Unique Agriculture Commodities: Pearls

A few weeks ago, I was looking for inspiration for a #FridayFarmFact. I was trying to find something that was out of the ordinary and branched beyond the corn and soybean field. This led me to thinking about my time in Muscatine, Iowa. Muscatine used to be a hub for harvesting mussels from the Mississippi River to create pearl buttons. It was a whole town affair with pop-up button factories, and you can still find remains of the pearl button industry as you dig down into the soil. Though pearl buttons aren’t pearls (they are actually created out of the shells of mussels), it got me wondering, where do pearls come from, and are they truly as rare as people say they are?

What is a Pearl?

Pearls are biological gemstones that develop into a wide variety of colors (e.g., black, gray, silver, green, purple, blue, etc.). They form in freshwater and saltwater bivalve-mollusks such as oysters, clams, and mussels. These gemstones can develop naturally as an irritant enters the mollusk. In response to the irritant, the mollusk secretes enzymes and calcium byproducts to form a tissue known as nacre around the irritant that is resemblant to its inner shell, much like when we form a scar. Over the next 3-5 years the tissue continues to grow and deposits calcium carbonate in smooth layers creating what we know as a pearl. To simplify this, think of a pebble that might get into your shoe. Overtime, your body might develop a blister to help protect your foot from the pebble. Eventually, the skin of your foot would toughen up to prevent the pebble from hurting you. In the case of an oyster something as small as a piece of sand might be the irritant that gets in and causes the mollusk to start forming the nacre. Natural pearls are rare and finding a “perfect” pearl is even rarer. This rarity, and the demand for pearls, has sparked a market for the cultivated, or human induced, pearl.  

White and pink pearls
(photo courtesy of James St. John)

How are pearls cultivated?

As in most cultivation, pearl farmers do not reinvent the wheel; rather, they utilize and optimize what occurs when Mother Nature is left alone. Thus, the pearl forms in the same way that a natural pearl would, however, specialized tools and growing conditions are used in cultivation farms to develop the “perfect” pearl. Most pearl cultivation farms can be found in Japan, China, and Indonesia. These locations are ideal for cultivation because of the water quality, temperature, and nutrient availability. The cultivation of pearls can be broken down into six main steps (watch this VIDEO to see them in detail):

Step 1: Grow host oysters or mussels

Oyster or mussel sperm is placed in a tank with eggs (oyster or mussel) for fertilization and the development of a larvae. These tanks are carefully monitored for temperature, minerals, and acidity to make sure the mollusk will have the best conditions for growth. The late larval stage of the mollusk will cling onto the hanging mesh in the tanks. Feeding these mollusks 2-3 times a day allows them to reach the proper maturity to be transferred to open calm waters within a month. Here, the mollusks will grow until they are the proper size for seeding.

Life cycle of an oyster
(graphic courtesy of Wallace et al, 2008)

Step 2: Seeding

The first step of seeding is to create the seed, or nucleus bead. No, the seed won’t sprout a pearl, it’s not like a plant seed. In this process, a donor mollusk is cut open and a round nucleus bead is made from the shell. This little piece of shell (or seed) is surgically placed inside the mollusk with a piece of donor tissue (called a graft) and will serve as the irritant to start the pearl. This process takes steady hands and careful precision, so the mollusk isn’t harmed. The bead’s size will help determine the overall size of the pearl. I like to think of this process like priming a wall with paint, you prepare the wall so that the color in the end comes out the way you want it.  Same with seeding the mollusk.

Placing a seed and donor tissue into an oyster for pearl cultivation
(photo courtesy of Shawn Harguail)

Step 3: Rest and Recover

After seed surgery, the mollusks are placed in containers and back into calm open waters of the ocean or lake. As their wound heals, farm workers use technology to x-ray the mollusks to determine if the seed was accepted, and to determine the progression of the pearl. If the seeding was accepted, the mollusks are then hung either by a rope through their shells or laid in baskets for the remainder of the pearl making process.

Creation of the nucleus seed of an oyster (left) and pearl formation (right)
(illustration courtesy of C. Montagnani)

Step 4: Grow Pearl

As the pearl continues to grow, the mollusks are moved from cooler waters to warmer waters to ensure that the animal doesn’t die, and optimal pearl growth occurs. Throughout the growth process the mollusks are collected and cleaned to get rid of parasites that could damage the animals. This stage of pearl production can take anywhere from 10 months to 3 years depending on the size of pearl.

Hanging of mollusks for growing pearls in baskets (A) and on a line (B)
(photo courtesy of Simon-Colin et al, 2015)

Step 5: Harvest 

Mollusks are cut in half and the pearl is extracted from the meat. If it is an oyster, part of the meat may be conserved and sold as Ise-Shima, a delicacy in Japan. The pearls are washed and rinsed and sorted through to find the perfect pearls. It may take up to 10,000 pearls to find enough desired pearls to make a 16” necklace.

Harvesting of oysters
(photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank)

Step 6: Develop Product

Pearls require no polishing or shaping. After they are washed and sorted, they are exported to factories and shops where they are used to create a wide variety of jewelry such as rings, earrings, necklaces, and more.   

