Footballs, Lipstick and other Surprising Uses of Beef By-Products

football-2.jpgIt’s Super Bowl week, and all the talk about football got me thinking about one of the biggest misconceptions in sports and agriculture – that footballs are made from pig skin!  While the term “pigskin” is synonymous with football, they are not made from pig skin.  All collegiate and pro footballs are actually from cattle hide.

In the early days of the sport, footballs were commonly made from a pig by-product; but not the skin.  Footballs were originally made from inflated animal bladders, often the bladders of pigs.  The resulting ball had an oval-shape without the pointed-tips of today’s footballs. While the process of cleaning and inflating probably wasn’t pleasant, bladders were less expensive and easier to come by than leather.  In later years the bladders were covered in animal hide, but pig skin was not commonly used.    

For as long as animals have been used as food for humans, the non-meat parts have been saved and used too. Indigenous people used bones for tools, hide for clothing, and even tendons for bow strings.  Little went to waste.

The same is true today.  On average, 64% of a heifer or steer is used for meat, but 99% of the animal is used.  Cattle by-products provide many things that we use every day. These “leftovers” are used in the manufacturing process for thousands of food, industrial, household, and medical products. 

You probably knew that leather goods are made from cattle hide, but here are some lesser-known uses of beef by-products.    

Jell-O, marshmallows, and gummy bears. Gelatin, which gives these products their structure, is made from skin, bones, and other connective tissue.    


Margarine & shortening. Beef fat, or edible beef tallow, is used in small amounts in the production of some margarine and shortening products. 

Lipstick, soap and cosmetics include inedible tallow.  This refined fat is also used to make many industrial oils and lubricants.    

Pharmaceuticals and medial supplies.  There are more than 100 individual drugs that contain beef by-products. Some help alleviate minor aliments like an upset stomach or hay fever.  Others, like blood thinners and insulin are truly life-saving. It takes the pancreases from 26 cattle to provide enough insulin to keep one diabetic person alive for a year.  Tissue from cattle can also be used to make heart valves and surgical sutures. 

These are just a few of the many uses of beef by-products. You will find hundreds of more around around your house, at home-improvement stores, and in hospitals and drug stores.     

– Cindy

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.


I Got a Magazine, Now What? How to Use IALF Publications

The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has multiple publications available for teachers to use in their classrooms. One set of publications are the Iowa Ag Today magazines, with a set of six available at a fourth-grade reading level, and a set of two (so far) at a seventh-grade reading level. Another set of publications are the My Family’s Farm books written at a third-grade reading level. These materials are high quality, aligned to standards, and come at little to no cost to the teachers. In this blog, I’ll walk you through some suggestions for how to use these publications in a classroom. I hope you’ll find some good ideas!

Iowa Ag Today

The Iowa Ag Today publications are a great series of fourth grade and middle school non-fiction readers. The fourth-grade series contains six cross-curricular magazines, and the middle school series contains a social studies magazine and has a brand new science magazine in the works. We also recently translated the first three fourth-grade readers to Spanish, and have those available for Spanish teachers and ELL teachers, as well. When a new magazine comes out, it is directly mailed to each fourth-grade teacher, seventh-grade teacher, or ELL teacher to which it corresponds. But what should these teachers do with them when they arrive?

Issue 1

Issue 1 of the fourth grade Iowa Ag Today covers what agriculture is, and how it impacts all of us.

Check out the teacher guide

With each pack of 25 readers, there is a teacher guide that includes discussion questions, vocabulary and definitions, a worksheet, extension ideas, and a pre/post-test. This handy guide, complete with standards alignment, is a great starting point to help you integrate the readers into your classes.

Many of these things can be structured differently depending on your students and the goals of your class. Maybe it would work better for your students to start off with vocabulary words and discussion questions so they are prepared for the reading. Maybe it would work better for your students if those things were brought up as they are reading about them.

Use them for group reading

Help students with the skill of reading aloud by reading articles together as a class or in pairs or small groups. Refer to the discussion questions and vocabulary definitions in the teacher guide to help deepen comprehension with each article.

Analyze extra features

Iowa Ag Todays are full of pictures, charts, graphs, maps, discussion questions, and more. Guide your students through each of these features and help them learn to interpret them.

Issue 6 centerfold

This centerfold is a great example of the types of graphics in Iowa Ag Today magazines. Lots of time can be spent analyzing this map!

Use K/W/L charts for certain topics

Iowa Ag Todays cover lots of different topics. Choose an idea or article you’d like your students to learn more about and create K/W/L charts either individually or as a class. If not all of their questions are answered, the students could continue their learning with research projects!

Mark ‘em up!

