice. In fact hundreds of miles of terraces help cut soil loss. In one watershed management area terraces reduce soil loss by as much as 13 tons! New terraces might be installed in the fall of the year after growing crops have been harvested or in the spring of the year before crops are planted. In addition to reducing soil erosion, terraces can help retain moisture for growing crops and water conservation purposes. Terraces can even help create nesting habitat in the grassy back slopes that are largely untouched.


Celebrating the Three Sisters & the Story Behind the Thanksgiving Celebration

I have to be honest. I had no idea who the three sisters were and what their importance was. Or how it was connected to Thanksgiving until just recently when I came across it on social media. My interest was sparked and so here I am researching what this relationship is all about.

I recall growing up and hearing my parents say “back in the day” or “in my generation”. As I read this legend it brought back fond memories of learning things that were passed from generation to generation.  The legend of corn, beans and squash – and these plgarden7-copyants being referred to as the “three sisters” – relates back to Native Americans.  According to Iroquois legend these three plants when planted together thrive in the same way three sisters can be found to be inseparable. The Native Americans chose to plant corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, which created a sustainable system that provided for soil health and fertility. The connection of these three plants gives us a look back to how things were done when the America’s were first being inhabited and agriculture was in view as far as the eye could see.

three-sistersIroquois believed that the corn, beans and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit. The plants were thought to be watched over by the three sister spirits, called the De o-ha-ko or Our Sustainers and translates to “life support”. These three sister spirits protect and inhabit the croplands. Sister Corn stands tall to guard and protect the crops. Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister corn. Sister Squash, the oldest of the three sisters stays close to earth and encircles the sisters in a protective fashion and uses her large leaves to protect and shade the soil. Planted together the sisters get their water supply from Father sky.

Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops for early settlers. By the re-telling of the story and this way of planting as well as the legacy was passed down from generation to generation. This process of planting did much for the health of the crop. Corn provided a physical pole for the bean vines to cling to. The beans (as legumes) host bacteria on their roots that help increase the nitrogen levels of the soil around the plants roots and fertility of the soil would then increase. The bean vines would actually ecd77d3400bc54541063494cacf29e8d-copystrengthen and stabilize the tall corn plants. Nearer to the ground the squash vines created natural shading and helped to hold moisture in the soil and also prevented weeds from taking over beneath the corn and beans. I am amazed to see how the early farmers knew the importance of all of the components of planting and not just the end result of a crop. They worked diligently to protect the soil so that a good crop would be maintained for years to come.

These three crops also helped provide Native Americans with a nutritionally balanced diet. The corn provided quick energy in the form of carbohydrates. The beans were rich in protein. And the squash helped supplement the diet with vitamins from the fruit and oils from the seeds.

Corn, squash and beans are all native to the Americas and have been cultivated for ththousands of years. This trio helped keep soils healthy and it helped keep the Native Americans healthy. When early settlers landed and pushed west these three crops were quickly adopted into cultivation practices. The bounty of fall harvest surely included these and now, hundreds of years later, they are still served on the table as part of our Thanksgiving dinner menus.

~ Sheri

Agriculture Literacy in the Digital World

1There are many online resources to ‘grow’ educators’ ability and to integrate agriculture literacy into the content areas. More and more learning is moving to web based platforms which allows for individualized and personalized learning.

In a data reported by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (2013), 211,373 people in Iowa were classified as farm operators or paid farm workers. This number does not reflect individuals working in agriculture related industries, such as seed and fertilizer sales, and implement production/sales. To support Iowa’s need for a strong workforce in the area of agriculture, IALF and AEA PD Online have partnered to bring online courses and digital content around agriculture to teachers across the state of Iowa.

AEA PD Online and IALF have created fully online and blended courses that focus on how to integrate agricultural literacy into the content areas of literacy, math science, and social studies. Both fully online and blended course participants will have the opportunity to learn about online student modules focused on the role of agriculture in the creation of alternative energy. Individuals who choose the blended courses during the summer will also have the opportunity to do hands-on, site based learning. To find upcoming course offerings check the AEA PD Online Course Catalog.

2One of the biggest benefits that online or blended course participants will experiences is the opportunity to learn about the Student Personalized Learning System and the agriculture and energy content found in the system (student modules were built with financial support from the Iowa Energy Center and IALF). Content module topics include:

  • Energy Conservation Practices
  • Agriculture and Biofuels Industry
  • Chemical Reactions in Ethanol Production
  • Biomass Technology and Energy Production
  • Agriculture and Solar Energy
  • Ethanol and the Environment
  • Impact on the Corn Supply
  • And much more

Teachers, administrators and counselors at school districts can assign any or all of the modules to their students and track student progress as they work through the modules.