Example of a pearl necklace, a possible end product for cultivated pearls
(photo courtesy of HarshLight)

Pearls in the United States

Though most pearls are cultivated in Asia, we do have one freshwater pearl cultivation farm in the United States. Located in Camden, Tennessee, the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm was started by John Latendresse (1925-2000). Latendresse utilized the Washboard mussel, an indigenous freshwater mussel in the Tennessee river, and culturing techniques from Japan to cultivate the pearls. Through years of research and trial and error, Latendresse and his family perfected cultivating techniques and developed new ones to create pearls of varying shapes such as coins and duck wings. They started a business for their pearls, American Pearl Company, to branch across markets and industry. At the farms peak it was worth roughly $50 million. Today the farm is owned by Bob Keast, and though it is still an operational farm, most of the farm’s income is acquired through agritourism.  You can visit the farm and stay in one of their cabins along the bay, go on boat tours, hunt for pearls, or view and purchase pearls in their onsite museum.

My Takeaways

Natural pearls are still a rare find, however, the need to search the ocean and riverbeds for mollusks bearing gems has declined (and is illegal in some areas). The farming and cultivation of pearls has tremendously changed the market and rarity of the once sought-after pearl. Through the advancement of technology and biological understanding we are now able to meet the demand for such a valuable commodity in a more sustainable way. And though pearls may not be as rare as they once were, a perfect high-quality pearl still is.

~Cathryn

A Day in the Life of a Seed Dealer

If you have ever flown over, driven through, or maybe even bicycled across the Midwest, you might have noticed the acres upon acres of crops that are planted in precise ways. Those crops are made up of hundreds of thousands of rows and those rows are made up of millions of individual plants. Now stay with me for just a little bit longer. Those millions of plants start off as seeds, purchased by farmers from … a seed salesman.

To get a better idea of what a seed salesman does, I reached out to someone who helps us order our seed, Mark Pogee of Rob-See-Co, a hybrid corn and soybean seed company in the western Corn Belt states. Rob-See-Co is an independent company built on simplicity, relationships, and technology.

Mark, who attended Iowa State University, says, “My whole life has revolved around agriculture.”

Previously, Mark managed a cooperative for nearly 13 years, was a regional sales manager for another seven years, and most recently he works for Rob-See-Co. Each of these positions have given Mark the opportunity to do what he loves best, to be curious. Each part of Mark’s day involves seeing and doing new things. Each day he makes sales calls (10-15 per day), meets new people, and arranges the delivery of seed. Through his job he also sets up seed plots, builds customer relationships, and works to find farmer/dealers who could store the seed until the planting conditions are just right in the fall.

He likes all of those different aspects of his job and loves having an office that is based in his truck.  He covers a 20-county area, and his travels can add up to a lot of miles. In fact, Mark was on his way back from the Missouri border when he took a break to call me and go over some notes he had jotted down to help describe his job. When out on the road, Mark also gets to support local business by eating at a different restaurant daily. 

Mark works with farmers and knows they have long hours before light and even sometimes after dark. Not everyone has times for a sales call, but Mark is tenacious. He keeps trying, catching his customers at good times – and stepping away to try again if the time is not right.

Being a good salesman requires knowing a lot about the product you are selling. Corn seed is categorized by different hybrids and soybean seeds are categorized by different varieties. Depending on the type of soil you have, the weather conditions that spring, the type of crop you planted last year, and even how many long days you will have in your growing season determine which hybrid of corn or variety of soybean you might purchase. Farmers often plant different hybrids and varieties on different parts of the same field to match the conditions of the soil. There are a lot of variables to consider. The technology of seed development gives farmers many options to choose from and many options for seed dealers to offer. Check out Farming by Numbers for more information on seeds.

Why should a farmer work with a seed dealer? Every year, Iowa farmers plant over 30 million acres of crops. And while that is a huge number of acres, each farm is only on average 345 acres. Individual farmers can get a better deal working with seed companies and dealers who negotiate for large-scale purchases.

In Iowa, seed is planted in the spring, but the summer is still a busy time. Farmers and seed dealers together look at fields, check on the progress of the plants, and try to troubleshoot for the next year. After a windstorm or other weather event, a field may look ugly. But crops are amazing at coming back. In the worst case scenario, farmers will need to replant. Mark says if the farmer has to replant it is a heart-wrenching decision. It’s never a good situation because they will have lost all of that time and money and the yields will have been greatly diminished. The cost of replanting can be high. A bag of soybean seed averages $52 and will cover one acre. Corn is more expensive at $285 a bag, but each bag covers approximately 2½ acres. The cost of a bag of seed accounts for the delivery, trucking, fuel, human resource costs, and the research that helped develop each kernel of corn or soybean seed.

Fall is also a busy time for a seed salesman. A seed salesman will join a farmer in their “office” (combine while harvesting) and spend time taking out the fields. Riding along during the harvest helps Mark to get an idea of how well the specific variety of seed did. It also provides Mark an opportunity to visit with the farmer about what next year’s planting needs may be. Seed companies must anticipate a year in advance what the farmer will need. Mark’s most important job is helping the farmer with decisions about what to plant. Most of his farming solutions are the result of years of experience and knowledge of the farms – and farmers- whom he is working with. He provides tried and tested seed choices to help give the crops the best possible start.

“Every year, you start over, and everyone is a new customer,” says Mark. “You can’t just assume because someone purchased seed from you in the past that they will again.”

One of a farmer’s most important decisions is what to plant. Seed dealers, like Mark, can help the farmer with those decisions – if they come at a good time.

-Melanie

Why Do They Do That? Track Crop Progress

Around this time of year (April through June) it is common to hear or read news stories touting things like “86-percent of corn now planted, 67-percent of soybeans”. But what does that mean? Why does it matter? Who is behind these numbers?

