Why Do They Do That – Side Dressing

Throughout the growing season, farmers have to decide if and when they should apply fertilizers like nitrogen. If you’ve ever toured a farm or stopped in to the local coffee shop you might have heard farmers talking about ‘side-dressing’ their crop. What in the world are they talking about? Hint: it isn’t the latest fashion trend from Lady Gaga or that delicious ranch dressing on a Cobb salad.

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for the growth of almost all plants. It is the major nutrient needed to carry on many of the metabolic systems of the plant including photosynthesis. Most fertilizers are labeled NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), with N, or nitrogen, being the first ingredient and in the highest concentration. Corn is notoriously a nitrogen intensive crop meaning that it needs a lot of nitrogen to grow and be healthy.

Farmers might apply fertilizer (manure, synthetic, or another source) in the spring of the year before planting so that the seed and the growing plant have nutrients available throughout the growing season. This method of broadcasting fertilizer across the entire field – called top dressing – makes it available as the plants begin to grow. But nitrogen is water soluble which means it can be absorbed by water (rain) and move through the soil and potentially into our waterways. We don’t want that. And farmers don’t want to see those valuable nutrients being washed away either. Plus, the fertilizer is also available for all plants (not just the corn) and weeds might start to grow rapidly causing other problems.

So, many farmers opt to apply fertilizers at specific times throughout the growing season, right when plants need them. Plants absorb most nutrients through their roots, so it is important to get the fertilizer onto the soil. Broadcasting fertilizer by spraying onto a growing crop isn’t ideal because some of that fertilizer might hit the leaves – not the ground.

To help solve this problem, the farmer puts on his engineering hat and tries to figure out how to apply fertilizer during the growing season, directly onto the ground where the plants need it. The solution is side dressing with drop tubes. Sprayer implements are tall tractors designed to drive over the tops of plants (up to eight feet tall) without damaging those plants. Their wide booms allow for the spray to be spread over a large area. Then from each of those nozzles, a tube can be attached all the way to the ground delivering that liquid directly onto the soil. The fertilizer is applied just to the side of each plant, hence the term side-dressing. The plant needs a lot of nutrients as it tassels and produces an ear of corn, and applying extra fertilizer right before that happens could really help the plant succeed.

Nitrogen is expensive and farmers want to figure out how to apply it in the best way. By applying it when the crop needs it, there is less chance that it will be lost and therefore less can be applied. By applying nitrogen where it is needed strategically, less is needed to be spread out across the entire field and therefore less is wasted. Hoses from the boom do this and minimize or eliminate any damage to the growing plants. Using this technique, farmers can see an increase of 5 bushels per acre up to 17 bushels per acre. Y-drops on the end of each hose further directs the flow of the liquid closer to the root zone of each plant instead of just in between each row. By using Y-drops, farmers can see an additional increase of one to 8 bushels per acre.

Because the tall sprayers allow farmers to spray while the crop is growing, and the tubes allow them to apply the fertilizer to the soil near the root zone, another added benefit is that this method of fertilizer application expands the time in which the fertilizer can be applied. Growing plants are hard to manage and a rainy summer or too dry summer can impact plant growth. This side-dressing method might expand a two week window of fertilizer application to four weeks. Farmers can better manage their fertilizer applications instead of making quick decisions to stay ahead of the weather or to balance other obligations.

This video does a great job of showing how the drop tube system works for side-dressing fertilizer. The whole process can be relatively quick and efficient for both the farmer and the corn!


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.


Silage- Why Do They Do That?

Have you ever wanted to eat a fermented corn plant? No? Yeah, me neither! However, cattle have much different food preferences and diet requirements than we do, and they happen to love fermented corn plants- also known as silage. Luckily for cattle, not only does silage taste delicious to them, but it also fulfills nutrient requirements that they need in their diets. Silage provides both beef and dairy cattle with a highly nutritious, balanced diet. As ruminants, cattle need a lot of forages or roughages in their diet- feeding the whole corn plant to cattle provides them with the forages they need. In feeding livestock, two areas of focus are energy and protein (vitamins, minerals, and water are important, too). Corn silage provides cattle with protein, in the corn kernels, and energy, in the stalks and leaves of the plant.