If interested in viewing the content on the Student Personalized Learning System (SPLS) educators can log into it using the username and password that they use for the statewide teacher training system where they have taken mandatory trainings. Once logged into the Student Learning System, click on Modules, and select Agriculture (or Science). Content for grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8 will appear.

Agriculture plays an important role in the live of many Iowans. To support ongoing success and economic growth in this industry AEA PD Online and IALF are proud to have partnered to support teachers learning how to integrate Ag literacy into their curriculum and provide students with access to high quality content focused on agriculture.

In addition to the Ag energy content, the SPLS offers teachers the ability to supplement classes or provide remediation to struggling students in the areas of:

  • 3Counseling
  • English/Language Arts
  • Employability
  • Financial Literacy
  • Family and Consumer Science
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology Literacy
  • And more

It also allows teachers to take their own content and create online learning modules.

Click here to watch an overview of the Student Personalized Learning System or for more information contact instructional designers Denise Krefting (dkrefting@aeapdonline.org) or Melissa Wicklund (mwicklund@aeapdonline.org) at AEA PD Online.

-Rob Brookhart, Instructional Designer, AEA PD Online

What’s the Difference? Corn Head vs. Soybean Head

The harvest is in full swing! Maybe you’ve seen some big machines out and about, and maybe you’ve noticed they don’t all look the same. You may be wondering, what’s the deal with that?

The biggest difference between modern combines (other than the color or brand) is what header they have on. Here in Iowa, our two biggest crops are corn and soybeans. Since these plants grow differently, it takes different equipment to harvest them in the fall.

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Luckily, there is one master piece of equipment – the combine – that can harvest both crops. However, it needs different attachments to get the job done right. These attachments are called heads or headers. You can think of it kind of like vacuum cleaner attachments.

The corn head looks like it has long, witchy fingers – very fitting for Halloween! These fingers reach in between the rows of corn. At the base of the fingers, there are rollers that cut and pull down the stalk, and chains that break the ear of corn off the stalk. After that, augers will rotate and feed the corn into the combine machine itself.


The bean head, used to harvest soybeans, is also called a draper head. If you’re familiar with the kids’ movie Cars, this is the kind of header that Frank, the combine, has. This header has five or six bars that rotate down. On each bar, there are small, rubber fingers that help grab the plant and bring it towards the machine. You can think of this like the main roller on the bottom of your vacuum cleaner; the bars create something of a roller that grabs and pulls the plants towards the machine. Then, the plants will come across the cutter bar at the base of the header. This will cut down the plant, and then the augers will collect the plant material to take it inside the machine.


The combine doesn’t stop there, though. Once the plant is cut down and the material is inside the combine, there is still sorting to do! When crops are in the field, corn is on a cob and is surrounded by husks. Soybeans are inside of a pod. The combine has to detach these seeds from the other plant material and collect it all in one place.


All of the extra plant material will be deposited back on the field using a spreader in the back of the combine. This helps give the soil extra cover and protection from erosion, and also helps put some nutrients back into the soil from the organic matter of the plant material.


Once the grain is collected, it is temporarily stored in the grain tank of the combine. In the picture below, you can see that the tank is fairly full. When the tank looks full, another farmer will drive alongside the combine with a tractor and a grain cart. The combine will then use an auger to deposit the grain into the cart. When this happens, the combine doesn’t have to stop harvesting. Instead, the grain cart driver can go back and forth between a larger semi-truck and the combine to collect and deposit the grain. This saves lots of time!


In summary, combines do lots of work! Even though they don’t drive very fast, the amount of work one combine can do in a day is leaps and bounds more than farmers could do without them. Luckily, we have the tools and equipment to harvest our two largest Iowa crops as efficiently as we do.



Reflections on agriculture education

I have been working directly with students in public and private schools across North Iowa for the better part of 20 years. I am not, nor have I ever been, under contract with a particular school district. Yet I’ve seen tens of thousands of students in my tenure, always with the goal of promoting Iowa agriculture and stressing its importance to our economy and our communities.

rockwell-oct-2016North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom is the organization I work for, and expectation number one on my job description is to seek out and develop interesting agriculture lessons. It is my job to gather the resources necessary to educate youth about agriculture, and to find ways to (hopefully!) hold the attention of my audience. It might be a 3 year-old preschooler or a middle school student whose mind can be a difficult thing to engage.