In a state like Iowa, much of the economy is driven by agriculture. Very few people are directly involved in planting and raising crops. In Iowa there are approximately 85,300 farms. If every farm counts two people as farmers we can estimate there are 170,600 farmers in Iowa. Compare that to the state’s population of 3.155 million and we see that only a little more than 5% of Iowans are farmers. While this seems small, agriculture and agriculture related industries employ one in six Iowans or 17% of the workforce (400,000 jobs). Agriculture is responsible for adding $72.1 billion to the state’s economy, or 27 percent of the state’s total. We begin to see the ripple effect as this revenue and these jobs then help support other industries growing and continuing to thrive like manufacturing, finance, healthcare, education, and so much more. Agriculture has been called an engine for Iowa’s economy.

So, you could say a lot is riding on the success (or failure) of the corn and soybean crop. While it might seem like people in an urban setting are removed from the impacts of the farm, a failed crop (from droughts or floods or other factors) would have ripple effects that could lead to a downturn of the economy and we all would be impacted.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture that works with farmers to track planting of crops and the subsequent health of the crops and the quality of the harvest. One of the field offices is located in Iowa and works closely with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Iowa is broken in to nine districts. Each district is closely monitored and then data is compiled into a weekly report. The report details things like days suitable for fieldwork. If it is raining or if the soil is too muddy from rain, tractors and heavy equipment can’t be taken out into the field to plant or work the soil. Farmers have a limited window in which they can get seeds in the ground. Soil temperatures have to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit for seeds to germinate. So too early in the year and the seeds won’t start growing. Crops also need to have enough time to grow. So if they are planted too late in the year they won’t mature before the weather starts turning cold again. The optimal window for planting is April and May. That means that 26.5 million acres need to be planted in a 60 day time period. If it rains for 30 days, then that cuts the planting time in half. As many as one million acres need to be planted per day in Iowa to be successful.

NASS tracks how many acres of corn and soybeans have been planted. They also separately track how many acres have emerged and successfully germinated. Farmers are fraught with challenges. Maybe a farmer is lucky enough to get their planter out in the field and get seeds planted. But then if that is followed by two weeks without rain, the seeds may not germinate. Or if there is too much rain the seeds could get drowned out. So planting is important, but emergence is also important. The weekly NASS reports also track the quality of the crop (very poor to excellent). These data points are tracked from corn and soybeans, but also for hay, oats, and pasture.

Why does it matter?

A lot of farming is based on weather. That makes it a bit of a guessing game. The more information that can be collected, the less of a guessing game it is. One of the biggest reasons we want to track crop condition is to ensure we have an adequate food supply in the upcoming months. It has been a long time since the U.S. has faced any sort of food shortage, but in other parts of the world it can be a real and devastating problem. A drought and loss of one year of crops could lead to widespread famine and the fallout of that famine. Farmers in the U.S. and those who track the progress of those crops have developed a reliable system to hopefully prevent any sort of food shortage – even if severe weather were to hit.

The second reason we want data on crop conditions is to make the economy and market less volatile. Corn and soybean prices change year to year (and day to day) based on supply and demand. The prices are set based on what customers are willing to pay. If there is a high supply and low demand, the price might be very low. If there is a low supply and a high demand, the price might be very high. By knowing what the condition of the crop is early in the planting season there are some guesses, assumptions, and estimations that can be made about what the harvest will be like and what the supply will be like. We can’t always know what the demand will be, but if we know approximately what the supply will be that can help us reduce the volatility and fluctuations of the price.

The third reason that people want to know the condition of crops is to have more security in investments. Farmers and investors can buy and sell crops on the futures market. This means that a farmer might sell their 2021 crop in March before it is planted and long before it is harvested. A farmer would know what costs they would incur during the process. They could negotiate a futures contract that would ensure they cover their costs and make money from their crop. This mitigates risk. However, if the price of the cash market went up, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that. That’s where investors come in. They assume the risk and hope that the cash market price goes up. That would allow for them to make money. It is a bit of a game of chance. But with the right information, like the condition of the crop at various stages throughout the growing season, farmers and investors can make some good guesses and hopefully both come out ahead.

The fourth reason that we want to know the condition of crops is because of that ripple effect mentioned earlier. Consider John Deere and other implement dealers. It can take them months to build a new tractor start to finish. And they have to source all of the parts from various suppliers around the world. The whole process could in theory take a year or more if you consider taking the raw ingredient (mining iron ore) to steel (processing the ore into steel) to a finished tractor (shaping parts, assembly, etc.). A limited number of tractors can be built each year with limited workers, limited factories, and limited time. Now consider the farmer. They might only buy a new tractor if they have had a good growing season and were able to sell their crop for a significant profit. (New tractors might cost $500K or more.) Knowing that farmers will only buy tractors when the conditions are good, John Deere can watch the crop report and have a better idea of how many tractors they should build in a given year. The people and businesses that supply the parts for John Deere can have a better idea of how many widgets they should build in a given year. The people and businesses who supply the raw ingredients can have a better idea of how much iron ore or other raw material might be needed.