One of the great parts about magazines is that they can be written on. Though you can keep these readers from year to year, you can also have your students use pens or fine-point markers to note parts of speech, questions they have, main ideas, or other in-text features!

Many teachers do what’s called “thinking tracks.” With this method, you can have different symbols for different reactions, like questions, predictions, connections, new learning, and main ideas. These symbols can be shapes, letters, squiggles, or even marks with different colored pens!

Think cross-curricular

Each fourth-grade Iowa Ag Today is aligned with standards across curricula, including Iowa Core English Language Arts, science standards, and social studies standards. These magazines could fit into any (or all!) of these class periods, to help students learn about science and social studies while learning how to interpret non-fiction text.

Go with the flow

You may have the opportunity to let some exploration happen organically! After reading articles and answering discussion questions, see what types of things your students find interesting. Maybe they want to learn more about drones or manure used as fertilizer. This can be an opportunity to search out videos, extra information, or allow your students to make presentations and reports.

Remember, IALF has many resources available to you. If your students get interested in a certain topic, check to see if there is a lesson plan covering it on our website. Check our YouTube channel to see if we’ve linked a video about it in a playlist. Search our blog for further background knowledge on the topic. And if you are still stuck, send us an email for more ideas!

My Family’s Farm

My Family’s Farm is a series of books written at a third-grade level about young Iowans’ home farm operations. These books include modern pictures and examples, a vocabulary and definitions section, and have two standards-aligned lesson plans that correspond to them. At this time, there are My Family’s Farm books about a beef, corn, soybean, wind, and pig farm. In the future, this series will also include books on an apple farm and an egg farm!

When a new book is published in this series, one copy of the book is sent to each third-grade teacher in the state of Iowa. How should these teachers use these books?

My Family's Corn Farm

Read aloud

Without requesting any extra materials, a teacher could read this book aloud to their class. There are also digital versions of all these books on the IALF website ( that teachers can project so all students can see the pictures clearly. This can also be a good way to show students the photos of what a modern farm looks like.

Group reading

These books are free to request to use for educational purposes! This means you teachers can request a classroom set and allow each of your students to use a copy in class. This opens up other opportunities, like pair reading and large group reading.

Vocabulary and spelling

The end of these books includes a section with vocabulary and definitions. These words can be used in lessons of their own, and could even be used in spelling tests! These words could be taught before reading the book aloud to prepare students, or students could use context clues and this guide to learn more as the words arise in the story.


Students use the TIP Method with blocks and dry erase markers

TIP method

The TIP (Term, Information, Picture) Method is a fun way to help students learn new words and explain them. Using this method, you can have students pick a vocabulary word, define it in their own words, and draw a picture of what it is or what it means.

Sort vocabulary words

What parts of speech are these words? How many syllables do they have? Can we alphabetize them? Print large cards with each vocabulary word to allow students to sort them in many different ways!

Use the companion lessons

Each book has two companion lessons aligned to standards. These lessons are aligned with science, social studies, math, and/or English language arts standards. Examples include a lesson using beef examples in math (math, My Family’s Beef Farm), sequencing the life cycle of a soybean plant (science, My Family’s Soybean Farm), and deciphering main ideas and strengthening reading comprehension (English language arts, My Family’s Corn Farm).

As with all lessons from IALF, all content knowledge needed to teach the lesson, extra worksheets, vocabulary definitions, and sources are included in the lesson plans.


What not to do

Just a send-home item

When getting a free publication, it can be tempting to just send it home with students without using it in class. Though teachers can get these publications for little to no cost, they were created with great care to be useful resources for your classroom. If you do wish to send these publications home with students to let their parents read them, we encourage you to use them in class first. This way, the student can explain what they learned about in class to their parents!

Toss them

Those of you who have used these publications know they are not just junk mail. They are not sent to teachers like sample Christmas cards hoping to get you to purchase extras from us. They are sent to teachers to help them discover our resources and to help them teach the things they’re already teaching! If you know of a teacher who may be getting these publications, ask them to keep an eye out and to not toss them in the recycling bin along with book order forms and other junk mail.


I’m sold! How do I get more?

All of IALF’s publications are available to view online at At this time, you can order all six issues of the fourth grade Iowa Ag Todays online for $0.50 (to help cover shipping) per pack of 25. Each pack of 25 includes a teacher guide with an attached worksheet and pre/post-test. To request copies of the middle school or Spanish Iowa Ag Todays or My Family’s Farm books, you may email These materials are currently cost-free, given they will be used in an educational setting. When requesting materials, please clarify the use and give an address you would like them sent to.

We hope you and your students enjoy these publications and get lots of use from them!

Happy reading!


Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.


Elk, Baby Chickens, Cattle and Llamas – Oh My!

