A Day in the Life of a Veterinarian

Did you know that Americans own over 88.3 million cats and 74.8 million dogs? I think those numbers are a clear indictor that people enjoy owning pets. Farmers keep different kinds of animals and for different reasons. Meat, dairy products, eggs, leather, and fibers are all resources that are harvested from animals on the farm.

Whether you keep animals for companionship or raise livestock on a farm, at some point in their lives, your animals will need someone to take care of them.

Photo of our Border Collie pup who is now five. She “helps” with our cattle when it’s time to move them from place to place.

This is when you call the veterinarian. A veterinarian is “a person qualified to treat diseased or injured animals”. There are many different types of veterinarians.

  • Small Animal or Companion-Animal Veterinarians treat animals for wounds, diagnose illnesses, perform surgeries, administer vaccines, and prescribe medications. The majority of veterinarians are small animal vets.
  • Veterinary Specialist – Just like doctors, veterinarians can specialize in a section of veterinary medicine (dentistry, pathology, surgery) or in a particular species or group of animals (i.e. cats, dogs, poultry).
  • Food-Animal Veterinarians diagnose and treat illnesses for animals primarily on ranches and farms that are raised for human consumption.
  • Food Safety and Inspection Veterinarians may inspect livestock and animal products like eggs, dairy, and meat to ensure they meet sanitation standards. In some cases, they might need to quarantine infected animals to prevent illness from spreading to other animals and humans. Still others are involved in testing the safety of medications and additives. As you can see, these veterinarians do a lot to improve public health.
  • Research Veterinarians review past findings and techniques to work toward better methods for diagnosing, treating, and preventing health conditions. They solve both animal and human health problems. This usually requires a specialized education beyond  a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree.

But what does it take to be a veterinarian? I asked the people who take care of our cattle, the employees of Shelby Vet Clinic, what does a day look like for a veterinarian? I know their day starts pretty early so when I called at 7:00 a.m. I was not surprised to find all the vets were busy working on their small animal practice. Clients bring their pets into the office and the animals are treated there. Some animals are treated and can go home right away, however others may need to stay for a day or two, depending on their reason for seeing the vet. While the animal is there, they are cared for around the clock by dedicated employees. Dr. Clayton McGargill had a busy morning vaccinating three dogs and spaying three cats.

We have a slightly different experience on the large animal – or food animal side. If the veterinarian is planning on treating just one or two cows, calves, or even bulls, clients can load up their livestock trailer and bring them in. This would include semen testing a bull for productivity, emergency treatment of a sick calf, or even performing a cesarean on a cow who is having trouble delivering her calf. Just this morning, Dr. Clay pregnancy checked two cows right there at the clinic. He used an ultrasound device to see if the cow was pregnant and how far along in her pregnancy she might be.

Photo of a cow/calf pair. This cow is standing next to her two week old calf.

However, most of the time the veterinarian makes a visit to the farm and turns a cattle shed into their office. It may be to treat the entire herd, give a large group of calves vaccinations, or it may be to assess a large animal that would not be able to be safely transported due to illness or injury. The veterinarian comes prepared with everything they need in their work truck. They are a hospital on wheels.

I asked Dr. Clay what things he carried in his truck and he said it varies. Since each vet usually goes on two or three calls a day (sometimes as many as seven or eight) the supplies need to be restocked daily. In Shelby County there are a lot of cattle farms so that equipment is mostly what the vets carry. Calf pullers to assist in calving, syringes, and a variety of medicines are just some of the items. One interesting feature that the vet trucks have is water onboard. They can clean equipment and have hot soapy water even if they have to operate on an animal in a field.

A veterinarian has to know a lot about animals. They learn in vet school. Most vets attend four years of school, earning a bachelor’s degree and then apply for and attend vet school. This is a highly competitive process. Only about ten percent of applicants get in and then they have another four years of schooling to complete.  

“The best part of my job is the diversity. No two days are ever exactly alike,” says Dr. Clay. “I also like the seasonality of the job.”

Are there any downfalls to being a vet? “We work a lot,” says Dr. Clay. Long hours are nothing unusual for country veterinarians. The hours of operation for the Shelby County Vet Clinic are from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and one week a month each vet works on-call and is available for emergencies around the clock.

Did you have a love for animals and think of being a veterinarian when you grew up? Caring for animals is an admirable profession and one that cattle farmers, like my husband and myself, could not do without.


8 Great Spring Lessons about Animals, Plants & Seasons

Agriculture is always good topic for teaching science, but spring is probably the most popular time to include topics related to plants, animals, seed, seasons, etc. Why? Because classroom learning becomes more real and relevant when we can make connections to what is happening outside of school. Students can tell the weather is becoming warmer. They see leaves beginning to develop on trees, young calves in pastures, and tractors planting seeds in fields. These changes that happen outdoors in the spring can spark beautiful science conversations in elementary classrooms!