Photo via Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

There are several different types of silage. Many different types of crops can be ensiled (made into silage) and fed to cattle, like legumes, grasses, small grain cover crops, and sorghum, but this blog will focus on corn silage. We know that silage is fermented corn, but let’s dive into how farmers make it.

First, farmers must grow corn- and not just any corn. Corn that produces high yields makes for the highest quality silage—deciding on which corn seed to plant is a decision made far before planting starts. Some seed companies have developed a hybrid seed to grow corn meant to be ensiled. Also, planting corn for silage means planting more corn seeds- the goal is to have approximately 20% more corn plants than if a farmer was growing corn normally. Then, farmers may apply herbicides to control the weeds and wait for the crop to grow.

Photo from Hay & Forage Grower

After the corn has had time to grow, it’s time to harvest. Harvesting corn for silage requires a balance of waiting for the corn to dry enough, but not waiting too long so that it dries too much to pack. Usually, when farmers harvest corn, they can’t store it above 15% moisture, so they must dry it if it’s wetter than that. When farmers harvest silage, they want the moisture to be 60-70%, so it will pack together well to ferment. Harvesting silage takes place before normal corn harvest. Farmers can use various equipment to harvest silage, but the basic concept is that the harvester takes the whole corn plant, chops it into pieces, and then deposits it into another implement, like a semi or a tractor-pulled cart.

Finally, the silage is stored to begin the fermentation process. That process can look different on different farms. The way silage is fermented can also depend on moisture rates. Let’s dive into some options.

Photo from CDC

Upright Oxygen-Limiting Silos
This option is ideal for low-moisture silage, in the 55-60% moisture range. An upright oxygen-limiting silo unloads from the bottom but gets filled from the top.

Photo from International Silo Association

Upright Stave Silos
These are the most popular type of silo. Metal bands hold the structure up and keep the silo from collapsing due to the pressure of the silage. This type of storage works best for 60-65% moisture silage.

Photo from International Silo Association

A silage bag is a popular, low-cost option for storing 60-70% moisture silage. These plastic bags hold the silage while it ferments.
Venting the bags, appropriately filling them, and avoiding rips or tears in the plastic are concerns for farmers while using this storage method.

Photo from Wieser Concrete

This type of silage storage is best for wet silage in the 65-70% moisture range. This storage facility has concrete walls on three sides. The farmer dumps the silage and then drives over it with a heavy tractor to pack it down. The farmer will cover the packed silage pile with plastic to protect the pile and tires to hold the plastic down.

What now? The silage must ferment for around three weeks. Fermentation starts when the farmer covers the silage pile or puts freshly chopped silage in the silo. That creates an anaerobic environment (no oxygen) for the silage. Next, the microorganisms in the silage perform an exchange by consuming the sugars and some carbohydrates in the silage and producing organic acids. These acids lower the silage’s pH, which preserves the remaining silage.

Photo from Farmer’s Weekly

After the silage has fermented for around three weeks, it is ready for consumption. The silage has a very distinct, sweet smell when it is done fermenting, and the cattle love it!


American Agriculture

From sea to shining see, agriculture is the backbone of this country. Blueberries from Maine, cotton from Texas, and soybeans from Illinois, all provide value to feed, clothe, and fuel our country.

Iowa is the top producing state of corn, soybeans, pigs ,and eggs. Iowa also produces a lot of beef and other commodities. Agricultural products sold in Iowa bring in about $29 billion annually. Only California sells more agricultural goods than Iowa.

One in five Iowans works in agriculture. Agriculture is not only farming. People who work in agriculture might research new plant varieties, engineer tractors, or work in food processing. There are more than 300 careers and about 60,000 U.S. job openings each year in agriculture.