So, the crop report might only be a brief story on the evening news. But its importance to a stable food supply and economy cannot be understated. For this year (2021) as of May 24, things are looking pretty good. Planting of Iowa’s expected corn crop is nearly complete at 97%, two weeks ahead of the 5-year average. Corn emergence has reached 75%, five days ahead of normal. Seventy-eight percent of the crop is in good or excellent condition with only 1% in poor condition. Eighty-nine percent of the expected soybean crop has been planted, 15 days ahead of the 5-year average. Soybean emergence has hit 53%, nine days ahead. Topsoil soil moisture levels are at 82% adequate or surplus. Subsoil soil moisture is 60% adequate or surplus.

Stay tuned (or check back in) for the fall as the crop reports will continue to monitor the quality of the harvest. More challenges are in store there as farmers need to dry the grain in the field to the right moisture level, avoid fall rains that might get combines stuck in the field, and avoid mold, wind, or other issues that might damage the crop that they’ve toiled to grow.

-Will

Farmers Like to Try Growing New Crops

I recently ordered a drink at my local smoothie place and it had hemp seed protein powder in it. That made me curious about the agricultural crop of hemp. I was confused and thought others might misunderstand it as well. Here’s what I learned.

Isn’t it just marijuana?

No, hemp is most notably grown for use as a fiber crop. The long stalks have stringy interiors that can be processed into things like cloth and rope. Most natural fibers that we use for things like clothing come from cotton (a plant) or wool from sheep (an animal). Bamboo has become a popular alternative fiber crop. But cotton and bamboo can’t be grown in the Iowa climate. Sheep are raised in Iowa and while wool has a lot of advantages as a fiber, wool and sheep aren’t as popular as their plant alternatives. Corn and soybeans can also be used to make fibers and cloth, but they take more processing and therefore can be more expensive. Hemp can be grow in the Iowa climate and offers an interesting option for Iowa farmers to get into the fiber industry. But hemp offers a lot of other options too and can be raised as feed ingredient for livestock or for other purposes.

When you hear the word “hemp,” I know for many marijuana is the first thing that crosses your mind. Hemp and marijuana do come from the same cannabis genus. However, hemp has a Delta-9 THC of less than 0.3%, and marijuana has a THC level of more than 0.3%. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive compound in cannabis that creates euphoric effects when consumed. The 0.3% of THC in hemp is so low that it would take 2,500 lbs. of the commodity to equal the same amount of THC in one joint typically used recreationally. So there is no chance anyone will be able to use hemp as a recreational drug.

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

Is it legal?

In 2014, the Farm Bill passed, allowing pilot programs and research to start on the hemp commodity. This farm bill started the discussion on whether hemp farming would continue in the United States and if it was beneficial to everyone.

Four years later, the Hemp Act of 2018 passed. This act moved hemp, with a THC concentration of less than 0.3%, from a controlled substance category to an agricultural commodity. In addition to how hemp was categorized, the act also introduced that hemp producers could receive federal crop insurance. Each state would oversee its laws regarding the production of hemp.

Specifically, the Iowa law allows the production, processing and marketing of hemp products. It does not include using marijuana recreationally, smoking hemp and using or selling hemp for animals.

To farm hemp in Iowa, farmers must first obtain a hemp license. The licensing requires applicants to submit official fingerprints, pass a background check, and have no drug-related felony for the previous ten years. Once the farmer is adequately licensed, they must grow 40 acres or less of hemp and record all farmed hemp. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a number of different resources for farmers interested in trying to grow this fiber crop.

Farming hemp is not for everyone. Seeds are germinated in a greenhouse and the seedlings have to be transplanted into fields – either by hand or with small scale equipment. Some farmers are refurbishing old machinery previously used to plant things like strawberries to plant the seedlings. Hemp allows for interested farmers to start small and scale up as they become familiar with the agronomics of unfamiliar crop.

Why farm hemp?

Washington Post

Food, building supplies, textiles and oils are just a few of the thousands of different uses from hemp. Hemp is a versatile commodity; the plant’s seeds, stalks, roots, leaves and plant can all be used in one way or another. I personally have tried hemp seed protein in my smoothies. It was a plant-based alternative to my typical whey protein that I purchased because it was cheaper. New products like this are now on the market because of the growing industry. With these new products coming on the market, hemp farming is a place for farmers to invest their money and a portion of their land.

This up-and-coming specialty crop can be grown as either a fiber, grain or for CBD. Out of these niches, CBD or cannabidiol has the most profit potential. CBD is a non-intoxicating phytochemical that has potential health benefits for things like pain, nausea, addiction, and depression. Farmers can usually profit around $1,000 per acre of corn. In contrast, hemp farmers can gain up to $40,000 per acre when their hemp is grown specifically for CBD.

Hemp can be grown in many different regions and climates, making it very easy to grow. However, hemp does prefer certain soils over others. Aerated and loose loam soil can best produce hemp. This kind of soil has mainly sand and silt with a little bit of clay and has enough room for oxygen to flow through the soil. Iowa offers ideal soils.

Hemp also has a short growing season. This fast-growing season means that farmers who live in cooler climates (like Iowa) can fit hemp into their season when they might not be able to with other crops. Farmers with warmer climates may have multiple harvests in one year.

Because hemp only became legal to grow in 2014 and 2018, everyone is still learning how to farm it. There are always opportunities and challenges in growing new crops and some Iowa farmers are embracing this new crop.

~Madison

We Can’t ‘Goat’ Enough of these Animals: Dairy Goat Breeds

Long before goat yoga, goats singing Silent Night and Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, or goats in pajamas, goats were already a farm favorite throughout the world. Some of the oldest domesticated goats date back to around 10,000 years ago. Today, there are more than one billion goats worldwide.