With the cold, winter temperatures and the holidays nearly over, your thoughts may be turning to summer. One of our family’s favorite activities during the summer is the Iowa State Fair. It has lots of fun activities and most importantly, it’s an opportunity to expose our daughters to agriculture.

We live in an urban area so my daughters aren’t exposed to agriculture the way I was growing up. My family was not a farming family but I walked my share of beans growing up. Plus, we raised and showed Registered Paint Horses and later after I left for college, my dad started raising Registered Purebred Rocky Mountain Elk. My husband grew up in urban areas but his grandparents had farms that he visited in the summers. We think it’s important for our daughters to be exposed to agriculture so they’re involved in activities such as 4-H (yes, 4-H is in urban areas!). We also take them to county fairs and the Iowa State Fair plus other agriculture-related activities. Much to my daughter’s dismay, urban zoning laws for the city we reside in don’t allow us to raise small animals such as chickens or rabbits for 4-H projects. Events like the Iowa State Fair offers us the chance to expose our daughters to farming through several areas – the Avenue of the Breeds, the Animal Learning Center and Little Hands on the Farm.

Avenue of Breeds
Avenue of the BreedsThe Avenue of Breeds is one location at the fair that showcases Iowa’s diverse livestock industry. Located in the northwest corner of the Swine Barn, this area includes more than 120 different animals. From elk to llamas, chickens to horses, and fish to cattle, you can walk up and down the aisle and find a variety of animals.

Educational information is presented with each animal exhibited including the animal’s breed type, origin, main purpose, and description, among other features. Members of the North Polk FFA chapter volunteer to answer questions throughout the day and they also care for the animals during the fair.

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It’s fun to see all the different breeds of animals up close and read about their purpose. For my city girls, it’s a chance to see exotic animals such as the elk and llama as well as farm animals such as goats, chickens, and pigs, among others.

If you’re not able to visit the fair, you can also learn about these animals by following #AveofBreeds on Facebook and Twitter during the fair. The Avenue of Breeds is sponsored by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers.

Animal Learning Center
This is one of the most popular spots at the fair every year. It gives fairgoers a chance to see real farm animals up close. The state-of-the-art education exhibit also features live births of various animals including cattle, swine, goats, and sheep. This provides an excellent opportunity for young and old to learn about the animal birthing process.

Don’t be distracted by all the cuteness, though. The building also provides lots of information throughout the space that you can read to learn more about each animal. There are also animal volunteers on hand taking care of the animals who are also available to answer your questions. The center also features regular stage presentations where you can learn more about livestock and Iowa agriculture. Be sure to keep an eye out for the days that the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation is presenting a session in the Animal Learning Center!

Little Hands on the Farm
Located next to the Animal Learning Center is Little Hands on the Farm. This is a chance for your child to play farmer for the day. This interactive adventure invites kids to learn what it is like to do chores on a farm and earn play money to spend at the grocery store Little Hands on the Farm 2at the end of their journey. Throughout their journey they’ll get a glimpse of a modern swine barn, plant some vegetables, pick apples, feed animals, collect chicken eggs, milk a cow and more. It’s a fun adventure where kids don’t even know they’re learning along the way! It’s one of my daughters’ favorite activities at the fair.

No matter where you live agriculture learning opportunities are all around for your family to take part in. It just takes a matter of looking and marking your calendars. Who knows, maybe through these opportunities it will spark an interest in your child for a possible future in agriculture!




Agriculture 101: Wool


I recently took up a new hobby that I never thought I would enjoy. Knitting. I love the look of hand-knitted scarves and hats and there are so many beautiful yarns available today. My first few projects turned out pretty good, so I took on the challenge of making a full-size and a doll-size scarf and hat set for my daughter and four nieces. Not only would this cross a few Christmas presents off my list, but it also fed my desire to try kitting with fancier yarns. The Christmas gifts are complete, and I am now in love with wool! A scarf knitted with wool or a wool-blend yarn is so soft and warm, and it looks luxurious too.

I thought a lot about wool during my many hours of knitting and realized there was a lot I didn’t know. Does most wool come from the same sheep raised for meat? Do different types of wool yarn come from different breeds of sheep or are they just processed differently? After a little research and a conversation with a wool enthusiast, my questions were answered.

Suffolk sheep

Suffolk sheep

Does wool used for textiles come from the same breeds of sheep raised for meat?

Yes it can, but like cattle, different breeds are preferred for different uses.

There are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep and they are categorized by their primary purpose: meat, wool, or dairy. Although most breeds provide at least two of these products, few breeds excel in more than one. Sheep farmers generally choose a breed and make management decisions that prioritize one product. For example, farmers who raise Suffolk sheep sell the wool, but meat is their primary revenue source.


A Polish Merino Sheep

Do different types of wool yarn come from different breeds of sheep?