The rich, fertile soils of Iowa drew settlers to the state in the mid-1800s. These early grain farmers needed markets to sell their crops. Brothers John and Robert Stuart founded the Quaker Oats company in Cedar Rapids to buy local cereal grains and turn them into a variety of products for people on the east coast. Railroads were also built to send cattle from the grasslands to the slaughterhouses of Chicago. With these businesses, railroads, and jobs came more people.

Iowa agriculture has made an impact globally as well. A typhoon that hit Japan in 1959 killed a lot of livestock there. Iowa flew 35 pigs to Japan to help repopulate their herds. Many of the pigs in Japan today have lineage that can be traced back to Iowa. These good relationships means that Iowa has trading partners to buy the products that we grow. High demand for these products ensures good prices for farmers.

This history of being a leader in agricultural production carries a weight of stewardship. Farmers need and want to have high quality soil to grow their crops. Farmers practice techniques like cover crops and no-till farming to ensure soil health. Manure from livestock is returned to the fields where it can add nutrients and build organic matter.

The 30.5 million acres in Iowa used for growing crops and raising livestock are truly our most valuable resource and help Iowa be a leader in American agriculture.


On-Farm Storage – Why Do They Do That?

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Iowa had enough storage for 3.6 billion bushels of grain. 2.1 billion of those bushels were stored in what is called “on-farm storage.” That means farmers are drying and storing the grain they


Photo by John Lambeth from Pexels

harvest in personal storage bins, not at a co-op. You can read about co-op storage here. You might be wondering what the difference is, or why farmers would want their own storage. Good questions!

Personal grain storage is different than a grain elevator or co-op in several ways. First of all, location. An ideal location for a grain elevator would be in a rural area with a lot of farmland very close so that farmers don’t need to haul freshly-harvested grain many miles to get it dried and stored. An ideal elevator is also located near a railroad or waterway, like the Mississippi River, so the transport of grain from the elevator could happen efficiently, rather than having to haul the grain again.

Location is also very important to farmers when they decide to build on-farm grain storage. In order to use their on-farm storage most efficiently, they need to build in an area that is close to several of the fields they farm, if possible. Smaller grain storage facilities could be used for just one or two fields, but many modern grain storage facilities are being built to hold several fields worth of grain. Building in close proximity to several of their fields allows farmers to save time during harvest. During harvest, a combine usually dumps grain into a grain cart, which then dumps it into a semi to take to a grain storage facility. If the semi is having to haul grain a distance, it can slow down the process if the combine and grain cart are both full before the semi can get back.

Farmers build their own on-farm grain storage for several reasons; this blog post will highlight three of them.


This is the big one! Marketing is incredibly important to farmers, as it can allow them to get higher prices for their crops. Instead of hauling the grain into the elevator or co-op right away, farmers can choose to wait to sell their grain if they think they can get a higher price later on. “You can delay sales three to six months into the future and be paid well for your patience ($0.20 – $0.40 per bushel)”- Hertz Blog. This gives farmers the opportunity to make more money each year for their crop, if they market it well. For more information on how farmers market their crops, check this blog out.


On our family farm, our large on-farm grain storage site is three miles or less from the majority of our fields. That is four miles closer than the nearest co-op, and that distance IMG_2056does make a difference in how fast we are able to harvest. There’s never a line at our on-farm storage site of other trucks trying to deliver corn. Our site also does not close down at a certain time. Co-ops are not always staffed to operate the facilities all night, but many farmers need to work late into the night to get all of their crops in, especially during years when harvesting conditions haven’t been ideal. It can sometimes feel like a race to get a crop in before snow comes, especially in Iowa when severe weather often happens very unexpectedly! By using on-farm storage, the race to get a crop in can be lessened.


When corn is ready to be harvested, it has 15-25% moisture. If the moisture is more than 15%, it must be dried before it can be stored. That is where a corn dryer comes in. This is essential for grain storage if a farmer is harvesting corn that is even a little bit wet, as wet corn can get moldy when stored. Co-ops have grain dryers, but if a farmer is using on-farm storage, it is cheaper for farmers to dry their own corn. There are many different kinds of grain dryers, but an estimate of an initial cost for one would be around $100,000. Prices can definitely go up from there. The initial investment is a significant one, but when used over many years, the return on investment (ROI) proves it to be a worthy investment. The other option that farmers have is drying their corn at a co-op before storing it there. This costs more for farmers, but comes with the convenience of not having to buy a corn dryer. Here is a comparison of on-farm drying vs commercial drying.

