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 “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.


10 Surprisingly Useful Waste Products

Think about all of the things you interact with day-to-day. Everything we use, eat, wear, and interact with originated from one of two places: a farm or the natural world. We have found out lots of cool ways to reconstruct materials that were farmed or mined into the things we recognize as final products, but we need to be aware that all of these materials originate from planet Earth.

For this reason and others, it is always a good idea to use and reuse everything we can. In agriculture, many byproducts are given important and useful purposes. Read through to learn more about a few ways agriculture saves money and resources by using byproducts!

1. Dried Distillers Grains

Iowa is the No. 1 ethanol producing state, primarily using corn. Ethanol is created by converting the starches in the corn kernel into sugars and then alcohol (ethanol). The rest of the corn kernel solids cannot be converted into ethanol, and are therefore byproducts. This material, called dried distillers grains or DDGs, is a common and very cost efficient feed source for livestock. It is a protein-dense material that can be a good addition to a balanced feed ration.

2. Sunflower Hulls

Have you ever eaten sunflowers out of the hull? Have you wondered what they did with the hull? Well, there are a few good purposes for them! They can be ground and used as a fiber or roughage source for some livestock species, they can be used to power oil mills (think sunflower oil), or they can be used for bedding for poultry or other livestock. Though they are bulky and not very cost effective to ship, this can be a great resource for various types of producers nearby sunflower facilities.


3. Potato Peels

Potatoes, like many other fruits and vegetables, get processed in many ways. This can generate a lot of what could be considered food waste — but it doesn’t all go to waste! Potato peels can be another part of a healthy feed ration for cattle or pigs as it is high in fiber.


4. Candy Seconds

You maybe remember a couple of years ago there was a big news story about a truckload of Skittles that overturned on the way to a cattle farm. This practice isn’t so out of the ordinary, and can save both the candy makers and cattle farmers money! In the particular news story that covered social media, the candy couldn’t be sold, because none of the Skittles had the trademark S. In order to recoup some of their losses, they sold it as seconds to a cattle farmer, who could use the candy as an energy source for their cattle.

When the opportunity to buy a truckload of red Skittles comes to a farmer, they will likely put in a quick call to a veterinarian or animal nutritionist to get some guidance on the correct way to balance the sugars with the other proteins, fibers, vitamins, and minerals that the animals need.

5. Produce Waste

Though many grocery stores take seconds or over-ripe fresh fruits and vegetables to food banks and shelters, sometimes food items are no longer fit for human consumption. To avoid taking these goods to a landfill, a farmer may be able to get a truckload of these items to feed their livestock. Again, a nutritionist would likely be contacted to ensure the animals get the nutrients they need.

6. Bread Store or Bakery Rejects

Similar to fruits and vegetables or even candy, many items do get donated, but others may not be fit for human consumption or sale. These items may be available in bulk for livestock feed. For example, I’ve heard one cattle rancher talk about unwrapping a truckload of snack cakes for his animals when the opportunity arose to get Hostess seconds!


7. Cotton Seed

Cotton seeds and other cotton byproducts aren’t very prevalent here in the Midwest, but they definitely are in some parts of the country! Cottonseed, cottonseed meal, and cottonseed hulls can all be parts of a healthy feed ration for cattle, according to this TAMU publication.

8. Manure

Lots of the byproducts on this list are things that livestock — particularly cattle — can eat. However, they also generate something of a byproduct that we use in agriculture! All livestock generate manure, which is a valuable organic fertilizer and is used on croplands. The manure can be tested for nutrient content along with the soil in the fields to make sure it is applied in the correct amount. Farmers may also inject the manure into the soil or incorporate it with tillage to minimize risks of the manure or nutrients being lost with erosion or volatization.

9. Livestock Byproducts

Though we generally raise livestock for meat, milk, eggs, and fiber, we can use the byproducts for a wide variety of purposes. For example, fats and tallows from animals can be used in cosmetics or adhesives. Bones and connective tissues can be used in gelatin. Hides and hair can be used for leather goods, paint brushes, hair brushes, and more. In pork production, it is said that they use everything but the oink!

