Helping Students Relate to Lessons about Agriculture

“Oh! I get it!” These sweet words are music to a teacher’s ear. The exclamation of understanding that erupts from a student might just be the reason teachers continue their dedicated service. It doesn’t matter whether the child had been working on a subject for two weeks or two minutes, the joy is the same. This student understands!

As an Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator it is always interesting spending time in classrooms. Grade to grade and school to school, lesson topics tend to vary wildly. From learning about pumpkins with PreK, to mixing up soil with third graders, and then creating lessons on lavender as a specialty crop for middle school students, agriculture is the underlying principle in all of our lessons. It’s really one of the most significant things in our lives. So how do you get kids interested in agriculture? How do you help them understand the role food, fuels, and fibers play in their lives. And finally, guide them to find their own role in agriculture?

There are many ways to make agriculture relatable to students:

  1. Compare agriculture vocabulary with something they already know about.

How big is an acre?

“Acre” is a word not many kinds would know. Plus mentioin43,560 square feet is kind of hard to imagine. However, even the youngest of learners can recognize the familiar 100 yards of a football field (not including the end zones).

How much corn is in a bushel?

To all my fellow agriculture enthusiasts, I am about to make a confession. I grew up in the city and had no idea what a bushel of corn was. And I didn’t have a clue what it weighed. I had seen antique stores sell “bushel baskets” and I thought a dozen ears of corn would fit nicely, so in my agriculturally illiterate mind… 12. Twelve ears of corn was a bushel. Wasn’t I amazed to discover it’s more like 112. And it weighs 56 pounds. Or as much as an eight-year-old.

How much does a combine weigh?

Kids are impressed by the giant equipment that farmers use to grow the food that feeds the world. Tractor wheels taller than a grown up and combines as tall as a small house are awe inspiring. But an educator can’t always bring these things into the classroom with them. Pictures are great and a chance to have a FarmChat® virtual field trip is even better. Otherwise, make your words descriptive and compare it to something they already know.  A John Deere combine, depending on the model, might weight 30,000 pounds, that’s as much as two school busses, or six elephants.

2. Bring lots of examples with you to class or have lots of pictures available for your virtual lesson. You can describe the difference between treated and untreated soybean seed, or you can show students. You can talk about the nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots of a soybean plant, or you can bring in examples, pulled out of the field that very morning.

3. Use the changing seasons to teach about what is happening on the farm. In November, we talk turkey. In January, it’s winter on the farm. Spring is an excellent opportunity to talk about the beginning of life cycles. Egg hatching programs and the baby chicks offer a hands-on opportunity for kids to learn about what happens in an animal’s lifecycle.

So whether you are a born and bred city gal like me, or an experienced farmer who’s taken a plow around a field a time or two, we can all agree agriculture is relatable and important to students. It’s our job to help them understand how and why.


Silage- Why Do They Do That?

Have you ever wanted to eat a fermented corn plant? No? Yeah, me neither! However, cattle have much different food preferences and diet requirements than we do, and they happen to love fermented corn plants- also known as silage. Luckily for cattle, not only does silage taste delicious to them, but it also fulfills nutrient requirements that they need in their diets. Silage provides both beef and dairy cattle with a highly nutritious, balanced diet. As ruminants, cattle need a lot of forages or roughages in their diet- feeding the whole corn plant to cattle provides them with the forages they need. In feeding livestock, two areas of focus are energy and protein (vitamins, minerals, and water are important, too). Corn silage provides cattle with protein, in the corn kernels, and energy, in the stalks and leaves of the plant.

Photo via Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

There are several different types of silage. Many different types of crops can be ensiled (made into silage) and fed to cattle, like legumes, grasses, small grain cover crops, and sorghum, but this blog will focus on corn silage. We know that silage is fermented corn, but let’s dive into how farmers make it.

First, farmers must grow corn- and not just any corn. Corn that produces high yields makes for the highest quality silage—deciding on which corn seed to plant is a decision made far before planting starts. Some seed companies have developed a hybrid seed to grow corn meant to be ensiled. Also, planting corn for silage means planting more corn seeds- the goal is to have approximately 20% more corn plants than if a farmer was growing corn normally. Then, farmers may apply herbicides to control the weeds and wait for the crop to grow.

Photo from Hay & Forage Grower

After the corn has had time to grow, it’s time to harvest. Harvesting corn for silage requires a balance of waiting for the corn to dry enough, but not waiting too long so that it dries too much to pack. Usually, when farmers harvest corn, they can’t store it above 15% moisture, so they must dry it if it’s wetter than that. When farmers harvest silage, they want the moisture to be 60-70%, so it will pack together well to ferment. Harvesting silage takes place before normal corn harvest. Farmers can use various equipment to harvest silage, but the basic concept is that the harvester takes the whole corn plant, chops it into pieces, and then deposits it into another implement, like a semi or a tractor-pulled cart.

Finally, the silage is stored to begin the fermentation process. That process can look different on different farms. The way silage is fermented can also depend on moisture rates. Let’s dive into some options.

