Do Animals Get Sick Too?

As worries about COVID-19 (coronavirus) continue to heighten, it is important to take preventative measures to protect yourself from getting sick. Viruses, bacteria, and other diseases can affect both humans and animals like livestock. Do our livestock like cattle, pigs, and chickens get sick too? If so, how do we treat and care for those sick animals?

First, it is important to know that it is not common for diseases to jump from one species to another…but it does happen. An infectious disease that spreads from animals to humans (or vice versa) is called a zoonotic disease. For a disease to spread from one species to another it usually has to mutate or change a little to adapt itself to the new host. That is one theory on how the current coronavirus became so prevalent – it is thought that the virus came from bats and then jumped to humans when they came in contact.

Plenty of other human diseases (some of them very bad) are known to have come from animals – anthrax, bird flu, BSE, Chagas disease, Hantavirus, swine flu, leprosy, Lyme disease, rabies, West Nile fever, and Zika fever, just to name a few. With any disease –human or animal – it is the same two-fold process. First, try to prevent getting the disease. Second, if you do get the disease, try to treat it with medicine and other care.


For humans, the CDC recommends some basic hygiene practices to help prevent getting the coronavirus or any other disease. Avoid contact with sick people. Clean your hands often by washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60%–95% alcohol. Stay home and seek medical advice and avoid traveling if you are sick. 

Most of our livestock are herd animals. They like being together in close proximity with each other. This means they come in contact with each other regularly, sniffing, scratching, huddling, etc. This close proximity keeps them calm as they like interacting with each other. While farmers do a lot to keep barns, pens, and even pastures clean, there is still urine and feces that has to be dealt with (cows aren’t toilet trained). So the tactic is not to keep individual animals safe and disease-free. IMG_9305.JPGThe tactic is to keep the entire herd or flock safe and disease free. Many farmers implement biosecurity measures to protect their animals. They don’t want diseases brought in from the outside. You might have to step your shoes into a disinfecting wash before you enter a barn. You might have to change into clean clothes before you enter a barn. You might have to wear a Tyvek-type-coverall suit over your clothes and shoes. You may even have to shower, change your clothes, and wear a protective suit – all before entering a barn with livestock.

Farmers can do a number of other things too, besides just wearing clean clothing. Reducing contact with wildlife is an important one. Migratory birds that fly over could defecate on a turkey farm and potentially spread any disease that they might be carrying. So turkeys and chickens are raised in barns and under roofs to prevent that risk. Farmers can also reduce exposure to insects like flies and mosquitoes that carry diseases. No dairy barn is complete without at least one sticky-tape-fly-trap or electric bug zapper. But farmers may also have to do things like spray insecticides to control insect populations – all in an effort to keep the animals disease free. Finally, whenever new animals are brought into a barn, the barn gets cleaned thoroughly with a disinfectant.

Farmers can also try to prevent diseases in their animals with vaccines. 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.


If humans get sick, we do everything we can to treat ourselves and let our bodies fight the disease. This may mean going to the doctor, taking medications, quarantining ourselves, or just curling up with a good bowl of chicken noodle soup. (Please note: I’m not a doctor. Don’t take this as professional advice. Treat each disease individually and consult experts as appropriate. Chicken noodle soup alone will not cure you.)

For livestock, it is much the same as humans. If one animal gets sick, then farmers can remove that one animal from the rest of the herd to try and minimize the spread of the disease. Farmers check their livestock usually two or more times a day to monitor for disease and other items that may need attention. But because livestock are herd animals there is a good chance that if one gets sick they all may get sick.

woman_veterinarian.jpgThere are a number of common diseases – some serious and some less so – that need to be treated in poultry, swine, cattle, and other livestock. The animals need to be cared for to help them get back to full health. Like humans might go see a doctor, farmers will call a veterinarian to consult and help treat their animals. The veterinarian might prescribe an antibiotic or other medicine to help the animal fight the disease. Antibiotics are medicines that inhibit the growth of or destroy microorganisms – specifically harmful strains of bacteria.