Below are eight of our favorite lessons and books for teaching elementary students about seasons, and plant and animal life cycles in the spring.

  1. Farm by Alishea Cooper. The farmer or farm animals are the main characters of most farm-themed books.  Not this one.  The farm itself takes center stage.  Through lyrical writing and beautiful illustrations, this books takes the reader on a journey to learn about what happens on a farm in the spring and throughout the year.
  2. Eggology. Incubating eggs is a popular spring activity in elementary classrooms. This lesson provides teachers with many ideas and resources for turning an incubating experience into a rich science learning experience. Through three engaging activities, students learn how the basic needs of a growing chick are met during incubation
  3. Hatching Eggs in Room Six. Whether you incubate eggs in your classroom or not, this book is a prefect way to introduce students to the concept of incubation. It highlights the life cycle of chickens, parts of an egg, incubation, and caring for freshly hatched chicks.
  4. From Chicken Little to Chicken Big. Chickens are a perfect animal to learn about when discussing life cycles and physical characteristics. In this lesson students identify different breeds of chickens, examine their physical characteristics and sequence the life cycle of a chicken.
  5. Animal Life Cycles, This lesson goes beyond chickens to help students learn about animal characteristics and life cycles. Students are introduced to six major livestock species, discover that all animals need air, food, water, and shelter to survive, and compare and contrast animal life cycles.
  6. Seed Germination Necklaces. Planting a seed and watching it grow is one of the simplest, but most mesmerizing things you can do with students. Unfortunately, most of the magic of seed germination happens underground where students cannot see the changes that happen as the seed swells and roots and leaves emerge from the seed. This lesson solves that problem by germinating corn and soybean seeds in a clear bag.
  7. Soybean Life Cycle Sequencing. The soybean plant is an excellent plant to use when teaching life cycles, because it has a very typical life cycle and it is grown throughout Iowa and most of the United States!  After reading My Family’s Soybean Farm by Katie Olthoff, students works as a group to sequence pictures of the soybean life cycle stages and complete a worksheet to match vocabulary introduced in the book to the stages of the soybean life cycle.
  8. Growing Plants in Science and Literature, More than Empty Pot. Students will use the story of The Empty Pot to explore literature and science, practicing story mapping and learning about the needs of plants and the importance of soil and water. Like the characters in the story, students will plant and observe the growth of seeds.


Now it’s your turn!  What is your favorite way to incorporate agriculture in into lessons in the spring?





Calving on the Farm


A day old calf…a very large, day old calf

There is something wonderful about being eye to eye with a newborn calf.  The soft, warm, eyes and long eyelashes have a profound way of looking out into the brand-new world. They are patient and accepting, even welcoming as if to say, “Well what’s gonna happen next?”

The calf has undergone quite a journey.  A cow’s gestation period is roughly the same as humans. While it may be commonly considered nine months,  anyone who has first hand experience will tell you 40 weeks is actually ten months. For the past 38 to 44 weeks (the approximate range for cattle) the mother cow has fed and protected her young as all mammals do, inside her uterus. Just like a human mother, the cow has been carrying her offspring, protecting it, nourishing it and keeping it just the right temperature as it grows insider her.  From the outside looking in, this is pretty unremarkable.  But as calving day approaches, a dramatic event is about to unfold.

A cow and nursing calf.

The first sign that a cow is calving is when she begins to “bag up” which is a way to say her udder is filling with colostrum in preparation for her calf’s first meal. As soon as this happens, the farmer will make an effort to keep this cow under observation. This can be a difficult task since most cattle will go off by themselves when their time is near.  We watch our livestock and only aid in calving assistance when it is apparent the calf will not come on its own.

After the cow’s water breaks, the calf needs to start moving through the birth canal. If this process takes too long, the calf is at risk of suffocating as it is no longer getting as much oxygen through the umbilical cord inside its mother. The umbilical cord will break shortly after birth and the cow’s body prepares for that by starting to reduce the blood flow during labor. During the spring we watch our cows, especially the young heifers, closely. We usually start intervening and assisting the cow no more than one hour after we know the water has broken. We also step in to help the cow deliver when we begin to see the hooves emerge from the cow.

“Pulling” a calf is a process where straps are applied to the calf’s feet, and then, well, we pull. First, the cow needs to be secured in a chute or by “tying her off” with a rope around a pole, tree, or even a tractor if we have to pull in a field. The process is not easy (on the cow or the farmer) so we only do this when absolutely necessary. It prevents the cow from moving and hurting the farmer or herself. Next, we fit nylon straps over the calf’s hooves and apply gentle pressure on the puller. Working with the cow, we pull when she has contractions. First come the hooves (front feet) and next the head. Once the head is out, we continue to draw out the rest of the body. Shoulders come in a gush and the midsection of the calf is exposed. Usually the hips offer the second wave of resistance, but this is a good thing. If the cow is still standing, and if the calf has inhaled any amniotic fluid this “hanging period” allows the lungs to clear out. After the hips are exposed, there is a rush of calf and fluids where the newborn drops to the ground.  Whoosh!