In an earlier blog post, we discussed how goats became popular throughout history, the top producing countries, how goats are being used in sustainability efforts, and more. Today, we’re going to dive into some of the purposes for specific breeds of goats. Just like cattle, goats can be bred for specific reasons – dairy, meat, and fiber. Let’s look at dairy goats!

Dairy Goat Industry in Iowa

Photo by Mark Stebnicki from Pexels

Did you know Iowa is ranked third in the country in dairy goat production – only behind Wisconsin and California. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are 214 licensed dairy goat herds and 32,000 milking does (female goats) in Iowa. Despite our size, Iowa’s dairy goats are still a relatively small market. You can usually find producers goat cheese, milk, yogurt and other products available at local farmers markets and in local grocery stores throughout Iowa.

Goat Milk Products

Cow’s milk is the preferred milk in the U.S. but for much of the world, goat milk is the primary milk source for humans. One of the reasons goats are preferred over cattle is the small size of the animal and the amount of land required to raise them.

Goat milk can be fresh, raw or pasteurized, condensed, or dried. It has many of the same nutritional attributes as cow’s milk. Many grocery stores and specialty shops offer gourmet cheese and ice creams made of goat milk, as well as personal products such as soaps and lotions.

Goat milk is typically whiter than whole cow milk. The same goes for butter and cheese, however they may be colored during processing. Goat milk has distinct characteristics when compared to cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller than those in cow milk, and the curd is softer and smaller which may make digestion easier. For some who are allergic to cow’s milk, oftentimes they’re able to digest goat milk with no problems.

Goat Breeds

There are eight different recognized breeds of dairy goats. In general, the lactation period for dairy goats averages 284 days. In the time after they give birth and after the kid is weaned, the milk can be collected for human consumption.

Alpine

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

The French-Alpine goat originated in the Alps. They were brought to the United States from France and were selected for uniformity, size, and production. The Alpine goat is known for being a hardier type. It’s an adaptable animal that thrives in any climate while also maintaining good health and excellent production. Alpines come in many different colors and color combinations. They may come in patterns ranging from pure white through shades of gray, brown, black, red, and other color combinations. Their hair is generally short. The does, or females, are typically at least 30 inches tall and weigh around 135 lbs. while bucks, or males, are usually 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs.

LaMancha

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

It’s believed that this breed descended from Spanish goats brought by early settlers to California. The breed was further developed in the United States and is known for its calm, loveable nature. It thrives in a variety of climates and conditions. The distinctive feature of the LaMancha is the very short ears. Does (females) are at least 28 inches tall and weigh 130 lbs. while the bucks (males) are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 160 lbs. Their hair is short, fine, and glossy. The LaMancha produces a high-quality milk with high butterfat and protein over a long period of time.

Nigerian Dwarf

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

The Nigerian Dwarf is a miniature goat of West African origin. Dwarf goats come in many different colors; however the main colors are black, chocolate, and gold. Their coat is soft, with short to medium hair. These are a loveable and gentle breed of goats, in fact, some are kept as pets and are used frequently as 4-H and FFA student projects. Nigerian Dwarf does are at least 17 inches tall and may be no taller than 22.5 inches. Bucks are at least 17 inches tall and no taller than 23.5 inches. The average weight is around 75 lbs. They are the only miniature dairy goat breed registered by the American Dairy Goat Association. Though small, this breed of goat produces a proportionate quantity of milk with high butterfat. 

Nubian

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This breed is also known for its high butterfat and protein content of its milk. The Nubian’s appearance is distinctive in its facial composition, known for its Roman nose. The ears also are pendulous and hang down. Their hair is short, fine, and glossy, and may be any color – solid or patterned. They tend to be a little more stubborn than other goat breeds and have a distinctive sound. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs., while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. Nubian’s originated in England as a cross between the Old English Milch Goat and the Zariby and Nubian bucks imported from India, Russia, and Egypt. Due to their Middle Eastern heritage, these goats can live in very hot climates and have a longer breeding season than other dairy goats.

Oberhasli

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

Loosely translated, Oberhasli means ‘highlander.’ While still relatively rare in the U.S., this breed comes from the district of the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. Their color is described as bay, ranging from light to a deep red bay with black markings. The does may also be solid black. They have short, erect ears. The does are typically at least 28 inches tall and weigh 120 lbs. The bucks are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 150 lbs. They have a calm disposition.

Saanen

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This breed of goat is a favorite among commercial dairies due to its high milk production and calm temperament. They originated in the Saanen valley in the south of the Canton Berne, Switzerland. In the early 1900s, several hundred Saanens were imported into the U.S. from Switzerland. They are heavy producers of milk and usually yield 3-4 percent milk fat. The breed is better suited for cooler, shaded conditions and is sensitive to excessive sunlight. They are distinguished by solid white or light cream-colored hair. Their ears are erect. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs. while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. 

Sable

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

This is another breed that originated in Switzerland and come from the Saanen breed. They may be any color or combination of colors except for white or light cream. Their hair is short and their ears are erect. They are known for their high milk production and calm temperament. The does are at least 30 inches tall and weigh 135 lbs. while the bucks are at least 32 inches tall and weigh 170 lbs. Since they are derived from the Saanen breed, they are very similar, however they are better able to withstand hotter climates and sunny conditions.

