Why are Baby Farm Animals Typically Born in the Spring?

ThinkstockPhotos-483531372.jpgThis unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having in February has us thinking about spring. And spring on farms usually means babies! Some of my friends even celebrate events like ‘Lambaggedon’. So many baby lambs can be born on a single weekend that family and friends have to come from miles away to help out. They make the event fun with a little contest. Guess the number of lambs to be born between Friday morning and Monday noon. Closest guess gets the privilege of naming one of the lambs.

But why are so many babies born in the spring?

In a lot of ways spring is the perfect time for babies to be born. Mother mammals usually need better, richer food to produce quality milk for their babies to nurse. For grazing animals like cattle, sheep, and horses, the fresh green grass and other plants on pasture in spring and early summer are rich in nutrients. These plants can have a higher percentage of protein and ‘total digestible nutrients’. This can lead to better milk production for the babies. Most calves are born between January and May because of this reason. Read more about early calving here.

ThinkstockPhotos-139923089.jpgSpring is also a good time for babies to be born because the days become longer and temperatures rise. With the warmer weather it is easier for the baby to survive. There is less chance of harsh weather. Just like humans, animals need to be protected from severe weather. Cows often like to wander away from the herd to give birth in solitude. This can put the mother and calf at risk. If the cow has any problems during the birthing process, a farmer might not be available to assist and help pull the calf. Away from the herd, especially in cold weather, the calf might be less likely to survive. Away from the herd, the baby might be in danger from predators like foxes, coyotes, or even large birds of prey like eagles. In many, contemporary farming operations calving and farrowing happens in a barn or ‘under roof’. This protects the mother and baby from many of those dangers.

Because spring is such a good time of year for babies, many animals evolved to accommodate these natural cycles. Many Iowans are familiar with the deer rut that happens in October, November, and December. Male deer are at peak testosterone, get more aggressive, and start fighting for mates. They wander out of their natural habitats which leads to increased motor vehicle accidents when they cross roads. This is in large part because the female deer come into estrus in the fall. As the days shorten, their hormones trigger the estrus cycles. A deer’s gestation will take 201 days. So if the female gets pregnant on October 1, you can expect a fawn around April 20th.

In farming generally, pregnancy and gestation follow these same deep-seated, natural cycles. Cattle gestate for 283 days. So if farmers want to start calving in February, they need to artificially inseminate or introduce the bull into the herd in the middle of April.

ThinkstockPhotos-489807042.jpgHowever, in contemporary farms piglets and chickens are born year-round. This might be attributed to two main reasons – consumer demand and differences in rates of development. Consumers want fresh meat and eggs year round. They don’t want fresh meat only in the fall when animals born in the spring are fully grown. Because consumers demand fresh meat year-round, farmers try to stagger when their animals go to market. This means that they might have to stagger when the animals give birth. Also, animals like pigs and chickens have much shorter gestation and development rates. Gestation of a pig is roughly 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. Pigs farrow (give birth) and then piglets are usually weaned within a month after being born. This means that a sow could have two or possibly even three litters per year.

ThinkstockPhotos-459924937.jpgChicken eggs take almost exactly 21 days to hatch. A chicken can lay an egg every single day. This rapid turnaround can produce a lot of birds quickly. Traditionally, chickens did not lay eggs in the winter. With the shorter daylight, their bodies stop producing the hormones that make them ovulate and produce an egg. But on contemporary farms, chickens are raised in barns where the light can be controlled. With artificial lighting, chickens can and will continue to produce eggs year-round. This is a huge convenience for modern shoppers who expect to see eggs in grocery stores even in the winter months.

So, while many farmers are still in tune with the natural cycles of the season with their animals, modern farming practices have helped solve some of the problems that restrict births to only the spring. There is an abundance of babies in the spring, but in agriculture babies might be born all year long.



There’s a lot of lingo in the agriculture industry. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with. For instance, what’s a heifer? What’s the difference between a pasture and a paddock? Let’s beef up your cattle lingo.

Types of Cattle:


Bovine is the scientific name for cattle! Like dogs are canines and horses are equine. Both bovine and cattle are used to talk about groups of cows without being specific about gender.

Many people use the terms “cows” and “cattle” interchangeably. While most of the time that’s okay, they do mean different things technically. In technical terms, a cow is a female that has given birth. A cow’s job is to be a good mama to her calves. Farmers try to have their cows calve (have a baby) every year.

