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!


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

Healthy Soil, Healthy Life

Can you believe there is only one month left of the International Year of Soil? 2015 has flown by, but we would be remiss if we didn’t dedicate a blog to this crucial element of life. Soil plays an integral role in human, animal and plant life; we wouldn’t be here without it!healthy soil

Soil, as defined by the Soil Science Society of America, is “the unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.” Pretty important, right? But more important than just having soil is having healthy soil, or soil that can continue to provide a living ecosystem to sustain plants, animals, and humans. With proper soil management by farmers and other Earth caretakers, the soil we have now can continue to serve its important functions:

  • Provide nutrients for plant growth, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus
  • Absorb and hold rainwater, which improves food security and resilience to droughts and floods
  • Filter and buffer potential pollutants to help keep water sources clean
  • Provide habitat for soil microbes and half of the world’s biodiversity
  • Play a key role in the carbon cycle and mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration
  • Be a foundation for agriculture and the production of food, feed, fiber and fuel

488615811The task of keeping soil healthy is not one that is taken lightly. There are many ways that farmers can work to build and maintain soil health, most of which relate preventing erosion and degradation and improving soil nutrients and structure. Most Iowa farmers work with soils that are very nutrient-rich, have good water holding capacity and a very deep topsoil layer – that’s what makes Iowa such a great place for agriculture! Because the soil is so valuable, farmers choose to use the following practices:

  • Cover crops reduce soil compaction, improve water filtration, and prevent erosion. The plants’ roots break up compaction all while holding soils in place during times the soil would otherwise be fallow, such as late fall, winter, and early spring. Cover crops can also add nutrients like nitrogen to the soil and reduce weed pressure.
  • Crop rotation is a well-known tool that farmers use to increase yields, but also has strong soil health benefits. Transitioning fields from one crop to another each year can improve soil organic matter, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil structure over time.
  • Proper soil nutrient management is a key part of managing soils. Farmers can take soil samples from fields to determine the levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which are needed for optimum plant growth. Using the resulting data, farmers can apply precise amounts of fertilizer to their soils to replenish lost nutrients. Some farmers use liquid manure, which should be applied at soil temperatures of 55 degrees or less, while others apply fertilizers such as anhydrous ammonia, to accomplish this goal. Proper nutrient management is important for supplying nutrients for plant needs without over applying.
  • Minimal or no-tillage practices work for farmers who can plant a new crop directly into the leftover organic matter from the previous year with little to no working, or tillage, of the soil. This works by keeping the soil covered and protected from wind, snow and rain by organic matter residue leftover from the previous crop. Some farmers at this time of year may choose to till only the headlands, or end rows where the farm machinery turns around, to break up soils that may have become compacted from tractors, trucks and combines.

The soil is a very valuable resource, and farmers know it is also a key resource for ensuring future generations will have land to farm and the capability to feed a growing population. Even though the International Year of Soil is almost over, the need for healthy soils is not. Farmers are working every day to maintain and improve the health of the soil we depend on for a healthy planet and a healthy life. What can you do to help?


Big Decisions: Planting

For many Iowa farmers, spring brings the beginning of a new crop year. Before any seed hits the ground, farmers have to make a lot of important decisions regarding the planting season. In Iowa, many farmers are planting corn and soybeans right now; some might even be done with planting already. However, getting the seed in the ground isn’t as easy as it looks! Among other things, farmers have to decide what crops they waplanting picturent to plant in which fields, and then try to decide when the optimal time to get the seed in the ground is while managing the weather and the calendar.

What to plant?

First and foremost, farmers have to choose what crops to plant on which fields. A lot of variables influence this choice.

Overall, farmers have to choose a crop mix for that year. If the markets are looking good for soybeans, a farmer might choose to plant more acres of soybeans than they usually do; if corn looks profitable, a farmer might incorporate more of that. This often comes down to economics and the relative profitability of the crops. Farmers also need to consider the soil types of their fields and the other aspects of their farm. For example, a farmer who raises cattle may plant corn continuously and use the manure as fertilizer. Corn and soybeans are by far the most common, but some Iowa farmers plant hay, straw or silage crops such as alfalfa, wheat or rye.