Toggenburg

Source: American Dairy Goat Association

Toggenburgs were among the first purebred dairy goats to be imported into the U.S. and registered. They are a breed of goat named after the region in Switzerland where the breed originated, the Toggenburg Valley. They are known as being the oldest dairy goat breed. Toggenburgs are medium in size, moderate in production, and have relatively low butterfat content. Their hair color is solid, varying from light fawn to dark chocolate with white or cream markings. Some does may also be black with white or cream markings. The does are at least 26 inches tall and weigh 120 lbs. while the bucks are at least 28 inches tall and weigh 150 lbs.

No matter the breed, dairy goats are well known for their milk production. To see a comparison between the various breeds, the American Dairy Goat Association has created a breed averages chart you can review.

Interested in becoming a dairy goat farmer? The ADGA has some tips on how to get started.

That’s all we’ve ‘goat’ on dairy goats. Next up will be breeds of meat goats.

~Melissa

Resources

Cheese, Yogurt, Ice Cream – Iowa’s Dairy Goat Ranking

Iowa Dairy Goat Survey

Goat Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Fun Goat Facts

Clover & Agriculture

Every year many people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th. When thinking about St. Patrick’s Day, images of leprechauns, pots of gold, green, or Ireland might swarm your head. Did agriculture come to mind? One of the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, the clover, is a valuable plant to farmers.

I’m not sure about you guys, but I spent a good chunk of my childhood outside intensely staring at the grass, searching for the lucky four-leaf clover. Sadly, after spending hours on the lookout, I never found one on my own.

Photo by Sudipta Mondal on Pexels.com

Clover or Shamrock?

It turns out I wasn’t even looking for a shamrock since a four-leaf clover is just a genetic mutation.

Shamrocks fall under the broad term of clover. Clover is the common name for the species in the Trifolium family, which translates to “having three leaves.” It’s kind of like how dogs, foxes, and wolves all fall under the canine family.

If you ask a botanist or the Irish what kind of Trifolium a shamrock is, most likely, you are going to get at least two different answers. Most botanists believe that the white clover is the same thing as a shamrock. In contrast, those staying true to the Irish tradition believe that the three leaves symbolize the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit as taught by St. Patrick.

So, how do farmers use it?

While many probably recognize clover growing in their lawns, some farmers will grow it in their fields as a cover crop. Cover crops are planted to reduce erosion between growing seasons and add organic matter to the soil. To learn more about cover crops, check out the blog post “Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?”

According to Practical Farmers of Iowa, it is one of the best possible cover crop options. They describe it as the “Cadillac of cover crops.” Clover has many, many benefits as a cover crop. As a legume, it helps contribute nitrogen to the soil, it reduces soil erosion, and it helps limit the number of weeds in the field. Clover also helps a lot with the soil’s moisture hold capacity and water retention, which is great for those dry summers like we had last year.

Photo by Zhanna Fort on Pexels.com

Clover and livestock

Not only do farmers use clover as cover crops, but some feed their livestock with it as well. Integrating clover in pastures through a process called overseeding has its benefits: increase of yield, improve animal performance, Nitrogen fixation and grazing season extension, to name a few. Adding clover to a pasture will help the soil, the livestock and other grasses, but it does come with a warning.

Farmers need to be careful because too much clover could cause bloating. An abundance of clover consumption may cause cattle or other livestock species to have a gas buildup and can be very dangerous if this leads to pressure on the internal organs.

There are ways to prevent this bloating. Farmers can mix the clover with other grass species in the pasture, wait to feed livestock clover until it is drier or rotate their grazing.

Despite these risks, few farmers cut out clover feeding entirely due to its significant protein and fiber amount.

4-H

Other than the shamrock around St. Patrick’s Day, another famous clover is the clover emblem of 4-H. 4-H is a youth development organization for 4th-12th graders where members can create projects in health, science, or agriculture fields. The four-leaf clover emblem representing the 4-H organization has an “H” on each leaf, meaning head, heart, hands and health.

As you are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year, don’t just think about all of the green you’re going to wear, but think about how much agriculture is tied into this holiday!

~Madison

We’re not kidding around…goats are beneficial to agriculture

My oldest daughter loooves animals and is a wannabe farm girl but unfortunately for her, we live in a suburb. She has visions of having her own farm acreage when she’s older where she can have horses, rabbits, ducks, chickens…you name the farm animal and she wants it. This past summer to help her get her ‘animal fix’ she took horse riding lessons, but we also made multiple trips to a local agritourism farm operation. One of the draws for my girls was the baby goat cuddling. While enjoying the warm summer breeze surrounded by cute, cuddly, bleating baby goats, it got me thinking about the value of goats in agriculture and I wanted to learn more.

Did you know goats are one of the earliest animals to domesticated by humans? Neolithic farmers, during the New Stone Age, were the first to begin herding wild goats for the purpose of acquiring meat and milk, as well as using the animal parts for clothing, tools, and more. Today, goats live on every continent except Antarctica. Their adaptability makes them exceptionally suited to most climates.

Goats around the world

Goat farming involves the raising and breeding of domestic goats. They’re raised primarily because of their meat and milk, but also for their fiber and skins. Goats are very adaptable to their environment and can be raised alongside other farm animals who won’t eat lower quality grazing land vegetation. Grazing animals (like cattle and goats) can make use of land that isn’t suitable for cultivation or tillage.

While goat farming is a rising area of agriculture in the United States, they are not as prevalent here as in other countries. Goats are more common in developing countries because they are easier and cheaper to raise than cattle.