A bull is, you guessed it, a male bovine. Bulls are kept for breeding purposes. In the past, each cattle farm would have at least one bull of their own. However, with artificial insemination today, farmers can purchase semen from a variety of bulls instead. This is an especially big deal in the dairy industry, where cows are really the main focus.

A steer is also a male, but he has been castrated in order to promote meat quality. High levels of testosterone make an animal’s meat very unpalatable. Bull meat tends to be pretty tough, and not as good to eat.

A heifer is a young female bovine. Heifers can have two purposes; they can either be kept for breeding purposes, or they can be raised for meat, like steers. Heifer is pronounced “heff-er”.

A calf is a baby! Calf isn’t a gender specific term. Calves can be born in the spring or the fall. This decision can depend on feed sources (pasture or feedlot), where the cows calve (either indoor or outdoor), and just personal preference of the producer.

In beef operations, calves will stay with their mom for a few weeks and will nurse while learning to eat grass and other types of feed. In dairy operations, the calf will be moved to its own “hutch” or house and will be bottle fed so that the farmer can harvest the cow’s milk instead. Dairy cows create much more milk than a newborn calf needs, so this system is more efficient for them.

Feeder calf
A feeder calf is a young animal that is ready to be fed like an adult. These animals are growing rapidly and will perform very well on high-energy diets – not unlike high school students!


Here’s an example of an ad for a sire that includes EPDs.

Breeding stock
Breeding stock consists of the animals that farmers keep to produce more animals. Farmers look at many different things when deciding on breeding stock, like disposition, meat quality, mothering ability, health, and overall structural soundness. There are many traits of interest, and many of those can be scientifically measured using EPDs, or expected progeny differences. EPDs can be relatively complicated, but essentially they help farmers compare traits of various animals relative to the average of that animal’s breed. It can be very helpful in breeding for specific traits, like birthweight or calving ease.

Market steer/market heifer
By prefacing steer or heifer with “market,” a farmer is indicating that their purpose is to be sold for meat, leather, and other byproducts. This is in contrast to breeding stock, where those animals’ purposes are to be kept to reproduce.

Sire is another name for an animal that fathered another animal. You can say, “Calf 123A was sired by 890B,” or, “890B is our best sire.”

A dam is another name for an animal that mothered another animal.

What they eat:

Cattle are ruminant animals, which means their stomach has four compartments. They are the rumen (microbial fermentation), reticulum (initiates regurgitation), omasum (water absorption), and abomasum (true stomach). The rumen is the largest compartment, and gives ruminant animals the ability to absorb more nutrients from plant-based foods than monogastric animals (like humans, pigs, dogs, etc.).

Colostrum is the first milk that the cow produces. Newborn calves lack a well-developed immune system, and this colostrum holds all kinds of good stuff that help them stay healthy while their body works on creating an immune system of their own.

Feed is what farmers call the food they give their animals. Most animals eat a mix of grains (corn and soybeans), as well as some extra vitamins and minerals and lots of water. Cattle in a feedlot will primarily eat a grain-based diet, whereas other cattle might be raised on pastures and may only be supplemented with grains. Though farmers work with animal nutritionists and veterinarians to make sure their animals always get enough to eat, different farmers can feed their animals different things that are still healthy.

Feed can also be called “feeds” or “feedstuff” depending on the person and the context. Feeds and feedstuff tend to refer to a specific ingredient in the overall feed ration.

Feed ration
The feed ration is the precise amounts of multiple feedstuffs that are mixed together to provide a healthy, balanced diet for the animals. Feed rations generally have some type of forage, corn and soybeans to provide carbohydrates, as well as a protein or non-protein nitrogen source (to aid rumen microorganisms in protein synthesis), vitamins, minerals, and a plentiful water source.

If you have ever seen tall blue metal or gray cement silos, they are used for silage. Silage is fermented plant material used to feed cattle. Though you can make silage with plants like sorghum, corn silage may be the most common. Farmers will harvest the corn when it is still green. They will cut the whole plant down, chop it up, and store it away. While it’s being stored, farmers will try to ensure that no air can get in. Because of this, modern technologies like plastic wrapping and tubing have been used to make higher quality silage. Many modern farmers that use lots of silage will use silage piles, pits, or bunks.

Silage can be stored and used as a feedstuff in the winter when fresh grass is scarce. Good silage should smell sweet, and will taste sweet to cattle.

Concentrates in terms of cattle feed generally means grains. Grains are a concentrated source of carbohydrates (energy), and play a large role in feeds, especially the feeds of market animals.