Photo from CDC

Upright Oxygen-Limiting Silos
This option is ideal for low-moisture silage, in the 55-60% moisture range. An upright oxygen-limiting silo unloads from the bottom but gets filled from the top.

Photo from International Silo Association

Upright Stave Silos
These are the most popular type of silo. Metal bands hold the structure up and keep the silo from collapsing due to the pressure of the silage. This type of storage works best for 60-65% moisture silage.

Photo from International Silo Association

A silage bag is a popular, low-cost option for storing 60-70% moisture silage. These plastic bags hold the silage while it ferments.
Venting the bags, appropriately filling them, and avoiding rips or tears in the plastic are concerns for farmers while using this storage method.

Photo from Wieser Concrete

This type of silage storage is best for wet silage in the 65-70% moisture range. This storage facility has concrete walls on three sides. The farmer dumps the silage and then drives over it with a heavy tractor to pack it down. The farmer will cover the packed silage pile with plastic to protect the pile and tires to hold the plastic down.

What now? The silage must ferment for around three weeks. Fermentation starts when the farmer covers the silage pile or puts freshly chopped silage in the silo. That creates an anaerobic environment (no oxygen) for the silage. Next, the microorganisms in the silage perform an exchange by consuming the sugars and some carbohydrates in the silage and producing organic acids. These acids lower the silage’s pH, which preserves the remaining silage.

Photo from Farmer’s Weekly

After the silage has fermented for around three weeks, it is ready for consumption. The silage has a very distinct, sweet smell when it is done fermenting, and the cattle love it!


On-Farm Storage – Why Do They Do That?

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Iowa had enough storage for 3.6 billion bushels of grain. 2.1 billion of those bushels were stored in what is called “on-farm storage.” That means farmers are drying and storing the grain they


Photo by John Lambeth from Pexels

harvest in personal storage bins, not at a co-op. You can read about co-op storage here. You might be wondering what the difference is, or why farmers would want their own storage. Good questions!

Personal grain storage is different than a grain elevator or co-op in several ways. First of all, location. An ideal location for a grain elevator would be in a rural area with a lot of farmland very close so that farmers don’t need to haul freshly-harvested grain many miles to get it dried and stored. An ideal elevator is also located near a railroad or waterway, like the Mississippi River, so the transport of grain from the elevator could happen efficiently, rather than having to haul the grain again.

Location is also very important to farmers when they decide to build on-farm grain storage. In order to use their on-farm storage most efficiently, they need to build in an area that is close to several of the fields they farm, if possible. Smaller grain storage facilities could be used for just one or two fields, but many modern grain storage facilities are being built to hold several fields worth of grain. Building in close proximity to several of their fields allows farmers to save time during harvest. During harvest, a combine usually dumps grain into a grain cart, which then dumps it into a semi to take to a grain storage facility. If the semi is having to haul grain a distance, it can slow down the process if the combine and grain cart are both full before the semi can get back.

Farmers build their own on-farm grain storage for several reasons; this blog post will highlight three of them.


This is the big one! Marketing is incredibly important to farmers, as it can allow them to get higher prices for their crops. Instead of hauling the grain into the elevator or co-op right away, farmers can choose to wait to sell their grain if they think they can get a higher price later on. “You can delay sales three to six months into the future and be paid well for your patience ($0.20 – $0.40 per bushel)”- Hertz Blog. This gives farmers the opportunity to make more money each year for their crop, if they market it well. For more information on how farmers market their crops, check this blog out.


On our family farm, our large on-farm grain storage site is three miles or less from the majority of our fields. That is four miles closer than the nearest co-op, and that distance IMG_2056does make a difference in how fast we are able to harvest. There’s never a line at our on-farm storage site of other trucks trying to deliver corn. Our site also does not close down at a certain time. Co-ops are not always staffed to operate the facilities all night, but many farmers need to work late into the night to get all of their crops in, especially during years when harvesting conditions haven’t been ideal. It can sometimes feel like a race to get a crop in before snow comes, especially in Iowa when severe weather often happens very unexpectedly! By using on-farm storage, the race to get a crop in can be lessened.


When corn is ready to be harvested, it has 15-25% moisture. If the moisture is more than 15%, it must be dried before it can be stored. That is where a corn dryer comes in. This is essential for grain storage if a farmer is harvesting corn that is even a little bit wet, as wet corn can get moldy when stored. Co-ops have grain dryers, but if a farmer is using on-farm storage, it is cheaper for farmers to dry their own corn. There are many different kinds of grain dryers, but an estimate of an initial cost for one would be around $100,000. Prices can definitely go up from there. The initial investment is a significant one, but when used over many years, the return on investment (ROI) proves it to be a worthy investment. The other option that farmers have is drying their corn at a co-op before storing it there. This costs more for farmers, but comes with the convenience of not having to buy a corn dryer. Here is a comparison of on-farm drying vs commercial drying.

