Why Do They Do That? –Irrigation

Most of us are familiar with weather and know that it is not consistent every year, and rain doesn’t always come when farmers need it. This is why some large fields resort to using some kind of irrigation system. Even though you may see a large irrigation system while driving down the road, it is helpful to note that most of Iowa’s cropland is not irrigated. According to the USDA, other states outside of the Midwest, such as California, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Idaho, rely more heavily on irrigation systems. This is due to their irregular and infrequent precipitation.

Using this method of irrigation systems to water crops, farmers can control their crops’ water requirements if there is not enough rainfall. Like many things in the agriculture industry, the control of these irrigations systems can be automated and can be done right from the farmer’s phone or tablet. With different technologies, farmers can adjust the water pressure, the amount of water, and more without even being on the field, similar to how you could control your home’s security or temperature with smart technology while being on the road. As advanced as this may seem, these irrigation systems continually advance with the rest of the agriculture industry with solar-powered irrigation systems being implemented more widely in the future.

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

When deciding what kind of irrigation system to use, farmers have several choices: sprinkler vs. drip and center pivot vs. linear.

sprinkler irrigation system:

This system imitates rainfall by distributing the water above the field surface, allowing it to fall on the crops and soil. All plants on the field should receive the same amount of water, hopefully resulting in similar growth. This system is one of the most popular kinds of irrigation, and you probably have seen them in the fields at one time or another. This system is also similar to what many homeowners use to water their lawns. Like every system, sprinkler irrigation has some advantages and disadvantages. A farmer may decide to go with the sprinkler system because of the reduced cost of overall farm labor and reduced soil erosion. Another farmer may opt out of sprinkler irrigation because of the high initial cost of pipes, motors, and installation, and because of the high water loss due to evaporation.

drip irrigation system:

Compared to a sprinkler system, the drip irrigation system can be more efficient than a sprinkler system because the water is being dripped from a lower point, drop by drop (there is less evaporation water loss). With this kind of system, the soil soaks in the droplets before they can evaporate or be blown away by the wind. The water is applied closer to the roots where it is truly needed. Although drip irrigation may seem like the more beneficial choice, there are some downfalls, including that the water outlets get clogged because they are in direct contact with the ground. These systems also take a lot of training to understand the machine and manage the system.

center-pivot irrigation system:

This type of sprinkler irrigation is just what it sounds like: a mechanical system that moves in a circle with a center point. This machine can also be used to apply fertilizers and pesticides. The chemicals are mixed into the water as the water is sprayed onto the field. This multipurpose system can be used on a variety of crops, including vegetables and fruit trees. The center point is usually a permanent, stationary point where the water is pumped up from an underground well. The long arm of the system stretches across half the field and as it moves in a circle, it waters the entire field. The arm is supported by large wheels that travel across the ground and hold the arm up. If you’ve traveled in a plane over Midwest states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado and looked out the window, you’ve likely noticed the circular fields. Each one of those fields has a center-pivot irrigation system on it.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Linear Irrigation System:

Linear irrigation systems are marketed to irrigate 98% of the field by traveling across the field in a straight line, forward, and reverse working best in square or rectangular fields. This system is another example of a sprinkler system. The water used is either taken from underground or a hose that drags behind the machine’s wheeled cart. In a linear irrigation system, soil compaction is reduced. It is also easier to work in windier conditions, unlike the center-pivot system because they are lower to the ground. Center-pivot systems can work on tall crops like corn. Linear irrigation system are better for shorter crops like alfalfa.

Now that we know what types of irrigation systems are out there, the final question is, why use them? With this kind of technology, crops can be watered in a controlled environment where the lack of rain can be less of a burden on farmers and their yield. Controlling the amount of water applied in a slow and steady manner can lead to less runoff and erosion. Plus, the time that farmers would typically take using more complex kinds of irrigation can now be spent perfecting other areas of the field or farm operation.

Next time you see one of these systems as your driving down the road, now you will have a better idea of what it does! If you’re a farmer, let us know in the comments what works best for you!


Hi! My name is Madison Paine and I am the education programs intern at IALF for the next year. I am currently a junior at Iowa State University studying agriculture communications. I grew up on an acreage outside of Maxwell, IA where my love for agriculture first sparked. I am very excited to be here and can’t wait to see what this next year all entails!

Eggs in Vaccines?