Livestock will exhibit many of the same symptoms as humans when they are sick. Diarrhea, constipation, fever, coughing, and sneezing are all relatively easy to spot and recognize. Livestock with these symptoms should be cared for as quickly as possible to prevent worsening of symptoms or the spread of disease.


Historically, humans and other animals like livestock have always lived in close proximity. In many historic buildings in Europe you might see that the barn was connected directly to the house. This allowed for ease of care as the farmer could easily access and monitor their animals. But it also allowed for easy transmission of diseases.

Living close to animals has allowed for countless benefits to humans. Livestock provide muscle power, meat, milk, eggs, wool and other hair fibers, skins for clothing and industrial products, feathers for pillows, and so much more. Living without animals is almost unimaginable. So we must be good stewards of those animals. When they get us sick (or we get them sick) we must take care of them to the best of our ability.

Our animal companions can also be the key to helping us get healthy. Throughout history, smallpox was responsible for thousands of deaths. When it was discovered in the early 1800s that milkmaids were often immune from smallpox, an English doctor named Edward Jenner started studying it. The milkmaids had been infected with cowpox – a mild form of the disease – from their direct contact with cows. This infection made them immune to the much worse smallpox virus. Jenner began infecting other humans with cowpox to protect them from smallpox. Thus the smallpox vaccine was invented. Today, smallpox has been eradicated globally. 

While we don’t yet have a vaccine or cure for the human COVID-19 disease or many of the livestock diseases farmers deal with, we can practice two steps: prevent and treat. We won’t be able to eradicate all diseases. But with good advancements in human medicine and veterinary medicine, we can help keep our livestock healthy and minimize the chances of getting sick ourselves.


P.S. The Center for Food Security and Public Health offers a great, self-paced, course to learn more about zoonotic diseases. Check it out at

Fueling the Body

Conventional wisdom encourages marathon runners to fuel up by eating a lot of carbohydrates. Bodybuilders pump iron and eat a lot of extra protein in their diet. Even nursing mothers need a special diet and bloggers recommend everything from oatmeal and flax seed to brewer’s yeast and fenugreek to help produce and let down milk for the newborn.

The science is a bit mixed on each of these and doesn’t prove that they work the way proponents claim. It stands to reason that marathoners need a lot of energy. Carbohydrates convert to sugars in the body which can be used for quick energy in metabolism. Bodybuilders are trying to build muscle and so an increase of protein and amino acids to build that muscle should be beneficial. For nursing mothers, the oatmeal could provide some iron as they are often anemic with low iron levels in their blood. The flax seed can provide some healthy fatty acids and the brewer’s yeast can be a source of B-complex vitamins, protein, minerals, and chromium. The bottom line is that whether you are running a race, pumping iron, or nursing a baby you need to give your body what it needs for peak and optimal performance.

The same is true for livestock. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to keep their animals healthy and well cared for. The diets they select for their livestock are usually recommended by a veterinarian or animal nutritionist to provide optimal performance. Dairy cows need a diet that will help them produce a lot of milk. Pigs, turkeys, and beef cattle need a diet that will help them grow big and pack on muscle mass. Chickens need a diet that will help them lay eggs.

IMG_3040.JPGDairy Cattle: To keep dairy cattle healthy and producing milk, their diet should include a lot of high-quality forages and grains. The forages (think corn stalks, grasses, alfalfa) provide fiber in the diet. This can come in the form of wet forage like silage (fermented forage) or dry forage like hay. As ruminants, a healthy gut biome is important and the cattle will regurgitate that forage, chew their cud and then swallow it and continue digestion. Bacteria in their stomachs will help break down the thick plant cell walls and extract the nutrients. Grains like corn, soy, wheat, etc. can provide quick energy and carbohydrates to fuel their body. A healthy diet will then include a balance of rations to meet other nutrient requirements (different for each stage of lactation). These nutrient requirements can include added fats, vitamins, minerals, protein supplements, and salt. It can actually be quite complicated with mathematical formulas to determine the exact amounts. The human diet is quite varied and therefore it is hard for nutritional experts to say exactly what a human should eat to stay healthy. But for cows who basically eat the exact same thing every day (grasses) experts can tweak the ration and provide exactly what they need to stay healthy and produce great quality milk (and a lot of it)!