On-farm storage allows for the United States to produce more corn than we use here. We are able to use corn that is stored across the country to export to other countries. According to the National Corn Grower’s website, “Exports are responsible for 33 percent of U.S. corn farmers’ income. More than 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop is exported annually when accounting for corn and value-added products like ethanol and distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS).” If we did not have on-farm storage, the corn crop would not be able to be stored and exported throughout the year without significant changes in our co-ops.

Unfortunately, on August 10, 2020, Iowa lost a significant amount of grain storage in the IMG_2057derecho. Straight line winds, some reaching estimated speeds of 140 mph, crumpled many bins. Co-ops and on-farm storage units both suffered in the storm. Corn was also flattened in the storm. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency estimated that 8.2 million acres of corn were impacted by the storm. Some of that corn will not be able to be harvested, so the demand for grain storage may go down some. Many farmers will be turning to alternative methods to get their crops out of the fields and try to make some money, and Iowa grain storage construction companies will be busier than ever before. No matter what, it will be important for farmers to rebuild their on-farm storage grain bins as quickly as possible to be ready for next year’s harvest.


Grazing Cover Crops- Sheepin’ it Real

Seeing livestock eating in a cornfield in the middle of July is enough to cause most farmers at least a slight amount of panic. Animals can do serious damage to a cornfield, and finding them and getting them out of the cornfield and back into their barn or pasture can often involve every neighbor, the sheriff, and random people stopping to block the roads to avoid accidents. Just last week, my family was called to help a neighbor who had some cows out. However, if you find yourself driving the gravel roads near New Providence, Iowa, this summer, you can be assured that the sheep you may see in one Iowa farmer’s cornfield are supposed to be there!

Landon Brown, a fourth-generation farmer, is exploring the world of sustainable agriculture this year. In late April, like many Iowa farmers, he planted hybrid seed corn on his land. However, unlike some other farmers, he planted his corn in 60″ rows, meaning that each row is 60 inches apart. Most farmers in his area planted their corn 30 inches apart. Three weeks later, in mid-May, Brown planted cover crop seed between the cornrows, which was comprised of nine different types of over crops, with the majority being Dwarf Essex Rapeseed. Finally, in mid-June, he went to a sale barn and purchased eight sheep and released them into the corn and cover crop field.

Brown's sheep
Brown’s Katahdin Sheep

Corn is known as a “cash crop,” meaning that farmers grow it to sell and make a profit. It would seem that sheep could do a fair amount of damage to two acres of corn, even in just a few months, resulting in no profit for the farmer. However, these sheep don’t want to eat the corn. They much prefer the luscious cover crop mix of forages that cover the ground between rows of corn. They do munch on the bottom leaves of the corn but leave the majority of the cash crop alone.

Why plant cover crops and go through the trouble of putting up a fence, providing a water source, and buying sheep? The answer is simple: sustainability. It’s been a buzz word for years, and no one can really seem to provide a broad enough, yet specific enough definition. (I took a class this spring that spent weeks trying to nail down a definition). This simple definition came from “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Cover crops are one way that farmers are actively working to help make agriculture more sustainable. Cover crops can help reduce soil erosion, they increase the biodiversity of plants, and they provide nutrients for the soil. All of these benefits help protect the land and will preserve it for future farmers. Cereal rye is the most common Iowa cover crop, but you can also find wheat, radishes, turnips, oats, and several other varieties across the state. Find more benefits of cover crops here: 6 Reasons Farmers Use Cover Crops.

lan's crop
A recent picture of an area of grazed cover crops.

As for Brown’s sheep, they are content to graze the cover crops. He purposefully purchased Katahdin sheep, which differ from most sheep in their coat. Katahdin sheep have coats made of hair, so they don’t need to be sheared, like those with wool. They are known for being hardy, low-maintenance animals. Brown said that he hopes to attend a sale this weekend and get eight more sheep, as the cover crop provides enough forage to sustain a 16-head herd.

sheep& crop
Sheep grazing the cover crop

The sheep will continue to eat the cover crop until it’s time to harvest the corn. Harvest will happen in the fall, and after harvest, they will be released back to the field to graze until the first frost, which will kill off the remaining cover crop plants. The sheep will then go to the sale barn.

However, selling the sheep isn’t the end of Brown’s mission to practice sustainable agriculture. He already practices no-till farming, meaning that he doesn’t do any tillage in his fields, which is done to help prevent soil runoff. Next year, he’s planning on planting some fields with relay cropping. Relay cropping means planting one crop into another before harvest. Brown is planning on planting wheat or cereal rye first and then planting soybeans before harvesting the first crop. Relay cropping adds to sustainability efforts by decreasing nitrogen leaching and increasing carbon sequestration. (Relay Cropping). He also hopes to add more sheep and graze more acres of cover crops next year, providing that this year goes well. According to Brown’s Twitter account, he is #AlwaysLearning, and he said that his inspiration for this idea came from a book that his father was reading about farming in the past, and from hearing from Loran Steinlage, another no-till practicing Iowa farmer. (@FLOLOfarms on Twitter).