Mother cow cleaning off her calf

Drying off the calf is the next important job for a mother cow. She will lick the calf with her tongue to clean it and to stimulate blood flow which warms up the calf and helps it begin to move its limbs. As a calf moves around on its knobby knees and wobbly legs it is determined to stand. Standing is the only way the calf will receive the nourishment from its mother that it needs to survive. The calf has to stand to reach the cow’s udder. Slowly, the calf will need to make its way to her udder. The colostrum  is the first milk which provides antibodies to assure the health and well being of this young calf, who might be only 30 minutes old. The suckling calf will also stimulate the

“after” photo of cleaned up calf

mother to expel the placenta or “after birth”. If this does not happen on it’s own it can be very dangerous for the cow and cause infection. Again, livestock farmers watch their animals closely intervening only when necessary. Plus, removing a placenta that doesn’t get expelled is a pretty smelly job.


A Red Angus cow and calf pair.

Once “paired up”, that is the cow has accepted the calf as her own, the calf will grow quickly each day. It will learn about its new environment, and make sure to stay close to mom. “Mom”, who is a full-grown cow, can weigh around 1200 pounds depending on the breed. Because of their size, cows can be intimidating to humans – especially kids who are less than a 10th of their size. But calves are a lot smaller, and well, who doesn’t like to learn about baby animals?

My job as a farmer can be tough, but it makes my job as an educator easy. When we talk about the calves (or lambs, or chicks, or piglets), students are hooked.

And the questions pour in.

“How big is a baby calf when it is born?” The students eyes are open wide and incredulous when they hear. A newborn calf can weigh up to 70 pounds! That is bigger than two preschoolers combined!

“Does it hurt them when you put on the ear tags?” The ears of a calf are mostly cartilage without a lot of nerves. We never intend to cause our livestock pain, or any discomfort, but the little pinch of the ear tagger can assist a commercial cattle farmer in making important decisions regarding that calf. The tags play an important role in helping us identify the calves, the offspring of one cow and one bull. Decisions need to be made about to whether or not that was a successful pairing based on how well the calf is growing. We target specific traits and use genetics to determine which cows to pair with which bulls for optimal outcomes. Also, when it comes time to vaccinate, it is important to keep tack of which calves got what vaccines.

Preschool students make their own ear tags.

During my classroom visits, the students get a chance to make their own ear tags which we hang on their ears with yarn. Numbers on the right side of the tag identify the cow. Numbers on the left identify the bull, and the large number in the center of the ear tag is the order in which the calf was born on our farm. The tenth calf born in a season is tagged 10, the eleventh one born is tagged 11 and so forth.

“How does the momma cow know which calf is hers?” A mother cow can tell which calf is hers by smell and by sound. The cows can identify a calf’s cry even in a large herd. Cows and have a sense of smell that can detect scents five miles away.

“How long will a calf get to stay with its mommy?” How long the pairs stay together depends on each farmer and their particular operation. The optimal time on our farm, is 7-8 months.  We like to have our young calves weaned, that is, no longer paired with the cow, when the grass is still good, and the weather is nice.

Over the past 16 years as a farmer, I have assisted in the birth of many calves. It is quite the experience and a joy to be near another living thing during its first few minutes of life. Likewise, it is a joy to share a bit of these experiences with students and watch their curiosity grow as they learn about agriculture.


How to Keep Farm Animals Cool in the Summer

I didn’t grow up on a typical farm but we lived at the edge of town where we raised registered American Paint Horses. From the tender age of four, my summers were spent working around horses – feeding, riding, cleaning stalls and showing. Those were some hot summers spent outside! While I could go inside and cool off in the house or show trailer, our horses didn’t have that luxury. My dad taught us to work the horses in the early morning or late afternoon and make sure they had access to water. If we saw them start to sweat too much and get overheated while practicing, we’d need to stop and let them cool down.

Thinking back on those days and the work that went into us caring for our small number of horses, I never really appreciated how hard farmers work to care for their livestock. Farmers care deeply for their animals and want to keep them comfortable. Whether they’re raising cattle, pigs or chickens, there are a lot of actions farmers take to keep their animals cool in the hot summer months.

Raising Animals for Local Environments
One of the first ways farmers can keep livestock comfortable is to raise animals that are well suited for local environment conditions. Iowa weather typically changes gradually. Some animals, such as cattle, have the ability to change their coats for the type of weather – shedding leading up to the hot summer months and adding thicker coats as winter approaches. The Angus and Hereford breeds are the most common type of cattle breed in the Midwest due to several factors, including their ability to adapt well to extreme hot and cold conditions.