PorkFarm-101.jpgPigs: Pigs are more omnivorous, meaning they can have a more varied diet like humans. This means that farmers can have more flexibility, but it also means that the math can be more complicated. The goal is to get the pigs to grow quickly and put on lean muscle mass. Current consumer trends want to see lean cuts of pork and so the lean muscle mass is important. That lean muscle mass is largely determined by the pig’s diet. Pigs can be fed molasses, beets, cane, oats, grain, groat, peas, rye, milk, sorghum, soybeans, eggs, fish, flax, meat and bone meal, canola, barley, alfalfa, sunflower seeds, wheat, and whey. Their ration is often then supplemented with protein, meal, vitamins, and minerals. For muscle production, farmers are trying to ensure pigs get enough essential amino acids like isoleucine, lysine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. In Iowa, because it is readily available, the major feed components for a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans.

IMG_5123.JPGBeef cattle: Like dairy cattle, beef cattle need a lot of forage. But because their purpose is to produce muscle mass, like pigs, they might be supplemented with some added protein. Beef cattle will spend the majority of their life grazing grasses, as ruminants they are excellent at digesting those grasses and converting them into energy and ultimately muscle mass. While on pasture, they are provided mineral and salt lick blocks that can provide minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, and selenium. Most beef cattle are grain-finished, which means that they are transported to a feedlot where their diet is more closely regulated. Their diet still is largely forage, but farmers add in corn, soybeans, and other grains. This allows the animals to put on additional weight and even some fat which promotes marbling in the muscle which makes it taste really good when cooked. Corn and soybeans help provide the additions to their forage diet. Many cattle that are raised on pasture in the West are shipped to the Midwest to then be finished on grain. It is easier and more cost effective to ship the animals to the grain than to ship the grain to the animals.

EggFarm-076.jpgChickens: Chickens, like most animals, need a healthy mix of the basic nutrient requirements like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Their exact nutrient requirement is tailored to their age and the stage of egg laying that they are in. Corn and soybeans can provide most of the nutritional requirements for chickens. Those base ingredients can be broken down into the specific nutrients that chickens need for optimal egg production including protein, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, and threonine. Then the diet can be supplemented with vitamins and minerals like calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and chloride. Calcium is very important for producing the shells of the eggs, so this becomes a key ingredient to add to chicken feed. Human nutritionists are also looking for ways to make eggs healthier to eat. If we supplement chicken feed with lutein that lutein will end up in the eggs. Lutein can potentially help in humans with brain development and eye sight. Other additives to chicken feed could make eggs even healthier for humans to consume.

So whether you are a farmer trying to care for your livestock, a runner, a weightlifter, or a sleepless parent trying to nurse a baby, fueling the body is an important piece of the puzzle to ensure health and optimal performance. Science is making new discoveries everyday and farmers are working hard to implement best management practices to feed and care for their livestock.


How to “Look Under the Label”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the 5th Annual Women Gaining Ground Conference presented by Women, Land & Legacy. There we were, many different women with many different backgrounds. Some in attendance were married with kids still living at home, while others were single and maybe still in school. And, there were women present who were wise with lots of valuable life experience. As I looked towards the audience and began my presentation, I pointed out a commonality that we all shared – we all eat!