Vaccines are at the forefront of everyone’s mind right now. Vaccines can be a helpful way to immunize a person or animal against a disease without them having to get sick with the disease first. With our current COVID-19 pandemic, that can mean saving hundreds of thousands of lives with a vaccine.

But how are vaccines made? Where do they come from? What tools are used? Well, there are different ways to make vaccines, but one way uses eggs! Since Iowa is the No. 1 egg-producing state, what better way to connect Iowa agriculture with the current state of the world?

According to the CDC, there are three main ways that flu vaccines can be produced: using eggs, using cell-based techniques, and using recombinant techniques. The egg method has been used for over 70 years, whereas the other two have been approved for use within the last ten years.

What is the goal when using eggs?

One of the goals in producing flu vaccines is creating enough of the virus in a controlled environment where it can then be purified, inactivated, and combined with other necessary materials to make the vaccine work. This is where eggs can help.

When a fertilized chicken egg is laid, it will be a mature chick and ready to hatch in only 21 days. That is a very short amount of time when compared to other creatures! That means that there is an incredible amount of cell division and growth happening in that little egg very quickly. So, decades ago, scientists thought, “Hey, could we use that natural process of cell division in these little eggs to help us create more of these viruses for vaccination purposes?” And they could!

So how does it work?

Drug companies, like GSK, for instance, will work with chicken farms to purchase fertilized chicken eggs. In this video from the Wellcome Trust, they state that this company works with about 14 different farms in Germany and the Netherlands to receive 40-60 million fertilized eggs each year for influenza vaccines.

To take a step back, this is a different type of egg production than what we generally see in Iowa. In Iowa, we have lots of laying hens who produce eggs for human consumption. These eggs that we buy at the grocery store are not fertilized and will not grow or develop. This is different from the fertilized eggs used to make vaccines.

Once the company obtains the fertilized egg, they will inoculate it with the specific strains of virus they are working with, incubate the egg to allow the virus to multiply, and eventually harvest the fluid from the egg containing the virus. With this new, large stock of the virus, they can purify and inactivate the virus and begin formulating the vaccine. For decades, this was the best and fastest way to make vaccines, but there certainly are time-consuming steps involved.

Are the current COVID-19 vaccines being tested using eggs in production?

Two of the major vaccines being researched in the states right now are mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna). These vaccines are not made with eggs and do not contain actual COVID-19 virus material. Instead, they carry some informational stuff your cells can use to protect you against the virus without having to actually come in contact with it. Because they did not use chicken eggs, they were able to get further into the process faster, as they were not bound to the development of the chick. This is a pretty new and kind of complicated idea, and it sounds like more vaccine production may start moving in that direction in the future.

There are also many other COVID-19 vaccines being tested, in and out of the United States, using various technologies and at various stages of testing.

That’s egg-cellent news!

Even though some of the first COVID-19 vaccines on the market may not be made with one of our favorite agricultural products, our flu vaccines this year probably were! Technology will keep rolling forward. We can be thankful for the years of dutiful service eggs have given us and for the upcoming availability of COVID-19 vaccines.


Why do They do That? Using Airplanes in Agriculture

This time of year, you may see small, yellow planes flying low overhead. They may fly back and forth over a relatively small area of land. What are they doing? Why are they doing that?

These planes are commonly referred to as crop dusters, but they can have multiple purposes, and there are multiple reasons why they might be used. Read on to find some answers about aerial application in agriculture!

What are the crop dusters doing?

That likely depends on the time of year!

Late in the year, they might be aerial seeding, meaning they are flying on cover crop seeds. These cover crops will grow during the off-season (fall through spring) when the main cash crops are not growing. They help protect soil and water quality.

During the middle of the year, they might be applying pesticides. Pesticides might help control weeds in the field that steal nutrients and water from crops, insects in the field that eat the crops, or fungus growth in the field that attacks the crops. When an airplane (or a different implement) is applying pesticides, most of the liquid is water, which acts as a carrier, with a small amount of pesticide mixed throughout. Since pesticides and aerial application have real costs associated, these are only applied when absolutely necessary to protect a crop.

Though aerial spraying of pesticides may still be the more common use for these machines, aerial seeding is growing in popularity!

What’s the advantage of airplanes?

Airplanes, and sometimes helicopters, can be advantageous because they don’t need to drive through the field. Each time farm implements drive through a field, they compact the soil and run the risk of injuring crops. Because of the risk to the soil of driving back and forth with large implements, farmers also need to be very careful about how wet the field is before they try to enter it with these machines. If the soil is too wet, the soil can be greatly impacted and implements can even get stuck – not a fun day for a farmer!