Indoors or Outside – Housing Matters
Where animals are located also determines their care plan. As you’re driving along the Iowa countryside you’ll likely see cattle in lots of different locations – in an open feed lot with shelter nearby or grazing in the pasture. No matter the location, farmers make sure cattle have access to water through ponds, creeks or watering systems. When no water is around, farmers bring misting tractors to the animals to cool off. If you see a farmer driving a misting tractor out to the field, you’ll likely see the cattle not far behind coming to greet them. When it’s 90+ degrees with high Iowa humidity, we all want to take a dip in cool water and farm animals are no different.Cattle_Stream_Crossing

For animals such as chickens and turkeys, they are likely housed in indoor facilities or have free range access to outside. For indoor housing, it’s important for producers to manage the environment. Chickens pant when they get hot as they don’t have sweat glands. If they’re too hot they won’t want to eat, which will impact their growth rate. Ventilation, lighting, temperature and litter condition all impact the housing environment inside, and the health of the poultry. With hot summers, producers regularly check the thermometer inside the facilities to gauge the temperature and closely follow weather forecasts to make adjustments.IMG_0016

Pigs are an animal that don’t sweat either. While they do have a few sweat glands, it’s not significant enough to keep them cool. Pigs can easily overheat if not kept cool. While most pigs are raised in modern confinement facilities with climate control, they can still overheat during extreme heat. Pork producers with large indoor facilities use fans, air inlets, sprinklers/misting systems and other tools to help manage the heat stress on their animals. For pigs primarily raised outside, farmers keep them cool by offering shade and access to water – both for drinking and laying in it. Pigs love mud and it has practical purposes for them. Mud can help cool pigs down and protect against sunburn.


Daily Check-Ins
Each day – even weekends and on holidays – farmers are focused on making sure animals are comfortable and healthy. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean a farmer can rest. They’re constantly checking on their animals to make sure they’re staying healthy, well fed and have access to water and shelter.

Keeping an Eye on Nutrition
You might be surprised to learn farmers also work with a nutritionist to ensure their animals are getting the right nutrients at the right time for optimum health. This is one way to keep the animals healthy, which will help them in extreme weather conditions. Some animals will decrease their feed intake during periods of high temperatures. Farmers counteract this by feeding them high quality, dense food.

Other Factors
Many factors need to be considered when managing animals during extreme weather conditions. In addition to raising the right breed for the environment, providing shelter and access to water, and watching diets, producers also consider actions such as transportation and handling procedures as well as timing animal reproduction activities.

Extreme heat causes significant stress for all animals. Farmers want to do what’s right for their animals while also ensuring a quality product for their customers.


Hello! My name is Melissa. I’m the new part-time administrative assistant for the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. While I didn’t grow up on a traditional farm we did raise and show registered American Paint Horses as well as registered purebred elk. Growing up, I was also actively involved in our local 4-H group.

I studied public relations and marketing in college and went on to work for several different companies in marketing communications roles. I always enjoyed opportunities to work in the ag industry the most so I’m glad to be back.



5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming

spraying corn

Farms have changed a lot in the last 50 years. Farms are bigger, livestock are usually raised inside, yields are higher, less manual labor is needed, and it’s not common to see dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, and poultry on the same farm. Why is this? The answer is simple. Technology.

Think about how much technology has improved medicine & healthcare, communications, and transportation in the last 50 years. The field of agriculture has changed just as much.

Let’s take a look at the few of the ways technology has changed farming.

1. Livestock genetics & breeding. Improving livestock breeds is not a new practice. Humans began domesticating animals more than 10,000 years ago. Early farmers selected livestock for their adaption to specific climates and bred them to improve productivity, temperament, and meat, leather, and wool quality. While the practice is not new, the technology used to improve livestock genetics and breed animals has changed dramatically in recent years.

Animal geneticists work to identify elements within genes that can enhance animal growth, health, and ability to utilize nutrients. These genetic advances can increase production while reducing environmental impacts.

It is common for beef cattle and pig farmers to purchase straws of semen from male animals with superior genetics and use artificial insemination to breed females. Embryo transfer is also gaining popularity in the dairy and beef cattle industries.


2. Crop genetics & pest management. Like livestock breeding, the idea of improving plant genetics is not new. Farmers and scientists have used plant selection and breeding techniques to improve crop yield for years. Plant breeders have worked to improve germplasm to develop seeds with the best mix of characteristics to deliver the best yield for specific soil and weather conditions.

Today, plant breeders use a mix of both traditional and modern methods to improve plants. Modern breeding methods include marker assisted breeding, which helps speed up the time it takes to to get the desired improvement, and genetic engineering (GE). GE technology can improve a plant’s insect resistance, drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and disease resistance. This technology gives farmers an additional tool to help increase crop yields.