Rotating crops each year can help control diseases and insects. Farmers have to consider their rotation and what was planted on their fields the previous crop year. Some farmers use traditional corn-soybean rotations, where corn and soybeans are planted alternately each year. Corn often has higher yields following soybeans due to nitrogen from the breakdown of soybean residue. Because of a symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria, soybean residue is very high in nitrogen. However, rotation has become slightly less effective as some pests, like the European corn borer, have adapted to the rotation.

Some farmers c179222736hoose to plant corn for several consecutive years, too. This requires slightly more management (potentially more tillage and fertilizer) than a corn-soybean rotation. Other farmers might choose to plant wheat or oats, depending on the relative profitability of the crop that year. Most farmers don’t plant soybeans continuously because they are more susceptible to soil-borne diseases. Personal preference often influences this choice; some farmers like raising one crop more than another, and that will impact their decision making as well.

When choosing which crop to plant in a specific field, farmers have to look at known diseases and fungus problems. If they know a specific field has a problem with Northern Corn Leaf Blight, they would choose a resistant variety of corn to plant in that field or plant soybeans. Through plant genetic improvement and breeding, there are many different hybrids of common Iowa crops that are resistant to many of the most damaging crop diseases. Farmers may also choose different seed treatments for protection of the seeds from known insects and fungi. Using resistant varieties and seed treatments on fields with known pest problems can greatly improve yield.

For selecting specific varieties of corn and soybeans, farmers can look at the yield trials of that hybrid or consult with an agronomist. Farmers have many varieties from several companies to choose from, so they can select ones they feel are best suited for each field.

When to plant?

After farmers have selected a crop and variety for each field, they have to wait for just the right time to plant. Choosing when to get into the fields with a planter can be a balancing act between weather and the calendar date, based on the farmer’s personal risk tolerance. Planting early gives the crop more time to mature, but is also more risky.

The most important factors in the readiness of a field for planting are the soil temperature and moisture. For corn and soybeans, the soil must be 50 degrees and rising; planting when it is too cold will prevent seeds from emerging. If the soil is too wet, the plant roots will grow poorly, due to compaction of the soil. Without proper root structures, corn becomes very susceptible to damage from wind. If the soil is too dry, the seeds will sit in the soil and won’t be able to germinate until they get enough moisture.

There are also optimal planting dates for corn and soybeans which indicate the dates in which yield potential for the crop is maximized. In general, corn is planted before soybeans because soybeans have less of a yield reduction for later planting. Most corn is planted in early to late April, and soybeans are planted from the end of April through May.

Yield is strongly correlated with planting date, and planting after the optimal planting date can reduce yields. The strong yield advantage may outweigh the risks of planting early. This yield advantage can be attributed to faster canopy closure (the leaves of the plant cover the soil between rows), a longer reproductive period, pollination occurring at a more favorable temperature and moisture, 467002013and allowing the grain to dry faster when it is still in the field.

The weather and the optimal planting dates have to be balanced, and farmers spend a lot of time worrying about Mother Nature and watching the calendar. Weather can drastically change the field conditions before or after seeds are in the ground and damage yield potential. In April, snowstorms and cold rains are not unheard of and can negatively impact the germination of the seeds. In some cases, planted fields that have gotten too cold must be planted again, because the first seeds won’t germinate. On the other hand, waiting until it is very warm in May to plant reduces the risk of the weather damaging crops, but also reduces yield. Many farmers choose to take on more risk as it gets closer and closer to the end of the optimal planting window.

On a day like today in early May, farmers can be seen all over Iowa keeping a close eye on the weather channel and trying to make the best planting decisions they can. The choices made before and during planting season directly impact the success of the crop through the entire growing season. It can be a stressful time of year, but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing those little green plants popping up in rows. In a way, this time of year is the most hopeful too.