Later in the season when the crops are fully grown, farmers also need special implements to drive through the field that have narrow wheels and a high clearance to not crush the crops. These implements aren’t cheap and not every farmer would own one, however, some farmers and agribusinesses have them available for custom spraying (can be hired to spray other farmer’s fields).

When thinking about cover crops specifically, aerial seeding can also give more of a window for when those crops are planted. With traditional seeding equipment, the farmer may have to harvest their main cash crop (think corn or soybeans) before they can plant their cover crop. With aerial seeding, the seeds can be sown while the cash crop is still growing, and can already be established and growing by the time the cash crop is harvested. This saves time, and allows extra soil protection for those few days or weeks that the ground might be bare!

Does every farmer use airplanes?

In short, no.

Flying agricultural airplanes is a very skilled and regulated trade. Most farmers that use aerial spraying or seeding will hire it out to a third party company that will service many area farms. All pilots need to have the correct licenses or certifications to be allowed to fly and to apply.

Though we have listed some great pros, there are also some cons for some farmers. First, the price of aerial work might be prohibitive. Second, the location of a farm might be prohibitive. Local businesses will likely need to be consulted to make sure that the farm is on a safe landscape and is accessible for the planes they use.

But why do they fly so low to the ground?

This is a great question! These airplanes, unlike commercial airliners, need to be close to the ground while applying pesticides or seed to minimize drift as much as possible. The higher up the plane is, the more off-target their application can be. That’s why you may notice the plane stops applying before they pull up to turn around and fly the other direction.

If you’d like to learn more about agricultural aviation or ag pilots, check out the National Agricultural Aviation Association. They have resources on what is required for this job, how to train, and what licensures are required. This is a unique job in agriculture with lots of neat opportunities!

What other questions do you have about agriculture aviation? Let us know!


Earth Day and Agriculture

No other industry uses the earth and relies on natural consistency as much as agriculture. Farmers require weather conditions that follow patterns year after year to grow their crops. They count on the soil to hold its nutrients to produce high yields. Farmers need fields to be in good condition to harvest, plant, chisel plow, and spread anhydrous or manure. Crop farmers aren’t the only ones affected by weather––livestock farmers can face extreme challenges when there is too much rain or snow, or in severe droughts or heat waves. The bottom line is this: farmers and ranchers rely heavily on the earth and the natural processes that help crops grow and supply food and water for their animals. The earth provides what farmers need to supply the world with food, clothing, and so much more.

Earth Day is on April 22, 2020, and in light of that, this blog post will highlight some of the ways that farmers are being stewards of the land they use and protecting the environment. Farmers are often ridiculed for the impact that agriculture has on the environment. To be fair, agriculture does have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, like most industries. That is true. However, often the good things that farmers are doing to help protect our environment are overlooked, so that will be the focus of this blog post!

Cover Crops

A cover crop is a crop that is planted after a field is harvested. In Iowa, a farmer might grow corn in a field and plant a cover crop of cereal rye by using a high clearance seeder or by airplane in the early fall. These crops are not planted to make a great economic


Iowa Cover Crop

impact on the farmer’s bank account by growing and harvesting them, but rather to make a great impact on the environment and quality of the soil. Cover crops make the soil more absorptive, which allows for water to be soaked in the land instead of running off into streams. They also help with the runoff of nitrates and phosphorous. Nitrates feed plants, so they need to stick around in fields. Phosphorous is important for plants to perform essential functions like photosynthesis. In Iowa, the most common cover crops are cereal, radishes, oats, and wheat. Iowa farmers care about the land, and it shows, as the number of acres of cover crops planted has increased significantly in recent history. In 2017, Iowa farmers planted 1.5 million acres of cover crops! This information is from the Iowa Farm Bureau, and you can learn more about soil conservation from our previous blog post, Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are they doing?


Livestock Health

It is no secret that cow eructations and flatulence (farts and burps) causes methane to be released into the air, which is a greenhouse gas, known for its negative impact on the atmosphere. However, there are a few things to think about that can help break down that problem. Farmers are now growing livestock much more efficiently than they did in the past. For example, we are now growing fewer cattle but producing more beef since 1980. This is a result of feeding cattle more nutritious feed and using selective breeding to grow higher producing cattle. (Introduction to Animal Science) There is also research being done on putting different fats like sunflower oil and seeds into cattle feed, which was found to produce less methane. Scientists have also been working on supplements and vaccines for cattle to help cut down on methane production. To read more about these studies, visit Health For Animals.