3. Labor and mechanization. Improved farm equipment has probably had the most significant impact on how farmers raise crops and care for livestock. Tractors, planters, and combines are much larger and efficient. Livestock barns have automated feeders. Robotic milking machines milk cows. These technologies and others have enabled farmers to produce more with less labor.

4. Livestock facilities. Aside from beef cattle, livestock are usually raised inside climate-controlled barns. Farmers do this to protect them from predators, extreme weather conditions, and diseases spread by animals and people. Raising livestock inside also enables farmers to utilize technology. Many livestock barns have Wi-Fi and automated feed and climate control systems. Farmers can monitor a cow in labor or adjust the temperature in a barn from their smart phones. If the power goes out, back-up generators start and the farmer is alerted with a text. This technology enables farmers to be more efficient and better care for their animals.


5.Specialization. When my grandparents were my age, farms looked like those in children’s books. They raised a little of everything on their farm. They made a good living and fed their family off 160 acres of corn and hay, a few cows, laying hens, some pigs and my grandmother’s large garden. Over the years, their farm changed. As they invested in tractors and better livestock facilities, they concentrated their efforts to make the most of those investments. They sold much of the livestock and focused on raising pigs, corn and soybeans.

Farms today are even more specialized. If farmers raise livestock, they usually raise one type and even focus on one growth-stage. Most pig farms specialize in farrowing or finishing. Beef cattle farmers generally have cow-calf herds and focus on breeding, calving and weaning, or finishing operations where they raise weaned caves to market weight. Specializing enables farmers to acquire the facilities, technology, knowledge and skills needed to produce the chosen crop or animal, and produce it well.

Farming has changed a lot. What do you think it will look like in the future? How will advances in technology continue to allow farmers to be more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable?


Why Do They Do That? – Vaccines

Cold and flu season may be waning for the year for humans, but farmers might still give their animals vaccines. Why do they do that?

One of a farmer’s main priorities in raising animals is keeping the animals healthy. Vaccines are one of the tools that farmers use to help keep their animals healthy. First, it is important to understand the difference between vaccines and antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections AFTER an animal like a pig or a human have gotten sick. Antibiotics are chemical agents that act by killing the bacteria or preventing the bacteria from multiplying. Vaccines on the other hand are given to animals BEFORE they get sick to try and prevent infection. Vaccines use a dead or modified virus to stimulate the body’s natural defenses against infection without causing the illness itself. If after the immunization, the body is exposed to the specific virus in the future, it will recognize it and fight off the infection much more quickly and effectively.

Once an animal receives a vaccination, the immune system responds by producing antibodies that destroy the infectious agents. This stimulates immunity from contracting the disease in the future. Vaccines are typically used to fight viral diseases but can also be used to immunize against bacteria, bacterial toxins, or parasites. They are usually given to animals in the form of an injection.

IMG_5457.JPGPigs, for example, are communal animals. They love being around and interacting with each other. Modern farms raise pigs in barns and in shared pens. Each pig has a lot of close contact with all of the other pigs. If one pig gets sick, there is a high likelihood that all of the other pigs would get sick too. It is sometimes hard and costly to treat a lot of sick pigs. So preventing illness is the preferred strategy. If all pigs are vaccinated, then they are all safe. Even if one animal doesn’t get vaccinated, it should still be safe because of herd immunity.

There are several diseases that are common in pigs. Procine parvovirus, PRRS, swine fever, and swine influenza are just a couple of examples that vaccinations can help protect against. In part, farmers are trying to manage the health of their animals. But some of these diseases (like swine flu) can be transmitted to humans. Keeping the pigs healthy helps keep humans healthy.

Throughout much of human history, diseases have caused widespread deaths. Smallpox was one of the most feared. In 1774 and English farmer inoculated his wife and sons with puss from a cowpox lesion on one of his cows. The wife and sons couldn’t contract the cowpox, but it was similar enough to smallpox that their bodies developed a resistance to both diseases. This was how the idea of vaccination first started. This inoculation technique was widely used and then by 1796 Edward Jenner had success in research and experimentation with vaccinations. His techniques continued to improve and over the succeeding years were applied to other diseases.


Most piglets receive their first shots of vaccines within a week after they are born. This helps ensure they have a healthy immune system from early on. These early vaccines are for common diseases and can be easily prevented. After the first round of shots, sometimes booster shots are required to ensure the vaccine is effective. Viruses can mutate in nature. Influenza or flu viruses for example mutate very quickly. So the same vaccine might not work year after year. In cases like that, animals may need to be vaccinated with a different vaccine that year to prevent the specific strain of influenza (just like with humans).