Forages are plant-based feeds, like hay. If an animal is raised on pasture, it is eating forages. Some common forages would be alfalfa, clover, oats, or smooth bromegrass. In southern states, fescue becomes a more popular forage.

Feed bunk
The feed bunk is the trough where the cattle’s feed is put at feeding time.


Some cattle are raised on pastures, which are large, grassy areas where they are allowed to graze. There is science associated with this, too, however. There are calculations necessary to find how many animals a pasture can best sustain based on size, forage quality, forage amount, and amount of time cattle will be grazing it. Pasture-raised cattle may require supplemented feeds during the winter, like hay, silage, or grains.

Many farmers split pastures into smaller sub-units, called paddocks. This way, they can graze one section more thoroughly, then move to another section while it regrows.

Rotational grazing
Rotational grazing is the system for rotating cattle through multiple paddocks in the pasture. Depending on the size of the herd and the paddocks, producers may rotate their cattle daily, weekly, monthly, or any other time schedule that works for them, their land, and their cattle.

Types of Production Systems:

Seedstock producer
A seedstock producer is one that works to create superior genetics. These farmers work to create the very best animals in terms of structural soundness, muscling, stature, and feed efficiency. Instead of selling their animals to market, they might sell replacement heifers for breeding stock, or straws of semen for others to use in their herds. Seedstock producers are the roots of genetic advancement in the cattle industry. These cattle may also be known as show cattle or club calves.

Cow-Calf producer
Iowa has many cow-calf producers. These are the farmers that aren’t necessarily in the industry for genetic improvement or to sell cattle at market, but instead they produce the feeder calves that will eventually go to a feedlot. Cow-calf producers have their own breeding stock, and will decide each year if it will be more profitable to feed the calves out to market weight, or if they should sell them to a feedlot instead. This may change depending on the year and the markets.

The feedlot is where feeder calves will go to live. This is a large, fenced-in area with a large trough for feed. The cattle get to roam at their will, and will get fed every day until they are large enough to go to market. More farmers now are “feeding out” cattle in a monoslope building or another type of barn for environmental and/or feed efficiency reasons. If you have ever heard a farmer say they “feed out” cattle, chances are that they fit in this category!

Though this is becoming less common, backgrounding is a term used to describe raising a calf through its awkward “junior high” phase. Backgrounders may purchase calves that are newly weaned and will have them out on pasture until they are old enough to go to a feedlot.

Backgrounding is more prevalent in the west. Feedlot producers will pay a premium for calves raised on western pastures for a couple reasons. First, since pastures are large, the animals have to be healthy and structurally sound just to walk far enough to get enough to eat. Secondly, since these pastures have lower quality forages compared to other parts of the country, these animals will grow extremely rapidly once they are introduced to the high-energy grain diets of a feedlot.


So now you have the whole scoop on cattle lingo. Go ahead and show off your vo-COW-bulary to your friends!


What’s Cookin’? – Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Nothing says love quite like hot, fresh cookies straight out of the oven. There is something soothing about the combination of oatmeal and raisins. The hearty oats pair perfectly with the sweet, juicy raisins. This recipe is sure to delight the kid and the kid-at-heart. Here is the agricultural story behind this simple recipe.

oat-pile.pngOatmeal or rolled oats are one of those simple food products. Processing is minimal and they more or less just run the oat seed through large rollers to crush the seed flat. Oats used to be grown throughout Iowa as part of a regular crop rotation system. But as farmers in Iowa started growing more corn and soybeans, oats slowly fell out of the crop rotation cycle. Companies like the Quaker Oats company originally set up shop in Iowa because of the quick access to the base ingredients of their products. Now Quaker Oats (located in Cedar Rapids) sources raw ingredients from all over the Midwest.

sugar-beets.jpgIn any sweet treat, sugar plays a star role. Sugar that most people are familiar with has two primary sources – sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar cane is grown in more tropical environments like Florida, Latin America, and South America. But in the upper Midwest, we grow sugar beets. Minnesota is the top sugar beet producing state. Sugar beets are much bigger than the beets bought in the store. They look like a large, misshapen potato. Once washed, the beets are thinly sliced. They are soaked in water releasing much of the natural sugar. The sugary water is then purified. Through several stages of evaporation, sugar crystals start to form as water is removed.

raisins.jpgRaisins provide a burst of flavor to these cookies. Raisins are dried grapes. Raisins are preserved and sweetened by the drying process. The grape industry is growing in Iowa. Most of the grapes in Iowa are going into the growing wine industry. This means that most of the raisins we eat are still grown in California vineyards. Raisins are made from seedless varieties of grapes and a vine will take up to three years before it produces fruit. The fruit are dried on the vines to minimize the energy needed to process them.

wheat2.jpgFlour helps give these cookies form and texture. Flour is wheat that has been finely milled. Some wheat is grown in Iowa, but much more wheat is grown in some of our near neighboring states like Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota. There are many different types of wheat flour that can be used for different purposes. Wheat used for bread may have a high gluten content so that the bread will be light and fluffy in texture. Different types of wheat can be mixed together to get different properties in the flour. For this recipe, a simple all-purpose flour will work.