I don’t know about you, but I try to eat three meals a day, with a snack in-between. As mothers and grandmothers, we feed not only ourselves, but our families too. Our families are the most important thing in the world to us, so we want to feed them the best and the healthiest options we can afford. A quick glance around any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with many different messages. Grocery store aisles surround us with marketing messages including various food labels, that are trying to get our attention, capture our pocketbooks and claim that status of best and healthiest.

How marketing impacts food labeling

But what is the real story behind these labels? What do they mean? How can we sort out marketing speak from factual information that can have an impact on our health? The definition of marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” So, if food labels are marketing, what does this mean for us and how do they affect our decisions at the grocery store?

First, it’s important to recognize there are four types of food labels.

  1. Nutrition Facts labels: These are usually on the back or side of the packaging and are required by law on most packaged foods providing details of nutritional content.
  2. Health Claim labels: These describe the relationship between food and its health benefits or the reduced risk of a disease.
  3. Nutrient Content Claims labels: These are usually found on the front of the packaging and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
  4. Farm Production Style labels: These describe the type of farming practices used, or not used in producing the food.

While looking at these labels, we should ask ourselves two questions. Is this label telling me something about the product? Or, is it using marketing tactics to convince me to buy the product? In researching the topic of food labeling, these two questions have challenged me to look at grocery shopping in a new way. When I pick up an item off of the shelf I have been asking myself, “Did the label tell me about an item or did the label sell me on an item?”

Labels that ‘tell you’ identify food with an objective, measurable difference from one package or brand to another. The “No Added Sugar” label is an ideal example. This claim can be measured in grams of sugar and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.

Labels that ‘sell you’ separate foods that don’t actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing) the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.

No HFCS, Non-GMO – No Matter the Label, it’s still Marketing


If a label reads, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” what does that lead you to believe? Possibly that HFCS is bad? That you should pay more for a product that does not contain HFCS?actually no hfcs


Table sugar (typically sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose) is readily available to the cells in the body to produce energy. High fructose corn syrup is chemically very similar (usually 55% fructose and 42% glucose). So, the claim seems to be a marketing ploy. But, in general too much sugar of any kind (fructose, sucrose, glucose) in the diet is the problem, not necessarily the type of sugar.


When a product is labeled “Non-GMO” what does that lead you to believe?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when it comes to food and food labeling products in the United States. You would think GMOs have bombarded the produce section of the grocery store. You would think it is difficult to avoid GMO fruits and vegetables. But the reality is there are only ten approved varieties of GMO plants. Of those crops, only five could be found in the produce section. They are sweet corn, papaya, potatoes, squash, and the Arctic Apple. (The Arctic Apple won’t be widely available on store shelves for a few more years.


Now what about “organic”?

Are they grown differently? Are they healthier? Are they pesticide free?



actually organic

We can use an analogy to illustrate the difference between a conventional and an organic farm. If you had a tree that needed to be removed, then you would need a tool to cut it down. You could use an ax, a hand saw, a chain saw, or a larger tree cutting machine to get the job done. Each of these tools have pros and cons. Different people see different advantages and disadvantages of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is “best” for the job.

In organic farming, the farmer only gets to use a limited set of tools. In the case of our tree maybe they just use the ax or the handsaw. Conventional farming has the choice of using a lot more tools including different pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, etc. This is represented in our analogy by getting to use any or all of the four tools to cut down the tree. Farmers use different “tools” to grow crops and depending on what they use determines whether they are considered organic or conventional.

By now, I am sure you have started thinking about how food labels impact consumer choices. Consumer choices directly impact the decisions farmers make in the production of our food. To learn more about food labeling and how food is grown visit where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.


Iowa’s Native Super Fruit

Prepare to pucker up. Because this tart little treat of a blog will show you the sweet benefits of this antioxidant packed fruit grown right here in Iowa.

IMG_4057.JPGAronia berries or black chokeberries are native to the eastern U.S. and do well on plains of the Midwest and are grown throughout Iowa. They are about the size of blueberries and have a rich dark purple color. They grow in clusters or bunches, kind of like grapes. The plants are woody shrubs and will grow up to eight feet tall.