IMG_8324.jpgJust like antibiotics, vaccines have a withdrawal period. Humans don’t want those vaccines to be in the meat. So an animal cannot be harvested within a certain time period. The vaccines will have done their job and then been naturally flushed out of the body by the time the withdrawal period has passed. Each vaccine is a little different, but withdrawal periods can be around 21 days. Vaccination is a common and safe part of the pork industry. It helps ensure the health of the individual animal and the health of the whole herd. Just like humans should be vaccinated, animals should be too!


Daylight Savings Doesn’t Matter on the Farm

Over this past weekend we “sprang forward” for daylight saving time.  Daylight savings time was adopted in the United States March 19, 1918 as an act to preserve daylight and summer-sunset-meadow-nature-442407provide a standard time for the United States. The official reason was for fuel savings. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the policy because Americans getting off work while there was still daylight meant that people could go shopping or enjoy sports and recreational activities. There is a thought that Daylight Savings was created to benefit farmers and ranchers, but the time differences do not work in favor of the farm. Farmers actually lobbied against the establishment of Daylight Savings. Most agricultural related activities are based on hours of daylight instead of clock hours. Does time change help to get more done or are the effects felt in other ways?

When the time does change I enjoy the extra sunlight in the evening, but I also feel a bit of “jet lag” because I lose an hour of sleep. My body responds by being a bit weary and sluggish until my internal clock gets adjusted. I was curious how this change affects the animals on the farm. Does it make a difference? Are there any notable stressors to livestock?

Just like I maintain a schedule, livestock have routines, too. Granted, the routine is shaped around human factors and activities – but when the routine is disrupted it can confuse the animal. The body has a circadian rhythm, that is a “body clock” that tells our bodies when to rest, sleep, eat. The circadian rhythm responds to light and darkness in our environment. Circadian rhythms are found in most living things, including plants pexels-photo-382166and animals. On a farm, dairy cows will have a regular schedule for being milked, if the farmer alters the timing to an hour later, the cows will feel the discomfort because their internal clock tells the cows that it is past time to be milked. The cows’ udders continue to produce milk and pressure builds up in a regular amount of time. The cow does not know that clocks have been adjusted and it is not time for milking. The cow needs to get used to the new schedule. It is suggested to avoid livestock issues surrounding daylight savings time to gradually adjust schedules in the days before so that animals do not have to experience an observable difference to the normal daily events.

Change in the amount of light is a signal to plants, animals and people – that days are getting longer and warmer weather is on the way. Plants need the sunlight to grow and warmer weather brings new life on the farm. Our previous post on baby animals and Spring time sheds some light on warmer temperatures and birth on the farm. Some animals like chickens are greatly affected by the number of daylight hours. That is whypexels-photo-840111 most chicken barns are lit artificially to maintain regularity in their schedules. Farmers need to be out in the field and they will be in the field until the work is done. People and animals on the farm are not guided by the clock on the wall. If it is light outside, then workers will be in the fields and cattle roaming. What matters is not the time on the clock, but the work that needs to be done in daylight hours. We may enjoy a little more sunlight on the quiet evening – but the farmers are taking advantage of a little more daylight to get the work done – so that we all can enjoy food on our tables.



Why Do They Do That? – Antibiotics

I recently was at the meat counter of a local grocery store and was noticing several prime cuts of meat. They all looked delicious. I was already imagining a slow roasted brisket for St. Patrick’s Day. But I noticed some of the cuts were labeled hormone free and antibiotic free. Sounds great! I don’t want any weird stuff in my meat. But if antibiotics in meat are such a bad thing, then why do farmers use them?

beef_cow25.jpgJust like humans, livestock sometimes get sick. When they get sick, farmers what to do whatever they can to help get them healthy again. The first step is to (if possible) separate sick animals from the rest of the herd. This helps minimize the spread of an infection or illness – especially if it is at all contagious. The second step is to call the veterinarian. Just like doctors prescribe antibiotics for sick humans, veterinarians prescribe antibiotics for sick animals. The antibiotics are administered with the supervision of the vet.

Careful records are kept, too. The farmer and the vet know exactly how much of an antibiotic was given. They keep record of the date and record of exactly which animal it was given to. Antibiotics are medicines that inhibit the growth of or destroy microorganisms – specifically harmful strains of bacteria. Eventually, after the antibiotic has targeted the harmful bacteria it will start to break down in the body and be eliminated from the animal’s system. The time that it takes for the antibiotic to break down is known as the withdrawal period. Different antibiotics will have different withdrawal times and interact a little differently in different animals and different types of tissues in the body.


Sometimes the withdrawal period is short (1-2 days), sometimes it is long (2-3 weeks). Knowing withdrawal times and keeping record of when animals were given antibiotics is important. Dairy animals cannot be milked and meat animals cannot be harvested until after they have passed the withdrawal period. Milk and meat are both tested as a safety measure to ensure there are not traces of antibiotics. Following these withdrawal periods means that none of the meat at the grocery store has antibiotics in it.