Windbreak Trees

Not only are farmers committed to helping the earth for their benefit, but they are also


Picture from Natural Resources Conservation Service

committed to making it more enjoyable for those around them. Windbreak trees are a row of trees that slow the wind. Windbreak trees are often seen near hog barns. They have been around for a long time, but their purpose remains the same. Stop the smell! This helps keep the neighbors happy, but there are other earth-preserving purposes behind the use of windbreak trees. One main reason is that windbreak trees save energy, which is an issue in our world today. Conserving energy is very important, and windbreak trees can help by saving 7-25% less fuel for heating, according to Iowa State University.


Technology in Farming

This is a broad topic, as technology has changed significantly over the past 100 years (you can read about it on our blog post, 5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming), but one result is very obvious. Technology helps farmers do more with less. Using a GPS to plant or chisel plow now means using less fuel to do those jobs. Looking at soil composition in a field means that farmers can know what nutrients that soil needs to yield well, and can apply them in the correct amount, which can help with issues like runoff. Calculating a feed ration for cattle using technology means that they are fed a perfectly mixed ration, leading them to produce more efficiently. Pig barns are heated and cooled using technology, allowing the barn to use only as much energy as is needed.

This Earth Day, think about the people that use the earth to provide everyone with vital Pink Black Photo Brush National Kissing Day Social Media Graphicproducts. Farmers care about the earth, and they are taking measures to protect it. Earth Day may look a little different this year, but one way to celebrate is by taking time to learn about the earth and the people who use it, by listening to a podcast or reading a blog post! Happy Earth Day!



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.


Soy-Great! New Uses for Soybeans

You may not realize it, but your daily life is touched by this legume. What starts as a tiny seed becomes part of thousands of products that we use every day.

Long before written records existed, the soybean was a significant crop in East Asia. It 180969015didn’t make its appearance in the United States until it was introduced by a former sailor of the East India Company in the 18th century. Over the next several hundred years, the nutritional benefits and uses of the soybean made it an emerging farm crop. In 2019, more than 80 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S., making it our second most important crop. Approximately 48 percent of U.S. soybeans are exported to countries like China, Mexico, and Europe. And, it’s value to the U.S. economy is approximately $40 billion – a mighty achievement for a small bean!

How it’s processed

Soybeans are a species of legume grown for its edible bean. Soybeans are about
19 percent oil, and 36 percent protein. Soybeans are highly nutritious and contain as much protein as milk, meat, and eggs as well as all the important essential amino acids.

Farmers sell their soybeans to a grain dealer, who then sells the beans to processors for many different uses. According to the Oilseed and Grain News organization, approximately 85 percent of the world’s soybeans are processed or ‘crushed’ annually into soybean meal and oil. About 98 percent of the soybean meal that is crushed is further processed into animal feed. Of the oil part, 95 percent is consumed as edible oil; the rest is used for industrial products such as soaps and biodiesel.

From salad dressings to floor polish, soybeans are everywhere
Soybeans are a versatile crop that makes its appearance in everything from pies to paints. In a previous blog post, we discussed the many uses of soybeans. In the few short years that we published that blog post, many new innovative uses of soybeans have been brought to market. This is partly due to the fact that soybeans offer manufacturers a way to replace petroleum-based materials in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way.

Coming to asphalt near you
Asphalt roads may get an overhaul thanks to a relatively new type of soybean or more specifically its oil. High oleic soybean oil has been found to outperform other petroleum and formaldehyde-based lubricants in asphalt applications. This is just one of the many uses that the innovation of high oleic soybeans has brought to the market.

A new choice for your motor oil
For a more renewably sourced motor oil for your vehicle, try the new high oleic high-performing biobased synthetic motor oil. In testing, the oil provided improved fuel efficiency and cleaner engines when compared to the petroleum-based oil previously used.

Tires with better traction
Soybean oil is leading the way to greener tires with improved performance. Goodyear has introduced tires made with soybean oil that improve your traction in inclement weather.

A sustainable source for artificial turfs

United Soybean Board lawn product 10478814864_d04e3883a3_c

United Soybean Board

One company is producing the first USDA-certified, bio-based artificial turf using soy technology. This new technology has reduced water use and lowered landfill impact through the product’s extended life cycle, and the product is 100 percent recyclable.