India is the top goat milk producing country producing more than five million metric tons annually (source 2017). Bangladesh is second followed by Sudan. In 2019, goat meat exports by country totaled US$251 billion. Australia is the largest goat meat exporter, followed by France, and Spain. Goat meat is an important source of protein for other parts of the world. Their high heat stress tolerance allows them to survive in more hostile locations. They require less land than cows, can eat lessor quality vegetation and still produce a higher quality product.

In 2020, there were 2.66 million head of goats in the U.S. compared to 77.5 million head of pigs and 94.4 million head of cattle. Demand for goat meat is rising though due to the increasing ethnic populations but more than half of the U.S. supply of goat meat is imported. You won’t likely see goat meat available in your local grocery store due to the low inventory.

Here in Iowa the goat industry is still growing. Common breeds being raised include dairy goat breeds like the Nubian or the La Mancha or meat goats like the Boer.

Goats used for anything from meat to environmental sustainability

Goats are raised primarily for the meat and milk. Goat cheese is one of the fastest growing segments within specialty cheese.

You might not know that goats also produce fiber like mohair and cashmere that is used in clothing. They can typically produce more than 5 lbs of mohair per goat at each shearing. Mohair is typically from the Angora goat and is known for its luster and sheen. Cashmere wool is from the cashmere or pashmina breed of goats and is known for its light weight, strength, and softness.

Source: Goats on the Go

Because of their small size and penchant for less desirable vegetation, goats are also starting to be used for clearing unwanted brush in a more environmentally sound way than using machinery or pesticides. Larger counties, cities, urban developments, and even private individuals are using goats to clear areas of land from unwanted or invasive plants such as Canada thistle and honeysuckle. Not only is this environmentally sound, it also allows native species to come back. Check out this video about an Iowa company, called Goats on the Go.

Even goat manure is virtually odorless and is beneficial to the environment and farm. Goat manure is a good source of nitrogen, phosphate, potash, and other minerals. Some countries are allowing goat manure to be sold commercially in the form of composted manure products.

All this talk of goats has me itching to get back out to the farm and cuddle some baby goats. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait awhile until kidding season is here in the Midwest.

Look out for future blog posts on type of goats, and more!

~Melissa

Additional Resources

Raising goats for Iowa’s ethnic markets
Iowa Dairy Goat Association
Modern Goat Production
Iowa Minutes – Goats on the Go
WorldAtlas – Goats

Why Do They Do That? –Irrigation

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

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

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

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

sprinkler irrigation system:

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

drip irrigation system:

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

center-pivot irrigation system:

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

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Linear Irrigation System:

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

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

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

~Madison

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

No matter how you slice it…we like pork on pizza

Whether you call it a pizza or a pie, Americans have enjoyed a long history of loving our pizza. Italian immigrants brought pizza along with them when they came to the United States in the late 19th century. And, since that time it’s become one of Americans’ favorite foods.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Of all the possible pizza toppings that we could choose, pepperoni ranks the highest followed by sausage according to a 2018 study from Caviar. With its savory flavors that pair well with flavorful marinara and gooey cheese, we can see–or rather taste –why we love our pepperoni pizzas! Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the U.S. and the top state for pork exports so it’s no wonder that pepperoni ranks high among Iowans. Midwestern states such as Michigan and Missouri also highly favor pork products like pepperoni, bacon, and ham on their pizzas. A few misguided states (I’m looking at you Maine) make the mistake of adding pineapple on their pizzas (I said what I said!).

Before we dive into the various pork meat toppings, let’s learn a few quick details about pigs and pork.

The delectable taste of pork on pizza
Now, let’s dive into a few of the favorite types of pork that grace our pizza.

Pepperoni
According to Wikipedia, pepperoni is a variety of salami made from cured pork and/or beef seasoned with paprika or other chili pepper. The meat for pepperonis come from the pig’s back, shoulder, and the belly. Pepperoni gives us a soft, slightly smoky flavor and has a bright red color. So popular as a pizza topping, pepperoni is featured on the pizza emoji. Americans love our pepperoni, consuming 251.7 million pounds of it annually.

No matter its end destination, all pepperonis – whether sticks or chips – go through a production process. Specific cuts are chosen to achieve the target ratio of fat to lean meat. Once selected, the meat is put into a grinder and there, depending on the end use, the various seasonings such as paprika or cayenne pepper are added. Various other cultures are added along the way to help preserve the meat and give it a cured flavor. After the grinding process is completed, the pork is typically placed into filling machines which then place the meat into some type of casing. In the manufacturing process, the meat is smoked several times and then dried.

Sausage
Sausage ranked second in pizza toppings. It’s a meat product made from ground meat, often pork, beef, or poultry, along with salt, spices, and other flavorings. Sausage is prepared much like pepperoni. Once meat is selected for fat ratio, it goes through a grinding process where seasonings are added then it’s put in casings and smoked.

Bacon
On many meat lover options or breakfast pizzas, you’ll often find bacon added. Bacon is a type of salt-cured pork made from various cuts, usually the pork belly or from the less fatty back cuts. Americans love our bacon, spending $5 billion on it and eating 18 pounds of it annually.

Bacon’s popularity goes back to early times when people smoked it and cured it in their own homes. Today, bacon is made mainly through food manufacturers. Pork bellies go through a process to soften them and then they are put in a brine solution using water and salt to cure the pork. Liquid smoke and other seasons are also added in the process. After showering in a liquid smoke mixture, which adds more flavor and color to the surface, the pork is transferred into a big oven to cook the meat. It then goes into a freezer for a few days which makes the meat easier to slice. Finally, the meat is cooked again, inspected, and packaged.