But then I noticed another label that said ‘raised without antibiotics‘. This means that the animals were never given antibiotics. Either they never got sick (always the goal anyway) or if they did get sick those animals were separated and not sold with that label. In cattle, horses and other animals, antibiotics are primarily given in a case by case scenario – only as needed.

chicken8.jpgBut poultry (chickens and turkeys) and swine (pigs) can be a little different. Poultry and swine are raised with many animals in the same building. Chickens like to flock together and pigs like each other’s company. But if one animal gets sick, there is the potential that the entire flock or herd would get sick. Farmers sometimes choose not to take this risk and add antibiotics into the animal feed so that all animals receive antibiotics. For young animals that haven’t had enough time to develop their immune system, the intent is to help keep them healthy. The use of these antibiotics are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA. But animals who have had antibiotics added to their food are still subject to the withdrawal period before they are harvested so there are no antibiotics in the meat at the butcher counter.

Antibiotics seem like they are really important for animal health. And with appropriate regulations in place and safety checks, I feel confident that there are no antibiotic residues in my meat. I think I will go ahead and get that brisket and look forward to some corned beef!


Hey, That’s Not Hay!

759-pumpkins-on-straw-bales-pvI recently saw a sign at a local store advertising hay bales for sale. I looked around and didn’t see any. There were pumpkins, potted mums, gourds, Indian corn, and baled straw— but no hay.  It took everything in me to keep from shouting out, “Hey, that’s not hay! It’s straw.”

I see this mistake often in children’s books, on crafting and decorating blogs, and at craft stores and garden centers. Calling hay straw irritates me. It’s like calling a soccer ball a volleyball or dish soap shampoo. They may look similar at first glance, but they have very different uses.

So, what is the difference between hay and straw?

First, let’s talk about the similarities. Hay and straw are both agriculture products made from plants. They are both cut and formed into big round, big square, or small square bales. But that is where their similarity ends.

The biggest difference between hay and straw is their indented use. To put it simply, hay is food for animals and straw is bedding. The cartoons below illustrate this point well, and should ingrain the difference in your mind forever.

What they are made from is extremely important, too, and explains why each serve a different purpose. Hay is made from the entire plant; leaves, stems, flowers, and sometimes immature seeds. The whole plant has a much greater nutritional value than just dried stems. Hay is cut before the seeds have matured. This keeps valuable nutrients in the stalks and makes a nutrient-rich feed for horses, cattle, and other ruminant animals.

hay in fieldThe nutrient and protein value of hay will vary depending on what plant it is made from and when it is harvested. The fiber content of hay increases as it grows, while the protein content diminishes. Most of the protein in hay is in the leaves, while the stocks are richer in fiber.

Plants grown for hay can be divided into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legumes generally have a higher protein and calcium content than grasses because they have a higher leaves to stalk ratio. Alfalfa and clover are the two most common legumes grown for hay. Grasses used for hay include rye, timothy, orchard, and fescue. Farmers specifically plant these crops to make hay, and usually get about three cuttings of hay off one field per year.

baling-straw-360x238Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of cereal grains like wheat, barley, and oats. When the seeds of these crops are harvested the stems, or stalks, are left behind. Most of the stalks’ nutrients were depleted while producing seed, leaving little nutritional value as a feed source. The stalks can, however, be baled and used for straw.

Straw makes a good, inexpensive bedding for livestock. The dry stalks absorb moisture from manure, and provide a soft, clean place for animals to rest. Straw is also commonly used as garden mulch, to help establish new grass, and for outdoor décor.

If you are shopping for straw, be sure to look for golden yellow-brown bales made of stems only.  Hay is light green and include leaves and dried flowers or seed heads.

I highly recommend checking out Lucus County’s Hay Bale Art Contest to see a creative and entertaining use of bales. This annual fall event in south central Iowa includes more than 20 giant sculptures made of bales of all shapes and sizes. My kids and I visited a few years ago, and they are still talking about it.





7 Things You Should Know about Farming and Agriculture


I begin nearly every program I lead with the same question. “What is agriculture?” I’ve heard MANY answers over the years, but the most unique and humorous response came while doing a summer program at an elementary school in Des Moines a few weeks ago. After asking “What is agriculture?” a third-grade boy raised his hand with utmost excitement and said, “It’s when you look up at the stars with a telephone!” He was thinking of a big word that starts with A, but not the one I had in mind.

While this example is funny, his understanding of agriculture was similar to most upper elementary and even older students I encounter. Other very common answers are “nature” or something involving “cultures.”

Usually someone in the group eventually says farming, but with a few follow up questions I discover that most don’t realize what farmers do, and that there are a lot of other good jobs in agriculture, besides the job of a farmer.