Brown’s cover crop

Iowa farmers are continually learning and evolving their current farming practices to care for the environment and grow more.


America’s Pastime Comes From America’s Farms

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too,” said legendary baseball player, Yogi Berra. That makes sense to me because there are so many things to love about baseball. Whether it’s a major league game that will be broadcast to millions or your kid’s little league team where the audience brings their own seats, baseball has been a summer pastime of Americans for generations.

Every summer, stadiums are packed with likeminded fans, each side rooting for their team to win. Typically, there is nice weather with sunny skies, nice breezes, and not a worry in the world – just nine innings of great entertainment. Then there’s the music, classic organ music, encouraging the crowds to their feet to cheer for the players, who are playing their hearts out, leaving it all on the field. Other sounds I love about baseball are the “crack” of the bat when a hitter has sent the ball soaring, or the deep hollow sound a great catch produces as the ball finds its home in a catcher’s glove.

And who can attend a game without a visit to the concession stand? Hotdogs, popcorn, nachos, pretzels, cotton candy, and sunflower seeds are typical stadium fare.

Have you ever wondered, “Where does it all come from?” The bats, balls, and gloves are sold at sporting goods stores. And the delicious snacks are trucked in from food distributors, but like almost everything else we eat, use, or wear, many items that make baseball great come from a farm.

  • Baseballs have a center made of rubber or cork, which is tightly wrapped in yarn and then covered with leather. Leather cured from the hide of the cow or horse after it is harvested. That hide is an animal byproduct. By utilizing parts of livestock that are not consumed, like hide, bones, fat and even intestines, other products can be produced, like buttons, glue, soap, and baseballs. The yarn in the baseball too is an animal byproduct because it is made from wool. Wool is sheared from sheep two or more times per year and then spun into yarn.
  • Gloves. While it is possible to purchase a glove made of synthetic materials, leather is a better investment and will hold up longer. Various synthetic materials have been tested for baseball gloves, but so far none have demonstrated the resilience, the stretch ability, and the feel that leather has. A good leather glove can provide a player with years of use. Beef cattle hides are processed by a tannery and the best material is sent to the glove factory. Tanning is a chemical treatment of the hides to give them required characteristics, such as flexibility and durability. If leather were not tanned, it would dry and flake. Each cowhide provides enough leather for three or four gloves. Since there are over 90 million  cattle in the United States we could produce a lot of gloves! But leather has even more uses.
  • Baseball bats can be metal, wood, bamboo, or composite. Maple wood bats are the most common type of wood bats used in the major league. Maple is an extremely dense wood that offers a harder hitting surface. The wood used for bats comes from a cultivated forest. Since trees take a long time to grow, sustainability is important. A lot of thought goes into how and when they will best be replaced when they are harvested. This process is called forest farming. Many private forests are grown to provide wood for paper and other wood products.
  • Hotdogs can be made from chicken, pork, turkey, or beef. While hotdogs may have the reputation of containing “mystery meat” you can make your own all beef hotdogs. Beef may be the main ingredient, but sheep casings, from the intestines of sheep, are needed to help hotdogs hold their shape.
  • Popcorn grows in a field, but less than 1% of the corn grown is actually the popcorn variety. Did you know it’s the moisture inside the kernel heating up that makes the popcorn, well, pop? The lesson plan, Get Popping!, has more fun popcorn facts. Most of the corn fields you see are growing yellow corn, or #2 dent corn. That corn can be processed into things like tortilla chips, used for animal feed, or made into ethanol fuel.
  • Nachos are a simple snack of chips and spicy cheese. The tortilla chips are made from corn, a lot of which is grown right here in Iowa. And you can’t forget the yummy dip, a side of nacho cheese. Cheese that is produced by a dairy animal on a farm. A little bit of soybean oil gives the cheese its smooth consistency. Soybeans are also a major crop grown here in Iowa.
  • Cotton candy is made by heating and liquefying sugar, spinning it through a screen with tiny holes. As the sugar rapidly cools, it forms fine strands. Sugar is extracted from sugar cane (a tall growing grass) or sugar beet (a root crop). Sugar beets are grown in northern cool climates like Minnesota and sugar cane is grown in warm tropical climates like in Florida.
  • Sunflower seeds go hand in hand with baseball. How else do you pass the time when a new pitcher is warming up, or the coach is consulting with the umpire? Being able to chew something helps players, and fans, work their way through nervous energy. Sunflowers are a commercial cash crop. The way we eat “seeds” today began in 1926, when a grocery store in Fresno, California, started roasting and selling sunflower seeds.

My summer is not complete until I’ve had the chance to watch a game (or ten). I was delighted to find out that our local high school, and surrounding school districts, would still allow summer sports. My teenage son has been practicing with his team, while practicing social distancing. The game might look a bit different this summer, family groups six feet away, limited number of players in the dugout, no sunflower seeds, but the rules of the game will still be the same, three strikes and “yer’ out”! Try to be a good sport. And the sport, like many others, has many ties to agriculture.