IMG_0731.JPGAnd now, here is the recipe to make these delicious cookies.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dark raisins


  1. Melt butter and stir in sugars until blended. Add vanilla and egg until combined. Set aside.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Mix into wet ingredients.
  3. Stir in oats, walnuts and raisins. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  4. Drop cookie dough onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Place into a preheated 350 degree Fahrenheit oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes.
  5. Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies.



Why Do I Volunteer? Because I Can!

Volunteering is defined as an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial gain “to benefit another person, group or organization”. I feel it is a great privilege to be able to volunteer in the community that I live in. In sharing a few of my top reasons for volunteering, I hope to encourage others to step out and find the right reasons why you, too can volunteer for teaching agriculture to others.

Making a difference in our community only happens when we reach out of our own worldswhy-i-volunteer and look to see how we can help those around us. For me it was as easy as reaching out at the schools that my daughters attended and asking “Where can I help out”?  Once I showed an interest, I was asked frequently to assist in classroom and school activities. I found that many children just wanted to be heard and helped and it made a huge difference in their performance. We may not be able to change the world, but we can make a difference. Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” Contribute to a cause you care about and make a difference for even one child.

Use skills you have to help others learn. Learning is fun and when we feel passionately about something, it shows in our actions. Agriculture in the Classroom is one awesome way many volunteers are helping others to learn about agriculture and their communities. By tapping into their own abilities and resources they help teachers add agriculture concepts into ways of teaching math, science, social studies and technology. Agriculture is all around us in Iowa and this makes learning about where we live and how important agriculture is to our community even more interesting and exciting.

Learn new skills as you reach out. I quickly became amazed at the opportunities andpic2 abilities I had as I volunteered. I didn’t realize that my willingness to learn with the children would soon ignite a passion to learn more and help more. Today the opportunities are endless and so are the reasons to learn new skills. Did you know that a classroom can ride along with a farmer by using FarmChat®? Students get to see technology as if they were right there in the cab with the farmer. They have many opportunities to learn and see things that they previously would not have had access to.

Why Volunteer? I volunteer because I can. It is just one way I can give to others in ways that seem to give back to me way more than I could ever imagine. Time invested in mypic1 community and in seeking to make agriculture real and relevant to young people is a privilege. It is amazing to see the faces of students as they witness soybean seeds crack plaster or corn seeds sprouting. I encourage you to look around your community and see where you can use your skills and passions to make a difference. The first step is always the hardest- but the journey will be worth it . If you are interested in finding out more about Agriculture in the Classroom, please contact Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation at 515-331-4181 for more information.



Learning at any age

“Wow, I didn’t know that!”

Was this from a first grader?  No! It was from a teacher after attending an Agriculture in the Classroom presentation.  As I visit classrooms I know my main audience is the student, but the adults in the room are also gaining knowledge.

20160929_142437.jpgI first realized this several years ago during Ag Day, an event in the spring for all the 3rd graders in Mahaska County.  The students rotate from station to station along with their teachers and their parent chaperones.  There are stations on beef, pork, sheep, poultry, corn, soybeans, vet medicine, and farm safety just to name a few.  They stay at each station for about 10 minutes before moving on. Every year I have at least one or two of the chaperones who tell me how much they have learned!  This day has become a highlight for the 3rd graders each year and the teachers tell me it’s the best field trip they take.  We bus them to the location, feed them lunch, and send them home with great memories along with a goodie bag of agriculture related materials.  A few weeks after Ag Day I visit the classrooms and follow up with them on what they loved about Ag Day and what they learned.  It’s amazing to hear all the different aspects that the students remember.  The teachers usually chime in on something they learned also.

20161116_124028a.jpgWe have a dairy farm outside of Oskaloosa that has welcomed many school groups to see their operation.  Each spring a group of preschoolers comes out to see the milking process, feed young calves, and then make ice-cream-in-a-bag in the yard.  Again, they bring lots of extra adults to keep track of these 3 and 4-year-old kids.  The kids love feeding the calves, but it’s the adults that are asking all the questions.  By hearing their questions, it reminds us of why we are doing Ag in the Classroom.  Most of their questions are very basic and not too technical.  They want to know the personal side of the farming business and how that milk in the tank gets to their kitchens.