The house that soy built
Building companies are enjoying the versatility of soybean uses in home materials. Several new products include formaldehyde-free plywood panels, a roof-rejuvenating spray treatment, a soy-based stain line, and an environmentally friendly insulation.

Shoes made with soy
This company was looking for a way to make their shoes in a more environmentally friendly manner but still meet their product specifications. They also desired a source that’s available anytime in the quantity they need. Okahashi shoes found their next innovation in soybeans.

You’re sitting on soybeans
Ford Motor Company uses soybean-based foam in its seat cushions, seat backs, an

United Soybean Board seats 10478251304_fa86118de3_c

United Soybean Board

headrests of every vehicle built in North America. Ford now also licenses its soy-based flexible foam to John Deere for seating materials in tractors, riding mowers, and other equipment.


The Soy Products Guide provides a listing of more than 1,000 items currently on the market. The innovative uses for soybeans continue to increase each year. It’s exciting to see how one product can be the answer to a more renewable source for a multitude of products.

One step further – connecting soybeans to the classroom
Most students these days live in towns and are far removed from the times their families may have been on the farm. Many students would likely be surprised to learn about the use of crops such as soybeans they use in their daily lives. Our future quality of life will depend on having agriculturally literate consumers. Through Agriculture in the Classroom efforts and teachers bringing agriculture into their classrooms, we can show students how agriculture plays a role in their everyday life.

The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation offers many educational resources related to soybeans for use in classrooms. Search our website for lesson plans, books, kits and more on the topic of soybeans and bring agriculture to a student near you!


Additional Reading
A Soybean Farm – America’s Heartland
From Pod to Plate: Soy Processing
Uses of Soybeans
What are soybeans used for
High Oleic Soybean Oil Paves Way for Cleaner Asphalt

How Far Apart are Crop Rows?

How far apart are crop rows? How close together are crops planted within the row? How many plants can grow in one field?

If you have wondered any of these things before, this is the blog for you!

I wish I could just say a number that was consistent across multiple factors and satisfy your quick internet search with an easy answer, but like most management decisions in agriculture, it’s not that simple!


According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, most crop rows in Iowa are between 15″ and 38″ apart. Historically, before the dawn of tractors, row width was governed by the width of your horse, which was generally around 40″. Once horses were phased out, research was done to see if row widths could be narrowed to accommodate tractor tires (30″) instead of horses. This ended up boosting yields per acre and became the standard for many years.

Today there is more research being done to see if 20″ rows or even 15″ rows could be even better. Many farmers have already latched on to the idea of narrow rows.

There are a few reasons and a few factors that could influence this decision, however. One of them is plant population. When farmers plant their field, they try to decide an ideal population for that field. Here in Iowa, with our rich soils, a corn crop may be in the ballpark of 30,000 plants per acre (PPA). For soybeans in Iowa, the population may be in the ballpark of 200,000 PPA. That population can be adjusted if the crop is planted at an ideal time versus later in the season, improved varieties, soil quality, and even seed prices.

For a frame of reference on how environment can impact plant populations, here’s a link to a discussion board on plant populations for corn in drier parts of the country. These folks are discussing what populations to plant at on “dryland” corn, which means land they don’t irrigate. Their population on these acres can be in the ballpark of 14,000; less than half of what we can plant in Iowa. While this can maximize their yield without wasting further money on seed that won’t grow adequately, they then have to worry more about weed pressures, which will be able to get more sunlight when the crops are spaced farther apart.

If a farmer is wanting to increase the plant population on their field, one of the easiest ways to do that is to add more rows to the field. The easiest way to do that is to make narrower rows. If the farmer were to try to increase the plant population significantly without doing this, the crops may get crowded within the row and may not grow ideally.

That brings up another question: how far apart are plants within the rows? This is also variable, given that we know how much plant populations differ and that for a long time, most farmers used 30″ rows. In general, plants are just a few inches apart. Below is a table from the Extension publication Guide for Iowa Corn Planting. Notice how much closer together the crops in the wider row spacings are than in the narrower rows.

Table 2, CROPR3161

From Iowa State Extension and Outreach publication, Guide for Iowa Corn Planting.

One Iowa scientist has made waves in this sector. Harry Stine with Stine Seed has led research and genetics work in high population and narrow row corn. With this work, Stine has discovered genetic traits that lend themselves well to the stress of higher populations. They claim that this paired with the practice of twin rows (two rows of a crop planted 8″ apart with a 12″ spacing to the next twin row) could boost yields to 300 bushels/acre and potentially beyond. Check out the graphic below from Great Plains Ag to see how that setup could look.