Generations on the Farm

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “it takes village.” It is said when a collection of people all assist with the upbringing of a child. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, church members, daycare providers, neighbors, and health care professionals all do their part for the good of a young one.

Farmer and son setting a corner post in a pasture.

Over the past 17 years, I have learned that successful farming takes generations. My husband is a third-generation farmer in Harrison County, Iowa. He is following in the footsteps of his father and his father’s father. My two sons are trying their hardest to be like dad, grandpa, and great grandpa. Many lessons have been learned throughout the years. Many techniques have changed. However, many of the fundamentals of farming remain and stand the test of time.

Many future farmers pursue college degrees in agronomy, agribusiness, animal science, or other fields to prepare themselves to help run the family farm. But answers to many questions are learned at the knees of dad and grandpa. Answers to questions like: When to plant seeds? What type of seeds to plant? Where in the field to plant it? When to turn the bulls out? And when to market your grain? As the family gathers around the tailgate during a meal in the field, many lessons can be shared with the next generation.

For us, farming isn’t just a way to make a living. It’s a way of life. This mentality is one reason I believe farms are passed down through the family. I’ve often said you’ve got to be a certain type of crazy to want to do this day after day. But, I married into a farm family. The love of the farm and the love of the farm lifestyle does not “run in my blood”. But even now, I see the natural aptitude my two sons develop as they watch dad fix fence or watch grandpa tag a calf. It’s almost as if they are learning a new language – a type of speaking that can’t be taught with books and lessons. It’s in their genes.

Two week old calf with an identification tag indicating she was the 13th calf born that spring.

Days on the farm run long and hard. There is always something to do, to fix, to plant, to move, to harvest, or to plan for next season. The working parts that make up a farm could rival those of a major corporations. Oh, wait, did I forget to mention, most farms are just that? Farms are family owned companies that handle large amounts of income and receivables and then send those amounts right back out with expenses. Most farm operations do so without the benefit of a highly paid chief financial officer (CFO). So the farmer needs to be a business person as well as a mechanic and a custodian. Financial decisions are challenging and I’ve heard my husband say, as the markets are falling, “Our field was worth more before we started harvesting.”

Day-to-day lessons on the farm largely revolve around the seasons and the work that needs to be completed on an annual cycle. So, here is a rundown of activities that happen on our farm and have for generations.

Spring – Early calving and planting

We turn the bulls out with the cows in May so they will calve in early to mid-February. This ensures we can raise the calves and sell them at a heavy weight later in the year. We sell them as feeder calves to feedlots. The feedlots will then continue to feed them grain and hay until they reach an appropriate weight for slaughter. We do keep a couple of calves and feed out or “finish” them, raising them to around 1,300 pounds. This will provide our family the beef we will eat for the year.

We plant corn and soybeans every spring rotating the crops to ensure the correct nutrients are available to each crop. Our goal is to plant corn seed on fields that were soybean fields last year. The soybeans work with natural bacteria in the soil to add nitrogen that the corn can then use. Sometimes we have to plant corn on corn but to do this we need to test the soil for nutrients. We then decide which is the best type of corn to plant and what kind of fertilizer or nutrients we may need to add to the field.

Summer – Baling hay, chopping silage, and fixing equipment

Cows eat all year long, even when there is no grass growing in late fall, winter, and very early spring. So, we need to prepare. We grow and bale our own alfalfa hay to feed the cattle all year long. The hay needs to be cut, then raked, then allowed to dry, sometimes raked again, and then baled. My two sons enjoy this job during the summer. On a good year we might get to repeat the process up to four times, “raking in” up to four cuttings of hay!

Round bale of hay in an alfalfa field.

Silage is the product of chopping the entire corn stalk in late summer, before the corn is dry. The chopped corn silage is then packed into a large pit and allowed to ferment, preparing it for winter feed. It has a distinct smell, but the cattle seem to enjoy it.

Chopping corn for silage.

Fall – Harvest

I’ve seen my father-in-law get up at 5 a.m. to do chores. Then, after the livestock are fed, he will wipe off the tractor windows, check the oil in the equipment, and start the combine as soon as the day warms up and the frost is gone. He then runs the combine until the noon meal arrives. We call it “dinner” and it’s a warm dish wrapped in towels and delivered by a pickup  Who drives the “feed wagon”?  Whoever is not running the auger wagon. For us, lunch is a good opportunity to take a needed break, have a nice hot meal, and stretch our legs. After lunch, there might still be another ten hours of work ahead, harvesting until it is dark. Lights on the tractor can even allow us to run the combine after dark which is both a blessing and a curse.

Winter – Caring for livestock and paperwork

Making sure animals have food and water on a winter day can sometimes take all day. Ensuring that livestock are protected from the elements and have food and water is the primary concern. Tractors that run the feed wagons take time to warm up and sometimes do not start right away. Waterers which provide fresh water to animals often freeze over and the ice needs to be broken or the water needs to be warmed up for the animals. Livestock feed is placed in feed bunks, but only after the snow is scooped out. Depending on how much it snowed, and how many feed bunks you have, this can take all morning.