On-farm storage allows for the United States to produce more corn than we use here. We are able to use corn that is stored across the country to export to other countries. According to the National Corn Grower’s website, “Exports are responsible for 33 percent of U.S. corn farmers’ income. More than 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop is exported annually when accounting for corn and value-added products like ethanol and distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS).” If we did not have on-farm storage, the corn crop would not be able to be stored and exported throughout the year without significant changes in our co-ops.

Unfortunately, on August 10, 2020, Iowa lost a significant amount of grain storage in the IMG_2057derecho. Straight line winds, some reaching estimated speeds of 140 mph, crumpled many bins. Co-ops and on-farm storage units both suffered in the storm. Corn was also flattened in the storm. The USDA’s Risk Management Agency estimated that 8.2 million acres of corn were impacted by the storm. Some of that corn will not be able to be harvested, so the demand for grain storage may go down some. Many farmers will be turning to alternative methods to get their crops out of the fields and try to make some money, and Iowa grain storage construction companies will be busier than ever before. No matter what, it will be important for farmers to rebuild their on-farm storage grain bins as quickly as possible to be ready for next year’s harvest.


Grazing Cover Crops- Sheepin’ it Real

Seeing livestock eating in a cornfield in the middle of July is enough to cause most farmers at least a slight amount of panic. Animals can do serious damage to a cornfield, and finding them and getting them out of the cornfield and back into their barn or pasture can often involve every neighbor, the sheriff, and random people stopping to block the roads to avoid accidents. Just last week, my family was called to help a neighbor who had some cows out. However, if you find yourself driving the gravel roads near New Providence, Iowa, this summer, you can be assured that the sheep you may see in one Iowa farmer’s cornfield are supposed to be there!

Landon Brown, a fourth-generation farmer, is exploring the world of sustainable agriculture this year. In late April, like many Iowa farmers, he planted hybrid seed corn on his land. However, unlike some other farmers, he planted his corn in 60″ rows, meaning that each row is 60 inches apart. Most farmers in his area planted their corn 30 inches apart. Three weeks later, in mid-May, Brown planted cover crop seed between the cornrows, which was comprised of nine different types of over crops, with the majority being Dwarf Essex Rapeseed. Finally, in mid-June, he went to a sale barn and purchased eight sheep and released them into the corn and cover crop field.

Brown's sheep
Brown’s Katahdin Sheep

Corn is known as a “cash crop,” meaning that farmers grow it to sell and make a profit. It would seem that sheep could do a fair amount of damage to two acres of corn, even in just a few months, resulting in no profit for the farmer. However, these sheep don’t want to eat the corn. They much prefer the luscious cover crop mix of forages that cover the ground between rows of corn. They do munch on the bottom leaves of the corn but leave the majority of the cash crop alone.

Why plant cover crops and go through the trouble of putting up a fence, providing a water source, and buying sheep? The answer is simple: sustainability. It’s been a buzz word for years, and no one can really seem to provide a broad enough, yet specific enough definition. (I took a class this spring that spent weeks trying to nail down a definition). This simple definition came from dictionary.com: “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Cover crops are one way that farmers are actively working to help make agriculture more sustainable. Cover crops can help reduce soil erosion, they increase the biodiversity of plants, and they provide nutrients for the soil. All of these benefits help protect the land and will preserve it for future farmers. Cereal rye is the most common Iowa cover crop, but you can also find wheat, radishes, turnips, oats, and several other varieties across the state. Find more benefits of cover crops here: 6 Reasons Farmers Use Cover Crops.

lan's crop
A recent picture of an area of grazed cover crops.