I have attended several National Agriculture in the Classroom conferences. At these conferences there are so many opportunities to learn about another part of our country and the agriculture in that area.  I have toured fish farms, organic vegetable farms, small farms with grazing sheep in the fields and very large dairy farms.  The conference has excellent break out sessions and guest speakers. Most of the attendees are already teaching agriculture in their classrooms as this conference is geared towards educators but coordinators like myself also come away with a better appreciation for agriculture and how it can incorporated into our classrooms.  If anyone is thinking of going to the national conference, it is well worth the trip!

This past summer we teamed up with two other counties and hosted a teacher workshop along with the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. This two day workshop took a lot of planning but was well attended by teachers from our surrounding counties.  We toured the same dairy farm that the preschoolers had been to. We went to a beef farm and a farm with row crops.  We toured Frisian Farms with their gouda cheese and Tassel Ridge Winery.  The following day we were in Eddyville at the Iowa Bioprocessing Training Center and heard from many of the businesses in that area along with a tour of Cargill. The Iowa Learning Farms did a presentation on water quality and we were able to show the teachers how to use FarmChat® in their classrooms.  During lunch on the first day one of the teachers raised her hand and said, “So I get it, EVERYTHING we are teaching can be related to agriculture!”  Now that is success!!!!

Even though Agriculture in the Classroom in known for work students, we are educating the adults too!

-Karen Adams is the Ag in the Classroom lead for Mahaska and Marion Counties

Agriculture Literacy – What Can You Do?

20161111_123719Every November about 75 people who are passionate about teaching others about agriculture gather in one room for the annual Ag in the Classroom County Contacts  .  It is my favorite day of the year!

In the room are seasoned veterans who have volunteered doing Agriculture in the Classroom programs for 10-20 years.  They’ve visited hundreds of classrooms, teaching students about topics ranging from apples or corn to soil conservation or biotechnology.  Some have led farm field trips, organized large events, or even Skyped with students from a farm.

Many in the room are new to Agriculture in the Classroom too.  They came because they love agriculture and want to help students learn about the valuable agriculture resources in the state we call home.  They see the disconnect between students and agriculture, and want to do something to change that in their communities.

img_1018Farmland covers 70% of Iowa, yet most young people have not seen a corn plant close-up, ridden on a tractor, or realized not all barns are big and red.  How can we expect students to pursue careers in agriculture when they do not have direct experiences with it?  I love seeing students’ reactions when they watch a soybean sprout or discover that farmers use GPS and even drones!  Once they have experiences like these, they are eager to learn more.  All it takes is the first spark.

We all can help young people in our communities learn about and feel connected to agriculture. Being involved with Iowa Ag in the Classroom does not have to involve a large commitment.   From “baby steps” to “big steps”, there are many things you can do.

Baby Steps:

  • mindy-handsaker-reading-before-farmchatLet us know you’re interested in Agriculture in the Classroom. We’ll add you to our contact list, so you receive regular updates about new resources and training opportunities.  Signing up does not commit you to doing programs, but it’s a good way to learn more.  You can take the next steps when you are ready.
  • Encourage teachers to apply for the Agriculture in the Classroom .  Share information about it on social media, and personally spread the word to teachers you know.
  • Spread the word about Agriculture in the Classroom and resources available. Talk about the great things going on across Iowa to friends and family. Send a note to your child or grandchild’s teacher with more information about the professional development opportunities, grants, lesson plans, and free student publications available that connect agriculture to Iowa Core Standards.
  • IALF FFA 4H license plate 10.1.15Order the new Iowa Agriculture License plate for your vehicle! Proceeds from the sale of the plate will help support three important youth programs in Iowa that help young people learn about – 4H, FFA & Agriculture in the Classroom.