When all the outdoor winter work is done, farmers can warm up inside and catch up on paperwork. Most farmers need to have a complete record of the year’s income and expenses before December 31. This helps them decide if some inputs for the next year could and should be purchased ahead of time. Our  accountant helps us record this information and file our taxes each year which is a big help to our farm.

Why do farmers do it? Why keep up with such hard work and a hectic pace of life, with little time for vacations? From what I have observed, it is for the love of the farm and love of the family you hope to one day pass it onto. By building something permanent and lasting, the farm means something. It means that we are helping feed and fuel the world. I can hold the soil in my hand and know with the proper care that same soil could help feed generations to come. I just realized, farming now “runs in my blood” too.


A Day in the Life of a Farmer (Winter Edition)

Spring and fall seem to be the season that most people associate with farming. In the spring, farmers are busy in their tractors, planting crops. In the fall, farmers are out in their combines and grain cart tractors, harvesting the crop and bringing it in. However, in today’s blog post, we’re going to take an in-depth look at what a farmer does during the winter when there are no crops in the ground. In order to do that, I made a phone call to one of my favorite farmers, my brother, Levi. I had a good idea of what he does during the winter but decided to let him describe his average winter day to me in detail to answer the question, “What do farmers do during the winter?”

Levi and bailsLevi graduated from Iowa State in 2016 with a degree in Agricultural Business. Upon graduation, he came back to our family’s row crop and hog farm and diversified the operation by adding a cattle barn. He also works for Granular, which is a company that uses technology to help farmers run their business.

A typical winter day for Levi starts at 8 a.m. at the cattle barn. He has a maximum of 499 head of cattle to feed every morning, but depending on the schedule of selling and getting new cattle in, that number can be lower. While 499 cows may seem like a random number, there’s a specific reason – operators with 500 or more animal units must have a commercial livestock manure management plan – you can read more about animal units here. His barn gets cattle in at about 800 lbs, and the cattle are sold at around 1500 lbs.

Every morning, at 8 a.m., Levi feeds the cattle a mixed ration of cracked corn, hay, and gluten. Cattle eat corn for energy, hay for protein and fiber, and gluten as a supplement that provides energy and protein. The gluten that cattle eat is different than the gluten that some people are allergic to, which prevents them from eating bread. Gluten as a supplement for cattle is a coproduct that is produced by wet milling plants. A cow’s digestive needs change as they grow, so calculating the ration that they need is very important to maximize growth. Feeding his animals is a very technical process, and keeping track of the feeding is a vital part of raising cattle. To do that, Levi uses Performance Livestock Analytics, which uses technology to feed the appropriate amount every day and to track every feeding.


These cattle are fed using a feed wagon. The wagon is loaded every morning with the appropriate rations for the size of the cattle.

After he finishes feeding, which takes about an hour, Levi goes to what we call “lunch break” on the farm. Lunch break serves a simple purpose. It is to discuss what needs to be done on the farm that day. Three generations of farmers, Levi, my dad, and my grandpa, talk about what needs to get done that day on the farm, and then they get to it. Lunch break is an all-year daily meeting but is especially important during the winter, as many jobs need to get done.

Levi’s morning consists of doing mechanical work in the shop. On this particular morning, he’s working on the planter. Spring planting is just around the corner, so he is performing preventative maintenance on the machine. Instead of waiting to begin planting before finding problems, it is in the best interest of farmers to check their implements very carefully when the conditions aren’t yet suitable for planting. Levi spends his morning checking for loose parts and ensuring the ground engaging equipment is ready to use. He also inspects the technology on the planter, making sure the row-by-row monitors and shut-offs are in good shape.

The machinery used by farmers can be highly technical and doing preventative maintenance on that technology, like Levi does, is incredibly important. The row-by-row


The rows on the right shut off to avoid double planting. Picture from Elliot Seed Solutions, LLC

monitors show farmers that the planter is getting the seed to the location they want it. The shut-offs allow for small sections of the planter (3 rows per section on a 24-row planter) to be shut off if needed. As the planter may be driven over areas that have already been planted, it uses the shut-off sections to avoid double planting. Double planting could cause two seeds to compete for the same space, nutrients, and water. This could lead to farmers getting a lower yield out of that field. 

Levi’s afternoon consists of hauling corn. He uses a semi to take the corn in our grain bins to our local co-op. When farmers harvest corn, it often works best for them to put their grain directly into personal storage, for three reasons. First, it allows for harvest efficiency. Waiting in line at the co-op can slow down how fast farmers can get their crops out of the field. Second, personal storage allows for cheaper drying. Corn and soybeans often need to be dried before being put into storage, to prevent mold and crop loss. You can read about the grain drying process here. By performing that process before taking it to the co-op, farmers can save some money. The third reason is that farmers can get a better price for their crop closer to the next harvest season. Commodities, like corn and soybeans, raise in price after harvest is over.