As for Brown’s sheep, they are content to graze the cover crops. He purposefully purchased Katahdin sheep, which differ from most sheep in their coat. Katahdin sheep have coats made of hair, so they don’t need to be sheared, like those with wool. They are known for being hardy, low-maintenance animals. Brown said that he hopes to attend a sale this weekend and get eight more sheep, as the cover crop provides enough forage to sustain a 16-head herd.

sheep& crop
Sheep grazing the cover crop

The sheep will continue to eat the cover crop until it’s time to harvest the corn. Harvest will happen in the fall, and after harvest, they will be released back to the field to graze until the first frost, which will kill off the remaining cover crop plants. The sheep will then go to the sale barn.

However, selling the sheep isn’t the end of Brown’s mission to practice sustainable agriculture. He already practices no-till farming, meaning that he doesn’t do any tillage in his fields, which is done to help prevent soil runoff. Next year, he’s planning on planting some fields with relay cropping. Relay cropping means planting one crop into another before harvest. Brown is planning on planting wheat or cereal rye first and then planting soybeans before harvesting the first crop. Relay cropping adds to sustainability efforts by decreasing nitrogen leaching and increasing carbon sequestration. (Relay Cropping). He also hopes to add more sheep and graze more acres of cover crops next year, providing that this year goes well. According to Brown’s Twitter account, he is #AlwaysLearning, and he said that his inspiration for this idea came from a book that his father was reading about farming in the past, and from hearing from Loran Steinlage, another no-till practicing Iowa farmer. (@FLOLOfarms on Twitter).

Brown’s cover crop

Iowa farmers are continually learning and evolving their current farming practices to care for the environment and grow more.


Unique Farming Challenges – Armadillos?

Agriculture and the nature of farming is rarely easy sailing. Numerous challenges come up each day and throughout the growing season. A lot of success depends on the weather, picking the right products for a particular field, applying support products to a field at the best time, and controlling insects and other pests, among other factors. While the challenges may seem routine over time, some farmers in certain areas of the world do encounter unique situations.

Imagine you’re a scientist working at an agriculture company and another department leader comes to you with a unique pest problem – specifically armadillos.

That’s right…armadillos.

giant armadillo

Image source: Zoo Chat

This is an actual challenge that faced scientists in South America.

Growing products in South America
Just like in Iowa, corn and soybeans are grown in South American countries like Brazil and Argentina. They plant their fields much like farmers in Iowa do. They first start to prepare the field – tilling the soil, applying fertilizers, spraying for weeds or any combination of those practices. Farmers will use their planting machines to plant organized rows of seeds on each acre of land. These machines are typically large tractors.


Soybean Field in Iowa

As the plants begin to grow, agronomists will walk the fields to check on the plants and see how they’re growing. Agronomists can help farmers identify issues such as nutrient deficiencies, insect and weed problems, among others.

Both tractors and people, like the agronomists, travel over the fields in an orderly fashion due to how the field is planted in rows. But what could happen if an animal who wanders aimlessly is also in the field?

The challenge of working with armadillos
Armadillos dig holes wherever they go searching for insects to eat. Underneath those small holes are likely large burrows. The challenge that’s happening is that tractors have fallen into these holes and people have twisted their ankles by stepping in the holes.

Agriculture companies have brainstormed and researched this challenge. Ideas like ‘what if you put up flags in the field whenever you see a hole?’ or ‘can we put up fences to keep the armadillos out?’ Many different scenarios have been researched and discussed. After discussing options the scientists decided they need to learn more about armadillos.

Facts about armadillos
After much discussion, the scientists needed to learn about the armadillo. Luckily, they had a zoologist on their team. A zoologist is someone who studies animals and their behavior, particularly their interactions with ecosystems. The scientists learned a few things about armadillos from the zoologist.

  • Did you know there are 20 species of armadillos? They are in the same family of animal as anteaters and sloths.
  • There are five specific types of armadillos in the region of South America where this challenge occurred. The armadillo species are the greater naked-tailed armadillo, nine-banded armadillo, six-banded armadillo, three-banded armadillo, and the giant armadillo. These are not all small armadillos. For example, the giant armadillo can weigh up to 73 lbs. and be as long as three feet (not including the tail).
  • Some of these armadillos are considered vulnerable species and cannot be harmed.