Great, so narrow rows, twin rows, and high populations sound like they could be really promising, right? So why isn’t everyone doing it? One of the biggest factors is equipment. Planters and combines aren’t extremely flexible, and farmers may have to alter their equipment, buy new, or even buy custom equipment if they wanted to try a new and different management system. Farmers also need to consider other inputs their crops need, like fertilizers and fungicides. If those costs would go up substantially, would the extra yield cover that cost? It can be hard telling, and when commodity prices are low, that can be a scary gamble.

But now that we’ve touched on the science and math portion of the blog, let’s talk about the technology and engineering to really round out our STEM areas!

We mentioned earlier that plant population is influenced by soil quality, but soil quality can vary not just field to field, but also within the field. It is now possible for farmers to use tractors and planters with precise maps so they don’t put too much seed in one area and not enough in another. That saves resources, saves money, and maximizes efficiency. How cool is that?

To see a video on how one planter works, click here.

I hope that answers some of your questions!


Explaining Sustainability to Students

Remember finding a quarter as a kid? That used to be huge for me when I was young! If I had a quarter, I could get not just one, but two gumballs from the local convenience store. If I walked a little out of my way, and ventured past the bakery, I could bring home an entire loaf of day-old-bread. A quarter doesn’t go as far today.

We are fortunate to live in a society of abundance. What we want and what we think we need is sometimes as simple as a click away. We expect our items to be at the grocery store when we want them. Phrases like “out-of-stock” frustrate us. The idea of having to ration our food or money is almost unfathomable. So how do we then teach our students about sustainable agriculture and how most resources are limited?

journey 2050 photo

Journey 2050 takes students on a virtual farm simulation. This helps students explore sustainable agriculture on a global level. Each section of the game play is paired with a lesson plan that teachers can walk students through to ensure they have a good grasp of the concepts. The program encourages students to make decisions and adjust them as they see their impact on society, the environment, and the economy at a local and global scale. The students learn about farmers across the globe to learn about climate, market, and other various differences worldwide.

As the student interacts with each family, they learn the role of best management practices in feeding the world, reducing environmental impacts and in improving social performance through greater access to education, medical care, and community infrastructure.

To help understand sustainability, imagine a wooden barrel, made equally with three parts; economy, society, and environment. If you can only fill the barrel as high as the lowest slat on the barrel. The lowest slat becomes the most important and the one that should be addressed or fixed. To increase your overall sustainability, you have to raise that one lowest slat of the barrel.

Sustainability is a combination of these three areas – economic, social, and environmental. Most people are familiar with environmental sustainability, which includes maintaining soil health, protecting wildlife habitats, ensuring clean water, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But none of those things are possible without ALSO being economically sustainable.

Being economically sustainable means farmers can generate profit and help pay for those things to help protect the environment. Being economically sustainable also means that jobs are created, incomes can be earned, and the community can support itself. But those things aren’t possible without also being socially sustainable.

learning about Sustainability

Middle school student evaluates the sustainability level of his virtural farm.

Being socially sustainable means people have food to eat to keep them healthy, that they are well educated about the issues, and that the community has infrastructure like roads, electricity, etc. to help make things work smoothly and efficiently. These three elements of sustainability closely rely on each other.

The Journey 2050 program helps students understand that in agriculture and elsewhere there are finite resources. If students run out of money, they won’t be able to plant their next field. They have to wait to harvest and next time possibly prioritize spending differently. Students have to understand how to manage finite water resources, nutrient resources, and money resources. They need to manage their time. Sometimes, time is up before the harvest can be completed. The resources the student has invested into a particular field, have now been lost. Disappointment can be a powerful motivator to help students be more aware of the time. Just like in real life, farmers have only a certain amount of time to harvest their crops too. Managing all of these elements efficiently can lead to a sustainable farming operation.


Seventh grade student applying the correct level of moisture to the field. Note the sustainability barrel in the lower left corner.

Students get really excited when working with the Journey 2050 program. They shout things like, “I just bought a wind turbine to produce my own energy sustainably!” And, “I just made $140,000 harvesting my corn”. One student even commented, “Did you know I bought a well that is going to save lives by providing safe drinking water?”

farmers 2050For those students that just can’t get enough, there is also an at-home version of the game that is available as a mobile app called Farmers 2050. Farmers 2050 applies many of the same concepts, but then takes them further by turning raw farm products into finished goods (apples to apple juice or apple pies). Then players can sell their goods to other people in their community and other people around the world. This really gives students an understanding of how global agriculture is and how we can all contribute to a more sustainable world.