Canadian Bacon
Some pizza eaters like to add Canadian bacon to their pizzas. Canadian bacon is the American name for a form on back bacon that is cured, smoked and fully cooked, trimmed into medallions, and thickly sliced. This type of bacon is made from the lean eye of the loin. It tastes more like ham than other flavors due to its lean cut.

Fun Pizza Facts

  • It’s believed that pizza was first invented in Naples, Italy in the 16th century
  • Pizza is the favorite food (21%) over steak (16%), hamburgers (13%)
  • Pizza wasn’t popular in America until after World War II
  • Pizza is the preferred dish for cheating on your diet
  • About 13 percent of the U.S. population consumes pizza on any given day, or 350 slices of pizza are eaten each second in the U.S.
  • More than three billion pizzas are sold in the U.S. each year, plus another one billion frozen pizzas
  • $38 billion worth of pizzas are sold annually in the United States
  • 93 percent of Americans have eaten pizza in the last month

Sources: California Pizza Kitchen survey, National Pizza Day

Bring Agriculture into Your Classroom through Everyone’s Favorite Meal – Pizza
Want to bring agriculture into your classroom? Bring in pizza with the following resources:

We’re also launching a farm-to-table pizza competition called Pizz-a-thon! Check out our teacher resources and enter your classroom here!

Want more ideas of how to incorporate agriculture into your classroom through ways your students can relate? Contact an Ag in the Classroom Coordinator in your local area or a member of our staff for ideas.

All this talk of pizza has me craving some gooey, savory goodness! I’m off to find some pizza!

~Melissa

Additional Resources

Know the Nutrients in Pork
History of Pizza
Pig Farming: Learn more about farming, pig breeds, and antibiotics
Iowa Pork Producers Association
How It’s Made: Bacon
USDA Pizza Facts
Most popular pizza toppings in every state
How pepperoni became America’s favorite pizza topping

All things mint!

The holidays bring about warm memories of family get togethers, present exchanges, and favorite activities to do with our daughters. While making a few Christmas treats, the aroma of mint was in the air which reminded my daughters of their summer garden.

This past summer, my girls and I started growing some herbs as an easy summer project. Mint was the favorite herb that they liked to pick. They enjoyed smelling it and using it in their drinks.

Mint is one agricultural product that reaches millions of people every day. Let’s take a closer look at how mint is grown and used in everyday products.

The Mentha Genus

Photo Source: Washington Mint Growers Association

Mint belongs to the Mentha Genus. There are many varieties of homegrown mint, however, two main species of mint are grown for agricultural production purposes – the Mentha Piperita and the Mentha Spicata. There is also a lesser known, cheaper variety of mint known as Mentha Arvensis.

The state of Washington is the world’s largest mint-producing area. It is also grown in California, Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Mint oil is located in the glands on the undersides of the leaves. Professional odor evaluators can tell you exactly where a particular mint was grown and when it was cut just by the taste differences.  

Mint is a perennial plant. Farmers often grow mint for four years and then rotate it with other crops like soybean or corn. For example, a farmer will typically plant mint the first year in rows. In the subsequent three years, the field looks more like a meadow as the plant expands its root system. If you’ve ever seen an alfalfa field, that’s what a mint field would be like. You can learn why farmers rotate their crops in one of our past blog posts.

Photo Source: Washington Mint Growers Association

How is Mint Oil Made?

The mint plant is harvested once or twice a year depending on the variety and region it is being grown in. The entire plant is harvested then it is steam distilled to extract the essential oil, which is the commodity that farmers sell. There isn’t a large, open market for selling mint oil, so farmers mainly grow mint under contract from processors.

How Farms Work, a channel on YouTube, has created a three-part video series on mint oil. Watch this part three video where they show how mint oil is extracted. You can watch part one here, and part two here.

How is Mint Used?

Mint oil is found in a variety of products – toothpaste, mouthwash, gum, candy, beauty products, and more.

One of its earliest known uses was when ancient Greeks rubbed it on their arms, thinking it would make them stronger. It’s also been used in the past to treat stomach aches and chest pains. In more modern uses, research is being conducted to see if it can help treat irritable bowel syndrome.

Photo Source Pexels.com

Mint is used in drinks like Mint Mojitos to give them a refreshing flavor. It’s also used in anything from syrups and candies to ice cream and curries.

You might not know that mint can also be used as an insecticide to kill common pests such as wasps, hornets, and ants.

Mint Facts (sources: Mint Industry Research Council, Idaho Mint)

  • 45 percent of mint oil produced in the U.S. is used for flavoring chewing gum.
  • 45 percent used to flavor dentifrices (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc.).
  • 10 percent is used for flavor in the confectionary, pharmaceutical, liquor, and aromatherapy industries.
  • One 400-pound drum (barrel) of mint oil will flavor more than five million sticks of chewing gum.
  • One pound of mint oil will produce approximately 1,000 tubes of toothpaste or 50,000 mint candies.
  • There is about one drop of mint in a tube of toothpaste.

Want to grow some mint at home? Check out this article.

Tell us in the comments what your favorite mint product is!

~Melissa

Sources and Additional Reading

Extracting the Essence of Mint
How Your Toothpaste Gets So Minty Fresh
Mint Industry Research Council
Plant of the Month: Mint