Farmers in Iowa might encounter animals that also dig in their fields but not quite like a three-foot-long armadillo!

So, what did the scientists do? You’ll have to watch the video to find out!

Want to challenge your classroom to solve the armadillo challenge?
The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has created a free lesson plan for middle school classrooms on this very topic. The lesson plan is tied to six standards in the Iowa Core Standards list. View this topic and the free lesson plan on our website. All the resources you need are included in this lesson plan.

Happy armadillo wrangling!

What’s a challenge that you’ve experienced farming or have heard someone else has experienced in farming? Want another challenge? Check out a few of the videos below to see how bees and honey are helping to save elephants in Africa, thereby helping farmers protect their crops.



Science 101: Roots

Roots. They are the hidden heroes of plants. We rarely see them, but they provide the foundation from which all plants grow. Without them, we would not have fruits, vegetables, grains, wood products or beautiful flowers to enjoy.

Roots have two primary functions. They collect water and nutrients, and they provide anchorage and support for the plant. Both of these functions are essential. Plants cannot grow and produce flowers and fruit without water and nutrients, and plants would blow away without being anchored in the ground by roots.

The shape, size, and structure of roots vary greatly from species to species, but they are generally categorized into two main types – fibrous and taproot. Most dicots, or broad-leaf plants have a taproot system, and most monocots, like corn, wheat, asparagus, and rice have a fibrous root system.

Credit: United Soybean Board

Plants with taproots have a thick, main root that grows deep into the soil and smaller lateral roots growing from it. Some plants, like radish, have relatively shallow taproots with very small lateral roots. Others have a very deep primary root and an extensive system of lateral roots growing from it. The taproot system of soybeans, for example, can reach 6 feet deep with lateral roots that spread 1-2 feet wide in favorable conditions.

Some plants, like carrots, parsnips, and beets, have an extra thick taproot that hold large quantities of nutrients. These enlarged roots store extra sugars and other carbohydrates for the plant and provide a valuable food crop for us!

In contrast, a fibrous root system is usually formed by a network of thin, branching roots of about equal diameter. Plants with fibrous root systems often form a mat of roots underground. While they do not have a large taproot as an anchor, their many small roots firmly secure them in the ground.

Plants with shallow fibrous roots, like grasses, are also great at stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion. This makes them a good choice for cover crops, terraces, buffer strips, and other conservation practices.

Not all fibrous root systems are shallow. Corn roots, for example, often grow three to five feet deep. Some have even been found extending more than 10 feet!

Roots grow from their tips and are thin at first. New and rapidly growing portions of a root system are the most permeable and have the greatest ability to absorb water and nutrients. These thin roots are often covered with even smaller roots called root hairs. They may be small, but root hairs are numerous and mighty! Their large surface area to volume ratio makes them very efficient in absorbing minerals and water.

A common feature of almost all root systems is mycorrhizae, a symbiotic relationship that forms between fungi and plants. Plant roots secrete compounds that interact with microorganisms in the soil. In exchange for a bit of sugar, the fungus helps the roots pull in more nutrients and water than the plant could on its own. Mycorrhizal fungi occur naturally in soil and can be added as a seed treatment before planting.

Roots are influenced by the soil in which they live and are good indicators of soil health If the soil is compact, is low in nutrients or water, includes high populations of root pathogens, or has other problems, plants will not develop a healthy root system. On the other hand, roots also benefit the soil in which they grow. Roots help keep soil in place, add organic matter, and feed beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Healthy plants are essential for good crop yields…and healthy plants have healthy roots.

– Cindy

Science 101: Plant Classification

Plants are pretty amazing. They provide us with oxygen, food, fiber, and medicine. They grow in all regions of the world. Each species has leaves, stems, flowers, roots, fruit and seeds adapted to its habitat. These specialized plant parts ensure they can acquire their basic needs, protect themselves against predators, and reproduce.