Big Steps:

  • Tell teachers you know that you’re willing to help their students learn about agriculture. It can be as simple as providing samples of corn or soybeans to use for classroom experiments.  If you’re willing to go a step further, you could talk to the class, invite them to visit your farm, or do a FarmChat® program!
  • farmchat-with-nick-hermanson-in-turkey-barnSpeaking of FarmChat®, this is a great way to help students learn about your farm or job in agriculture. FarmChat® is a unique program that utilizes technology (Skype, FaceTime and other software platforms) to bring agriculture directly into school classrooms. Using a laptop at the school and a mobile device at the farm, students connect and directly speak with the farmer. They can even virtually ride along in the combine or tour a livestock barn all from the safety and security of their classroom. FarmChat® is growing across the state. Programs can be initiated by farmers interested in sharing what they do. They can be initiated by teachers wanting to teach their students about crops and livestock. If this interests you, learn more about FarmChat® here, watch clips of programs on our YouTube Channel, or contact me for help getting started!
  • Reach out to the guidance counselor at your local middle or high school, and see if there is an opportunity to talk to students about careers in agriculture. Many schools organize career days or career presentations throughout the year to introduce students to various careers.   You could talk about your career, the company or field you work in, or the many reasons an agriculture career is a good choice!

Agriculture in the Classroom efforts are growing across the state thanks to people just like you who took baby steps and big steps to help Iowa’s youth explore the world of agriculture!

– Cindy

It’s All About the Ag in Christmas

Christmas season is here. I absolutely love this time of year with the beauty of the weather changes and the symbolism with so much meaning. I become mesmerized by so many pieces of the holiday, from the beautifully decorated trees, the lights, the hot cider and so much more. As I really think about all of the decorating, food and beauty, I am amazed at how much of Christmas relates back to agriculture.

Trees are a centerpiece in the Christmas holiday, both for religious reasons and for the tree-privacy-screen-02mere beauty represented. The Christmas tree can represent peace and good cheer worldwide. Back in history firs and evergreens were felt to hold new life because they did not die during harsh, cold weather. In the 1500-1600s many people decorated their homes with sprigs of evergreens. It wasn’t until the 16th century that people began to decorate the actual tree, Martin Luther is thought to have been the first person to add lights (candles) to the tree. The first Christmas tree farm was established in 1901 but have been commercially sold since the 1850s. Today there are more than 17 million Christmas trees harvested from farms annually on more than 309,000 acres.  Iowa harvests more than 27,000 trees annually.

Hanging green mistletoe with a red bowMistletoe also has symbolism for peace and joy. In ancient times, when enemies met beneath the mistletoe in the forest and wooded areas, the had to lay down weapons and call a truce until the following day. It was this ritual that started the custom of hanging clumps of mistletoe and exchanging kisses beneath it as a gesture of goodwill toward each other. Mistletoe is an interesting plant because it is part parasite called a hemiparasite that grows on tree branches or trunks. This parasitic plant then sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and tap into and take up the nutrients from the tree. I, for one, am glad that I see it as a sweet tradition handed down through the generations. If it grows, there is probably a farmer who grows it. Or you can try to grow your own mistletoe!

I get excited to enjoy the holiday and hot wassail…but never really knew any of the history hot-wassailbehind this custom. So what is wassail and wassailing? It is a greeting and a toast used in ritualized drinking – a holiday custom that wishes good fortune and good health. Wassail is the drink that was used for the toast…a spiced wine, of sorts or a mulled punch. The wine is made by adding spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg as well as slice oranges or apples. Well, my hot wassail was made from mulled apple cider…nonetheless I enjoy it when the season comes around.

The poinsettia that we buy in pots today is different from its original form. The original poinsettiapoinsettia was a larger plant that grew wild in southern Mexico. It was known for beautiful blooms and was also used for the medicinal properties that helped to treat fevers. America’s first minister to Mexico saw the striking plant and brought it back to the United States and grew them in his personal greenhouses. The original name of the flower was “flor de la Noche Buena” meaning flower of the Christmas eve. The minister was Dr. Joel Poinsett, to which the Poinsettia was named in honor of. Careful cultivation of this plant by agriculturalists over the last century have given us the many different colors of this beautiful plant.

Holly seems to be a traditional decoration for many decorators during the holiday season. It makes Christmas look beautiful. This tradition is pagan in origin. The vibrant plant not only sweetened the air, it remained deep green in color and reminded everyone of the hollyspring to come with new life. The holly plant symbolized eternal life and the red berries added bright and constant color. The plant has also been symbolic of the winter holidays. Ancient Romans used it for decorating during Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, a god of agriculture. Today we still use the brightly colored holly in our celebration and decoration of the Christmas season. Holly bushes are typically ornamental landscaping plants that can be found in all 50 states. Nurseries will sell bushes at various stages of growth.

Whatever the reason, whatever the time – I find that everywhere I look, I see agriculture abounding. Christmas is full of agriculture and I for one am very thankful. We here at Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and Happy 2017.

– Sheri