10. Corn Stover

Corn stover is the term for the excess plant material that is left after the grain has been harvested. It includes the corn stalks, corn cobs, husks, and leaves. Though this can be left on the field to protect the soil and be broken down naturally, there are some other ways farmers can use it. This can be baled and used as bedding for livestock, it can be grazed by cattle as a low-quality roughage, or in some areas it can be used to create cellulosic ethanol (though this is not currently very common).


Waste is generated in lots of ways every day. However, by raising crops and livestock responsibly, agriculture can help redirect some of that waste by using it to produce more food, fuel, and fiber for us to use down the line.


How Far Apart are Crop Rows?

How far apart are crop rows? How close together are crops planted within the row? How many plants can grow in one field?

If you have wondered any of these things before, this is the blog for you!

I wish I could just say a number that was consistent across multiple factors and satisfy your quick internet search with an easy answer, but like most management decisions in agriculture, it’s not that simple!


According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, most crop rows in Iowa are between 15″ and 38″ apart. Historically, before the dawn of tractors, row width was governed by the width of your horse, which was generally around 40″. Once horses were phased out, research was done to see if row widths could be narrowed to accommodate tractor tires (30″) instead of horses. This ended up boosting yields per acre and became the standard for many years.

Today there is more research being done to see if 20″ rows or even 15″ rows could be even better. Many farmers have already latched on to the idea of narrow rows.

There are a few reasons and a few factors that could influence this decision, however. One of them is plant population. When farmers plant their field, they try to decide an ideal population for that field. Here in Iowa, with our rich soils, a corn crop may be in the ballpark of 30,000 plants per acre (PPA). For soybeans in Iowa, the population may be in the ballpark of 200,000 PPA. That population can be adjusted if the crop is planted at an ideal time versus later in the season, improved varieties, soil quality, and even seed prices.

For a frame of reference on how environment can impact plant populations, here’s a link to a discussion board on plant populations for corn in drier parts of the country. These folks are discussing what populations to plant at on “dryland” corn, which means land they don’t irrigate. Their population on these acres can be in the ballpark of 14,000; less than half of what we can plant in Iowa. While this can maximize their yield without wasting further money on seed that won’t grow adequately, they then have to worry more about weed pressures, which will be able to get more sunlight when the crops are spaced farther apart.

If a farmer is wanting to increase the plant population on their field, one of the easiest ways to do that is to add more rows to the field. The easiest way to do that is to make narrower rows. If the farmer were to try to increase the plant population significantly without doing this, the crops may get crowded within the row and may not grow ideally.

That brings up another question: how far apart are plants within the rows? This is also variable, given that we know how much plant populations differ and that for a long time, most farmers used 30″ rows. In general, plants are just a few inches apart. Below is a table from the Extension publication Guide for Iowa Corn Planting. Notice how much closer together the crops in the wider row spacings are than in the narrower rows.

Table 2, CROPR3161

From Iowa State Extension and Outreach publication, Guide for Iowa Corn Planting.

One Iowa scientist has made waves in this sector. Harry Stine with Stine Seed has led research and genetics work in high population and narrow row corn. With this work, Stine has discovered genetic traits that lend themselves well to the stress of higher populations. They claim that this paired with the practice of twin rows (two rows of a crop planted 8″ apart with a 12″ spacing to the next twin row) could boost yields to 300 bushels/acre and potentially beyond. Check out the graphic below from Great Plains Ag to see how that setup could look.

Great, so narrow rows, twin rows, and high populations sound like they could be really promising, right? So why isn’t everyone doing it? One of the biggest factors is equipment. Planters and combines aren’t extremely flexible, and farmers may have to alter their equipment, buy new, or even buy custom equipment if they wanted to try a new and different management system. Farmers also need to consider other inputs their crops need, like fertilizers and fungicides. If those costs would go up substantially, would the extra yield cover that cost? It can be hard telling, and when commodity prices are low, that can be a scary gamble.

But now that we’ve touched on the science and math portion of the blog, let’s talk about the technology and engineering to really round out our STEM areas!

We mentioned earlier that plant population is influenced by soil quality, but soil quality can vary not just field to field, but also within the field. It is now possible for farmers to use tractors and planters with precise maps so they don’t put too much seed in one area and not enough in another. That saves resources, saves money, and maximizes efficiency. How cool is that?

To see a video on how one planter works, click here.

I hope that answers some of your questions!