In future posts, we will explore the function, specialized features, and agricultural importance of each of the basic parts of plants – roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit. But before I dive into these topics, we need to take a step back and review some terminology – particularly in regard to how plants are classified.

Do you remember learning about Carl Linnaeus in high school biology? Linneaus is known as the father of taxonomy – a system for organizing the natural world. He brought order and structure into the previously chaotic realm of naming plants and animals. His system was based on morphology, a fancy word for grouping organisms based on their physical form and structure.

Today’s taxonomic system includes three domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. The Eukarya domain is divided into four kingdoms: Animalia (animals), Plantae (plants), Protista (slime molds, algae, and protozoans), and Fungi. Each kingdom is further divided into phyla (also called divisions), classes, orders, families, genera, and species. My biology teacher taught us to remember the order of classification with this mnemonic device: Did King Phillip Come Over For Good Soup?

Using corn as an example, the chart above illustrates how groups become smaller as you move down classification levels from domain to species. Two plants within the same group have more in common and are more closely related than they are to plants in another group. Just like humans are more closely related to gorillas and chimpanzees than other mammals.

Taxonomic classification is not just useful for plant identification. Understanding the common characteristics of plants within a group helps plant breeders, chemists, and others improve agricultural practices. For example, herbicides have been developed to kill broad-leaf weeds (dicots), without harming monocot crops like corn, wheat, and rice.

Since plants within the same family have similar roots, reproductive structures, or other characteristics, they tend to have similar growth characteristics, nutritional needs, and pests. Knowing this, farmers often rotate crops from different plant families to interrupt pest life cycles and reduce yield loss.

If this piqued your interest, be sure to check out our other Science 101 posts and subscribe so you don’t miss future posts.

– Cindy

Science 101: Pollination

The goal of every living organism, including plants, is to create offspring for the next generation. Flowering plants reproduce by seed, and to produce seed, pollination must occur.

So, what is pollination?  It is the transfer of pollen from the male flower part of the plant, the stamen, to the female part of the plant, the pistil.  Both of these parts are contained in flowers, sometimes the same flowers and sometimes different flowers.  I’ll go into more detail about types of flowers and their parts in a future blog post.

Most plants rely on wind or pollinators to transfer pollen, but some plants can pollinate themselves.

Soybean plants are self-pollinated. This means that pollen produced within a flower fertilizes the ovary of the same flower on the same plant. Because soybeans plants do not need to attract pollinators, their flowers are not showy. Soybean flowers are hidden under the leaves near the plant’s main stem. Each flower is only about the size of your pinky fingernail, but there can be 50 to 75 flowers on one plant.  Other self-pollinating crops include lima beans, green beans, peas, and peanuts.

Corn and other cereal grains, including wheat and rice, are pollinated by wind.  Corn plants have two types of flowers.  The ear is the female flower. The tassel at the top of the corn plant is the male flower. Wind carries pollen from the tassel to the silks at the end of each immature ear. Pollen grains attach to the sticky end of each silk, and travel down the silks to fertilize each ovary. After pollination, the ovary develops into a kernel of corn at the other end of each strand of silk.

Wind pollinated plants usually have long stamens and pistils with small or no petals. They also have very lightweight and smooth pollen that is easily carried by the wind from one plant to another.

Approximately 35 percent of the food and fiber crops grown throughout the world depend upon pollinators for reproduction. While bees are the most well-known, moths, butterflies, beetles, ants, bats, and hummingbirds are also pollinators. In fact, there are more than 200,000 different species of pollinators, and 1,000 of those are small birds and mammals.

Plants that rely on pollinators tend to have showy or fragrant flowers to lure insects, birds and other pollinators to them.  Food, in the form of energy-rich nectar and/or protein-rich pollen, also entices pollinators to visit flowers. Pollen grains stick to the pollinator’s body and hitchhike a ride to another flower. There, the pollen comes off on the top of the pistil and pollination occurs.

Our world is filled with flowers of many shapes, sizes, and colors, thanks to the many ways that flowers are pollinated.