Early in my agriculture literacy career a teacher in an urban school district passionately told me that she wants her students to understand the knowledge and skills that it takes to work in agriculture. During the conversation she said, “Many of my students think that anyone with dirty hands is not smart. That’s just not true. My grandfather was a farmer, and he was the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

For the last 10 years, I’ve been compiling a list of what I wish people knew about farming, farmers, and agriculture in my head. I’ve finally written it down to share.

7 Things You Should Know about Farming and Agriculture

1. Agriculture is everything involved with growing plants and animals to be used for something else. This is not the definition you’ll find in the dictionary, but it is practical and accurate. It encompasses production agriculture, but also everything before and after the farm too.

Agriculture includes science, technology, and engineering. It is the genetics work used to improve the seeds and animals farmers purchase. It is the development, design, production and sales of everything farmers use – tractors, equipment, buildings, fertilizer, and more.

Agriculture includes business. It is the financial and legal aspects of acquiring land and other assets needed to farm. It is the marketing, sales and distribution of the plants and animals produced.

2. Nearly everything we eat, wear and use came from a plant or an animal raised on a farm. I always ask, but I have yet to have a student name something they eat that doesn’t come from a plant or an animal. And everything except wild caught fish, shellfish, and wild game came from a farm.

 I often have students look around their classroom and name something that comes from a farm. At first they are stumped, but once we talk about wood, cotton, and corn and soybean ingredients in industrial products they realize the list is long. Aside from metal, stone, and plastics made from petroleum, nearly everything we use includes something from a plant or animal raised on a farm.

3. Farming is a job, a way to earn money. This seems obvious, right?  Well, I discovered many years ago that students don’t always think of farming as a source of income. Many think farmers raise crops and livestock to feed their families, but that’s it. They don’t realize that they sell most or all of what they produce to earn a living. This enables them to pay their family’s bills, purchase food at the grocery store, and buy clothes at the mall, just like the rest of us.

farmchatDuring a FarmChat® program a few years ago, a 7th grade student asked the farmer where he buys stuff.  The farmer explained where he gets farm supplies – tractor parts, seed, etc. The student followed up, “No. Where do you get clothes, food, and stuff for your house?” The farmer smiled, looked down at his Under Armor sweatshirt and said, “I got this shirt at Scheels. The one not too far from your school. I shop at the same places you do.”

4. Farms today are specialized, not like most portrayed in story books. When my grandparents were my age, farms looked like those in children’s books. They raised a little of everything on their farm. They made a good living off 160 acres of crops, a few cows, laying hens, and some pigs. Add in my grandma’s large garden, and the farm produced nearly everything their family of 10 ate as well. Over the years, their farm changed. As they invested in tractors and other equipment, they focused their efforts to make the most of those investments. The same is true today. If farmers raise livestock, they usually raise one type. This enables them to acquire the facilities, technology, knowledge and skills needed to produce it, and produce it well.

5. Farming is high-tech. Farmers use iPads, laptops, drones, robots, and more. Many livestock barns have Wi-Fi, web-cams, and automated feed and climate control systems. Farmers can monitor a cow in labor or adjust the temperature in a barn from their smart phones. If the power goes out, back-up generators automatically start and the farmer is alerted with a text. This technology enables farmers to be efficient and provide precise care to their animals.inside cropped

6. Farmers are smart. They are problem solvers. They use math often. Most are tech savvy. They must have a good business sense to be successful.

70% of farmers have a higher education including a college diploma or trade/vocational certificate. Some choose an agriculture major like agronomy or animal science, but others study business, mechanics, or another area to hone particular skills that will benefit their family’s farming operation.

7. Farmers care about the land and water. Several years ago I took a group of college students taking an environmental science class to visit a cattle farm and see conservation practices first-hand. During the visit, the farmer told the students “This land isn’t mine.”  I watched the students exchange puzzled looks since he had just told them that the farm has been in his family for generations. The farmer then continued, “Well, I own it, but it’s not mine. I am borrowing it from my son. I want to pass it on to him in as good or better condition than I received it from my dad.” This statement left a lasting impression on me, as I’m sure it did the students too.

sprayingOver the 4th of July I visited my parents’ farm and took my kids, nieces, and nephews fishing in their farm pond.  As we were fishing, I looked up and saw my brother spraying herbicide in the field behind the pond.  I took a picture to try to capture the whole scene.  Although it’s hard to see the sprayer in the picture, I think it is impactful.  My brother is spraying chemicals on the field that drains into the family’s farm pond where his kids fish and swim.  Obviously, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think it was safe. Farmers use utmost caution and regard for safety when making decisions about farming practices.  After all, it affects their families too.

 Now it’s your turn.  What do you wish people knew about farming? Or what would you like to know?