Yes. A sheep’s wool can be fine, coarse, elastic, ridged, straight, wavy, shiny or dull.

Length, crimp, fineness and luster are some of the characteristics of wool that vary by breed and affect the look and feel of yarn and other wool products. Wool sheep breeds are classified into four general categories: fine wool , long wool, medium wool and carpet wool.

Fine wool breeds like Merino, produce wool that is very soft, less likely to itch when close to the skin, and makes excellent yarn for knitting. Fine wool is shorter in length than other types, but most valuable commercially because it produces high-quality yarn and wool garments.

Do all sheep produce wool that has to be sheared?

No. Hair sheep are covered with a mixture of hair and wool and naturally shed their coats. They typically do not require shearing. Hair sheep breeds tend to be more disease-resistant and produce high-quality meat and hides. Because of the declining value of wool relative to meat, hair sheep are gaining popularity in the U.S. and abroad.


Where is most wool produced?

Australia reigns supreme in wool, producing 25% of the world’s supply. China ranks second, and the United States, New Zealand and Argentina round out the top five wool-producing countries.

Does all wool come from sheep?

No. Sheep’s wool is the most common, but technically speaking, wool is a category of spun fiber from mammals, generally long-haired ones. Wool can include cashmere and mohair from goats, angora from rabbits, and even hair from camels.

The next time you purchase a new coat, scarf, or sweater, take time to consider and appreciate the beauty and warmth of wool.



Happy in Wool

Volunteers on the Farm

A volunteer is normally a good thing.  A great thing if they show up to assist at a charity event. A class -parent. A rural firefighter. However, there is one place where volunteers are not welcome, and that is in the field.  If you haven’t guessed it by now, I am talking about volunteer corn.

volunteer corn

Volunteer Corn Stalk


These spindly stalks of corn are the products of corn ears and kernels that were left in the field after the previous year’s harvest. They grow in between rows of planted corn and rob precious nutrients from the desired ears surrounding it. Any plant in a field that isn’t supposed to be there can be considered a weed – even if it is corn!

Plants need nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Volunteer corn will use up the available nutrients and not allow the cash crop to thrive. Plants also need sunlight to grow. The volunteer corn blocks the light from the plants within the rows. And moisture that is needed for a healthy stalk is depleted, used up by the volunteer plant.

Maybe during harvest, the equipment was not working properly and ears were left on the ground. Or maybe grain was spilled when transferring it from the  combine to the auger wagon.  Or maybe the local deer population knocked ears down while gallivanting through the field.  The result of all these is that volunteer corn pops up in unwanted places throughout the field.

volunteer ear

Volunteer Ear of Corn


regular ear of corn

Regular Ear of Corn

Corn that was not planted on purpose can be a real yield-killer for farmers. Corn usually yields over 160 bushels per acre. Crop inputs, or costs involved with growing a crop, are increasing, so a farmer needs every bushel possible to stay ahead. The weather and the markets are things that an individual cannot control. Volunteer corn will reduce that potential yield by using nutrients, using water, and blocking sunlight from the desired crop. But, volunteer corn is controllable, to an extent.

Here are some ways to prevent volunteer corn:

  • During harvest, set and adjust the corn head on the combine to the proper level to collect and gather the maximum number of ears possible off the standing corn.
  • Drive and run equipment (combines, trucks, and wagons) volunteer ear on stand tractor backgroundat lower speeds to prevent large spills caused by an auger unloading too quickly. Also, don’t overfill grain wagons which could cause spill going up hills or around turns.

    close up of volunteer ear

    Close up Photo, Volunteer Ear of Corn

  • Maintain good fences. After harvest farmers can turn cattle out to graze the corn stalks. This means cattle can help clean up any kernels of corn that may have been spilt during harvest. An excellent fence features five barbed wires with alternating wood and steel posts for stability. Wires must be stretched taught or else animals will push through gaps attempting to reach grass on the other side of the fence line. If an electric fence, or “hot-wire” fence, is used it must be checked regularly to ensure it has not been knocked down by deer or hunters and is still working properly.
  • During the winter months a cow might eat up to 12 pounds of shelled corn a day. Cattle are great at searching out those lost ears in the field and making short work of the kernels. They will take the entire ear into their mouths and use their flat back teeth to shell the corn, even eating the cob when finished. Here is a video of calves eating ears of corn.

Farming is a balance. Farmers must consider what to plant and when. Farmers must do what they can to manage the outcomes of their fields and crops.  Volunteer corn is considered a weed that can be as damaging to row crops as waterhemp, giant ragweed, marestail, or morningglory.

So the next time you pass by a field and see a plant that doesn’t look like it belongs, it is more than likely an unwanted volunteer.

stand of volunteer corn