After that, Levi finishes his day by watching an informational webinar about financial and business software. Farming is a business, and continued education allows for informed financial decisions. Continued education is essential in many aspects of farming, and it is often during the winter months when farmers participate in training and certifications. For example, Levi has certifications in Pork Quality Assurance and Beef Quality Assurance and is a certified Confinement Site Manure Applicator and a Commercial Pesticide Applicator. Farmers get certifications like this to manage their farm safely and knowledgeably. They care about the welfare of their animals and their land, and it shows in the way they spend their time and in the continued education they get.


Agriculture Across the U.S.

You can see agriculture almost everywhere you look here in Iowa. Over 90% of our land is used for farming, allowing Iowa to lead the country in the production of corn, soybeans, pigs and eggs. But what about other states? Is there significant agriculture across the nation?

ocean view

View of the Atlantic Ocean from Hampton Beach, NH.

When I was visiting friends on the East coast, a member of our group made the off-hand comment that there was, “no agriculture in sight.” No agriculture in sight? We were looking out at the ocean!

But that may not have been quite accurate. The Atlantic Ocean is where the fishing industry and aquaculture are a huge part of agriculture. Aquaculture is a specialized branch of agriculture and aquaculture in seawater is known as mariculture. Large quantities of marine animals can be grown in relatively small areas using nearshore and offshore cages. Using the ocean to produce food to feed an ever-growing population made me think about all of the different ways that food is grown in other parts of the country.

large fish cages

Fish cages used in mariculture operations.

Row crops are widely grown in the Midwest, sometimes known as the “fly over states.” But let’s not be too quick to pass over these important states, which are the country’s farming powerhouse. Crops like corn, wheat, sunflowers, and soybeans are all grown in the across the Midwest. This region can be broken into two distinct parts. The eastern part is considered the Corn Belt, and the drier portion in the west has

combine wheat

Combine harvesting grain.

been called the Wheat Belt. Crops are planted in the spring when the soil is warm enough to allow for germination and then harvested in the fall once the seed, or grain, has dried enough to be transported and/or stored. Large tractors are used to pull implements like disks, plows, planters, and a machine called a combine does the hard work at harvest time. This equipment can only be run when it’s dry, when the field is not muddy, so watching the weather and planning accordingly is common on the farm.

Southern agriculture includes signature crops like cotton, rice, sugarcane, citrus fruits, pecans,  and peanuts. Many southern states specialize in different crops. Georgia leads the country in peanut production, raising three times as many peanuts as any other state. North Carolina leads the country in growing tobacco. And Arkansas, getting almost 50 inches of rain per year, is prime land for producing rice since it has a long growing season. Texas leads the country in growing cotton which is harvested by large machines. The U.S. ranks third in worldwide cotton production.


Image of cotton bolls on the stems before being harvested.

States with large amounts of land like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah, Montana, and Nevada allow for cattle ranching. Ranching is where cattle graze on private and public lands and their offspring are taken to feedlots to be fattened before slaughter. A cow can live up to 15 years producing one calf each year after age two. So, using natural grasslands to produce feed for animals is another type of agriculture found in the U.S.

With three distinct climatic zones, and in some parts of the state a growing season of 365 days, almost any fruit or vegetable can be grown in California. California’s central valley produces over 350 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The growing season can be determined by the average number of days that the temperature rises high enough for a particular crop to sprout and grow. Crops like almonds, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes, and strawberries grow well in places like California.

Thanks to my experience at the National Agriculture in the Classroom Conference last summer, I learned that agriculture is not limited to just the Midwest. Agriculture is an important industry to all 50 states. From farming, to fishing, forestry, flowers and fabric production people are growing, and harvesting, products in every state. The conference moves around the country to showcase and highlight different aspects of U.S. agriculture. To see the variety of agriculture through the conference, find more information and register to attend at

utahSo, no matter what state you are from, agriculture matters. I encourage you to join us in Utah for this year’s 2020 conference to see for yourself specific examples of agriculture in across the U.S.


The Big Picture of Iowa’s Pork Production Cycle

Iowans are known for a lot of things. Kindness, die-hard loyalty to sports teams (go Cyclones!), and using the word “ope” instead of “excuse me”. However, there’s one more thing that Iowa is really, really good at: raising pigs. Iowa is the number one producer of pigs in the United States and in today’s post we are going to dive into the reasons Iowa can produce so many. The reason is all in one word- sustainability. Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Iowa’s pork production is very sustainable, as we have the ability to uphold high levels of production, and have for a while now. The reason behind this is that pork production in Iowa is a circular cycle. Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, not only do we grow the pigs in Iowa, we also grow their food right here in Iowa. Pigs require a diet with two major components, corn for energy and soybeans for protein. Iowa ranks number one in corn production, and either number one or two for soybean production (that title alternates with our neighbors directly to the east).


Iowa is the #1 producer of pork in the U.S.