Today, there is vastly more support for those of us tasked with providing accurate agriculture education to students and adults. When I started my career in agriculture education, there were few organizations like the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation that someone in my position could turn to for help. There was no such thing as a one-stop source for book recommendations, lesson plans and activities in one neat bundle. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend days researching and refining a single lesson. I might come across a book I thought described an interesting chunk of Iowa agriculture or farming practices. If I wanted to use that book as the basis for classroom instruction, I then had to seek out or write the lesson plan to complete the message. Once I had the book and lesson plan, then it was on to finding or developing an activity to make the concept more meaningful to the students. Remember, this was pre-Pinterest time! I was completely on my own!

In the beginning, my colleagues and I were commonly considered to be “entertainment” for the students since it was unusual for agriculture to be accepted as an important, relevant component in elementary education.  And, I must admit, we submitted to that request for entertainment in order to get our foot in the door of many school districts. We built scarecrows during a fall harvest festival, we entered classrooms dressed up as the Nutrition Princess to talk about healthy food choices, and we hauled a microwave around to be prepared to make corn plastic.

Rather than building scarecrows, now we talk to kids about the environment and how concerned farmers are about protecting it. We don’t have to dress up in costumes to get students’ attention when we tell them that farmers in Iowa grow the corn and soybeans that become foods they eat every day. Or when we tell them how dedicated farmers are to caring for their livestock.


Happily, for me and everyone else involved in teaching the next generation of consumers where their food and fiber originates, what we do has become a much more respected practice in the eyes of teachers and administrators. They truly understand the value of teaching youth the importance of agriculture and the many careers tied to that industry.

cs3-oct-2015I am impressed with how far we’ve advanced agriculture education in schools. There are many organizations across the country coming together to support each other’s efforts to teach about farming, and that’s making it much easier for people like me.

-Brenda Mormann, North Central Iowa Ag in the Classroom

Learning about the world around us beyond the classroom

It comes as no surprise that the dynamics of the typical American family have changed and will continue to do so. The family unit is increasingly diverse and constantly evolving. According to the Iowa Afterschool Alliance, 1 in 4 families has a child enrolled in some type of after school program.

Pig Farmer.jpgI would encourage those of us who are passionate about sharing information about agriculture to extend our thinking beyond the traditional classroom. There are a host of resources and activities that are great for specific lessons, but have we thought about using these resources outside of the common teacher/student role? After school programs, library reading programs, child care centers, YMCA youth programs, and home school self-studies are all under-utilized areas for making connections to agriculture.

The after school programs, summer programs, or structured learning within a childcare center provide an ideal time and place to get students excited about learning and pursuing their own interests. Self-confidence expands as they explore new talents in areas that may not be addressed by the regular school curriculum.

Newton library 2.jpgKnowing that many libraries and summer care facilities struggle to find interactive and fun programs to fill their time, I brainstormed a way to share information about agriculture in this setting. The 2015 summer reading theme, “Every Hero has a Story”, provided inspiration for this project. I took the idea of the superhero and applied it to agriculture. “Farmers are Superheroes Too” was born. Many kids can easily relate to superheroes and cartoons. What super powers might the farmer have? The thought of a farmer duplicating animals, having equipment that can drive itself and possessing super strength is exciting and intriguing for the targeted age group within these programs.

Chicks Library-2.jpgFrom photos of animals and crops to people and equipment, each became a cartoon using free online software. Matching up the photos with the superpowers led to the creation of a short story, “Farmers are Superheroes Too”.

Our local libraries, YMCA summer programs and care centers were happy to provide me with time to share this resource. We read the book with ages PreK to 4th graders. An exciting supplement to the book was the chance to use the FarmChat program and Skype with a farmer who demonstrated how his tractor could drive itself. This added experience helped make the farmer superhero come to life while demonstrating technology in agriculture. Other activities that have accompanied the book include planting vegetable seeds for children to take home and bringing baby chicks into childcare centers.

feeding calf at julies.jpgSharing information about agriculture helps put the world around us into perspective. There is no better tool than agriculture for the application of learning. Make sure the activities you offer are fun and engaging, no matter what they are designed to teach. Most kids are tired after a long day at school, and they will be best able to absorb the content of a lesson if it looks more like play and less like a traditional classroom lesson.

Be inspired to share agriculture in new ways! If you would like a free copy of the book, “Farmers are Superheroes Too” please feel free to contact me at jasper.county@ifbf.org.

-Trish Hafkey is the Ag in the Classroom coordinator for Jasper Co. Farm Bureau