Teaching students about sustainability has benefits beyond understanding about how to feed the world in the future. If conscious thought is given to using what we have now to the best of our ability and making sure we conserve resources for future generations, I believe we can help our children live more satisfied lives now.


Farming By Numbers

Soybeans harvested by students

“So, what number soybeans are these?” asks a fourth-grade student in a class I presented to this fall. I had come to his school to teach about agriculture. More specifically, I came to teach about the life cycle of a soybean plant. I gathered mature soybean plants from fields and delivered them to local classrooms to be “harvested”. Students then planted the harvested soybeans in a mini green house with grow lamps to help the beans sprout quickly. During my second classroom visit they examined the new spouts and labeled each plant part.

After being stumped by a nine-year-old, I paused for a moment. He was putting my agricultural knowledge to the test. I was hesitant to tell him that I didn’t know, but mostly I was impressed. This young man knew there were different soybeans with different numbers. Fewer and fewer students are growing up on the farm. But, this student reminded me that there are still a few tried and true farmers in most of the classrooms I visit.

“I am not sure.” I told him, “but I can sure find out.”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was that if you don’t know the answer, make sure you keep asking until you do. Go find out. So that is what I did. I went to my husband, a third-generation farmer, and asked him. He went to his seed dealer and asked him “What number soybeans did we put on the homeplace?” Our seed dealer was able to tell us because of an identification system used by seed companies. Types of seed are labeled with numbers that identify the characteristics of the seed that is to be planted. That way if a farmer is satisfied with the performance of the seed they could choose to replant that same seed next year.  An example of a seed number could look like this:

“Refer to bag tag for specific trait information”


• X would indicate the brand or company that produced the seed
• The first two numbers could indicate the maturity of the seed, that is, how long it takes to plant to be ready for harvest
• The next two numbers would be for more specific identification
• And lastly, the letters on the end could indicate what types of traits that seed possesses

Soil map of farm in Harrison County
Test plot

Seed numbers provide more information about what a farmer is planting. Farmers have a lot of choices when it comes time to plant. Because not every field is the same, specific seed choices allow farmers to pinpoint exactly what they want grown on the field and where. Say you are headed to the grocery store for a warm winter meal. As you enter the soup aisle the cans don’t all just say “soup”. You know what kind of soup you are getting by reading the label. You identify what type you are looking for and choose one that fits your requirements. Clam chowder might be a good choice, but not if you are hungry for tomato.

With the limited amount of space that farmers can grow food for ourselves and our animals, it is important that we do the best we can with the space that we do have. The cost of raising a crop is substantial. It is very important for farmers to make the best use of every soybean seed and every kernel of seed corn that comes out of a bag – all 80,000 of them in the case of seed corn. Farmers map out each specific area, utilizing every acre to its maximum potential.

As a kid, I used to love the paint-by-number artwork. Each section had a corresponding color and if you got the numbers right… success! In some ways, successful farming can be “by the numbers” too. Farmers work with agronomists to test the soil in different areas of their farms. By using the results of these soil maps and by working closely with their seed dealers, a farmer can put the corresponding seed number in the appropriate soil types…success!

As I continue to visit classrooms in the area, students are using their young minds to expand my own knowledge. They ask questions and want to know more. No matter how prepared I think that I am for a classroom presentation, there is always an unexpected question (or two or three).
“Why do these soybean pods have little hairs on them?”
“How come your grow lamp has red and blue lights?”
“Can we eat the soybeans?”

Teaching for Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom is a job that will never get boring. If students continue to have questions about agriculture, then I will continue to answer them or seek out someone who is familiar with farming by numbers.


Day in the Life – Careers in Agriculture Research

Whether you realize it or not, research conducted in a variety of industries impacts your daily lives. From the newest cell phone technology to the food you eat, the fruits of thousands of hours of research efforts touches all aspects of your life.

When it comes to agriculture, research plays an important role in ensuring American agriculture remains a competitive leader and is positioned to address the world’s growing needs. Investments in agricultural research have led to exceptional gains in productivity over the years but to remain competitive we need investments in research. One of those main investments needs to be in people. We need an educated workforce ready to tackle tomorrow’s agricultural challenges. Who will be doing this work, you might ask? Maybe you or someone you know. There are many opportunities in agriculture research that may interest you as a career path.