According to the USDA, in 2018, Iowa farmers harvested over 13 million acres of corn and nearly 9.9 million acres of soybeans. Pigs eating the crops we grow creates a cycle, which is part of the overall sustainability circle. Pigs provide a market for the crops, and crops are grown to provide food for the pigs.

Why do we grow the crops here? I’m glad you asked! Iowa is the perfect place for crop production of corn and soybeans due to our rich black soil, our climate, and the manure that we get from our livestock, which includes – you guessed it- pigs! Iowa’s topsoil is some of the best in the country- in fact, it is known as “Iowa’s black gold”! Our climate provides the temperatures and moisture that crops need during the growing season.

Now let’s get down to the matter of manure. This topic is an incredibly vital part of our sustainability cycle of pork production in Iowa. According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, around 25% of Iowa’s cropland is fertilized by livestock manure. If you’ve ever driven by a farm and it smells particularly potent (manure-y), or seen a large tank with disks being pulled behind a tractor across a field, you’ve witnessed the pork production sustainability cycle in person.


Manure Spreader

 Manure can provide many benefits to cropland, including important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – the trio is often referred to as NPK – and it is very valuable to crop production. Manure can provide these elements for Iowa’s cropland, and the process through which it gets from barn to field is part of what makes Iowa’s pork production so special. The manure is pumped out of the pit underneath the barns into the big tanks. Then the farmer can take the manure and spread it in nearby land. The proximity of cropland and barns creates an easy access to spread good fertilizer on farmers’ fields. Farmers don’t like to haul manure long distances, and so being able to have the manure as close as possible to their land is important. This is a large consideration when farmers consider putting up new hog barns, and when they consider buying new farmland. 

Manure creates the ability to produce crops for a lower price, because farmers don’t need to purchase as much fertilizer. In turn, this preparesGray Bubble Cycle Diagram Chart the ground to grow corn and soybeans which will be fed to our pigs.  

Iowa is known for our pork production, and there’s a reason. The sustainability process of producing pork is incredible and allows us to produce the most in the country. Pork production benefits our economy, it allows us to provide more food, and it gives manure a great purpose!



Hello everyone! My name is Ellie Cook and I am the new Education Programs intern with Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. I am from a family farm in Hubbard, Iowa, where we raise corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle. I’m currently attending Iowa State University, where I major in Agriculture Communications. I’m very excited to be with IALF!


Superheroes on the Farm

Last night, my family and I watched a movie about Marvel superheroes. Iron Man, Spider-man, and Captain America are all known for their amazing feats of strength, speed, and endurance. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary with seemingly no effort whatsoever. They easily defeat whatever supervillain that they come across and save the day.

The movie was fascinating entertainment. My two boys even stopped picking on each other for almost two whole hours. But it made me think of those everyday superheroes who we don’t usually consider (you know, the ones who don’t wear capes).

In the lesson titled Farmers are Superheroes, Too!, superhero book coverstudents are asked to name a superhero, and then name their super power. Questions like, “How do these superheroes help people?” “Why are they important?” and “Are these superheroes real?”  leads the class to consider the possibility of real-life superheroes. Firefighters, police officers, doctors and nurses save lives everyday in real and dramatic ways.

But what about farmers? Would you consider a farmer a superhero? Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics that it takes to be a farmer.

• Super strength – Farmers lift heavy items every day. Square bales of hay, 50-60-pound seeds sacks, and even newborn calves that can weigh up to 80 pounds are items that a farmer needs to be able to lift. Most equipment that farmers works with is very large and the parts to fix that equipment are very heavy.

• Ability to fix things – It’s not very often that a farmer’s tractor breaks down next to a repair shop. It’s an almost certainty that things will break on a farm. Farmer can save time and money by knowing how to fix a lot of things themselves. Having the right tool for the job helps so farmers have to have super-sized tool boxes.

• Powers of duplication – A farmer can make one corn seed turn into 800 corn seeds. Farmers also grow their herds or flocks by managing a breeding program and keeping careful records.

• Healing powers – If an animal on the farm gets sick, a farmer will care for it working with a veterinarian to administer the proper medicines.

• Green thumb – A farmer has to be able to grow a lot of different things. corn and beans in handsTo know what a plant needs and to know when it needs it calls for super knowledge, the knowledge of the 4Rs.






• Excellent vision – Using soil testing and soil maps a farmer can even see under the soil to be sure his or her plants have everything they need to grow. Monitoring nutrients is an important super strength needed to raise a good crop.

soil map

Map used to determine what types of soil are on a farm.

• Ability to drive many types of vehicles – Farmers drive trucks, tractors, ATVs, drones, and a variety of other vehicles and equipment. Using auto-steer technology, some farm vehicles can even auto steer themselves.

Even if you don’t agree that a farmer is a superhero too, you have to admit that they are on a mission. Every day they are on a mission to provide food, fuel, and fibers for the entire world. In fact, one farmer alone feeds 166 people. And that, I think, is pretty super.