Plant Breeder
If you’re watching a sci-fi movie and are more interested in the cool looking plants (Feed me, Seymour!) than the romantic lead, a future in plant breeding may be up your alley. field_research1 -- 220  Plant breeders are responsible for researching different seed characteristics that may be beneficial to a plant. Breeders work on developing the best traits that are most desirable for yield performance, maturity, quality, size and are resistant to factors such as drought and pests. Some of the responsibilities of a plant breeder include the ability to develop and manage a breeding program schedule, conduct technical interaction with marketers and end-users and use new technologies such as Global Positioning Systems.

Research Associate
If you like to dive deeper into specific areas of research, then a research associate position might interest you. Every day, seed companies are trying to improve various lab1 220aspects of a seed so that it performs better for farmers. Research associates perform and document research trials on a particular trait and then provide that data to the plant breeder to develop a new hybrid. Research associates also try to improve the process by lowering costs, giving higher number of data points for the breeders to analyze and they also can identify if a certain part of a gene is present or not. Plant breeders use the information provided by the research associate to make decisions on how best to produce that gene in a new hybrid. In a seed company, research associates work in many different areas of the company including trait and technology development, process improvement, product characterization, regulatory science, compliance and more.

Agricultural Scientist
As an agricultural scientist you’ll spend your days in the field, lab and greenhouse studying the DNA of a plant to look for ways a particular gene makes one plant perform better than another. Work will include taking measurements on plant growth traits, conducting greenhouse experiments under controlled conditions and lab work on a smaller scale. You’ll try to identify which genes are present that are helping a particular plant perform better. You’ll also investigate different characteristics such as drought tolerance and how you can increase yields so farmers have better production results. As the world’s climate continues to change, agricultural scientists need to have an understanding of the environment and its impact on plants.

Soil Scientist
field_research6 - soil 220Soil is the foundation for the food we eat – whether it’s a plant or an animal. A soil scientist contributes toward food production by investigating the best ways to keep soil healthy. These professionals collect soil samples to conduct surveys, recommend soil management practices, advise others on the capabilities and limitations of a particular area of land based on the soil traits and evaluate nutrient and water availability, among others.   

Were you the little kid walking down the path stopping to see each little bug you encountered? Maybe you were the first to be willing to pick up an insect and see it crawl across your skin. If so, entomology could be for you. An entomologist is a type of scientist who focuses specifically on the study of insects. They examine growth, behavior, nutrition and how they interact with plants. As part of their work, they design and implement research plans to support the selection of new Entomologist - 220insecticide products. Part of your daily responsibilities would include monitoring insect feeding behavior and insect feeding biology, visiting farms and other research trial plots to collect insect samples and monitoring application of experimental and commercial insecticides to targeted pests and their habitats, among others. Entomologists work with these sometimes quirky insects so you need to have a willingness to try ideas, have patience, and the ability to think outside of the box. 

Microbiologists look at the small organisms that can affect plant health. Professionals in this career analyze soil, crop or food samples to identify if microorganisms such as lab11 - 220bacteria, fungi viruses and parasites are present. Part of their work is to monitor the growth of these organisms and how they affect various parts of the plant.  

Education required
For students currently in high school, be sure to take classes associated with science such as biology, chemistry and physics, as well as mathematics, business and computer science. Many of these positions require a bachelors degree in crop science, plant genetics or agronomy. In many cases a PhD or masters of science in plant science is also required. Participate in as many labs and research trials as you can. For some positions such as an entomologist you’ll be required to have a specific degree such as one in entomology, biology or zoology related to that work. Education also includes mentoring. If you’re currently in the agriculture field, what can you do to spark an interest in agriculture careers to those upcoming students around you? Maybe it’s attending career fairs or giving presentations to local high school classes. The effort you put forth today to help secure a workforce for agriculture could mean the difference between meeting the world’s needs and not meeting them.

Career outlook
The world’s population is projected to grow to 9.8 billion people by 2050. With an increased need for food and fuel, the agriculture industry has a daunting task in front of it to meet those growing needs. According to a 2015 United State Department of Agriculture study, there are nearly 60,000 high-skilled agriculture job openings expected annually but only half that amount of available graduates to fill them. The outlook for careers in agriculture is bright, particularly with the growing world needs. Research jobs will be at the forefront of meeting these needs.