While this little berry can be sweet and full of juice, like the name chokeberry implies, it is also bitter and astringent tasting. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that when eaten creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth. The berries can be used in cooking which lessens the tannins or can be used to make wine or jam.

Why these fruits have received some notoriety over the past several years is because of their potential health benefits. There have been studies to suggest a positive impact on cancer prevention, diabetes management, organ health, blood pressure, coronary disease, and more. There has even been a study that suggests aronia could help manage obesity (the study was on rats). The key is that these little berries pack a powerful punch of all the good stuff. They are loaded with vitamin C, folate, vitamins B, and more. They also have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants present in berries.


As a specialty crop, aronia berries will probably never compete with corn and soybeans here in Iowa. But the market is growing and an increasing number of farmers are planting aronia patches. The plant is very hardy and relatively drought resistant, pest resistant, and disease resistant. It adapts well to a wide range of soil types and conditions though well-drained soil is most ideal.

Aronia work well for small scale production because they are relatively low maintenance. Mowing around the bushes helps keep the weeds down so they don’t have to compete for water, nutrients, or sunlight. They don’t require spraying, watering, or much other care after the initial planting. Because many aronia plots are small, harvest can be done by hand. As the berries grow in bunches, it is easy to strip the berries off quickly. A five gallon bucket (approximately 22 pounds of berries) can be filled in roughly an hour.

IMG_4064a.jpgAronia are one of many options offered as u-pick fruit where anyone can pick their own fruit in season. When picking, the aronia berries do stain your hands, but the color washes right off with a little soap and water. The U-Pick season is winding down but you can still find apples and some other late season fruits. Find a farm near you by using this directory: Contact the farm directly to learn what fruit is in season and what prices/fees are for picking. It is a great family activity.

For larger fields, mechanical harvest is available. It does come at a price and may cost up to $0.60 per pound of berries harvested. Berry harvesters for blueberries, raspberries, aronia, and similar berries will use tines or flappers to release the berries. The machine drives over the tops of the bushes with the flappers on each side. The berries fall into a catchment system and are carried to bins via conveyor belt. The trick of mechanical harvest is to provide enough force to remove the berry from the stem, but to be gentle enough to not bruise, crush or otherwise damage the berries. There are a couple different systems that are used for this mechanical harvest. Check out the videos and take a look at the mechanical planting system as well.

IMG_2587.JPGOne of our summer teacher professional development workshops had the opportunity to tour an aronia berry farm that was scaling up. Levi’s Indigenous Fruit Enterprises (LIFE) supplies the berries to a number of grocery stores and cooperatives in south central Iowa. Many of the aronia berries also go to make jams, jellies, and wine. The proprietor – Levi – also grows a number of native fruits like tart cherries, paw paw fruit, and others.

IMG_2631a.jpgLevi has also invested in sorting machines to help him package and sell the berries. While the berries are all relatively similar in size, the sizes can still vary. Sorting machines like this old blueberry sorter will help group like sized berries together so they can be packaged and sold accordingly. Larger berries might go whole to grocery stores and consumers. Smaller berries might get turned into jams, wine, or juice. These machines also help remove any leaves, stems, or other debris that might have been collected during harvest. Technology on farms comes in all shapes and sizes and it is technology like this sorter that help make one aspect of the job easier.

These tart little berries might not be for everyone, but adding a few to your diet could have some health benefits. And the bonus is that it is an Iowa crop! So enjoy the pucker!




Milking Cows – Why Do They Do That?

Most-Americans-eat-like-MyPlate-for-just-a-week-a-year_wrbm_large.jpgDairy is an important part of a balanced diet. It can come in the form of cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or good old fashioned milk. Dairy can be a good source of protein, but one of the main reasons it is recommended as a part of the human diet is as a source of calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. All dairy products start with milk as the base, but why do we milk cows in the first place?

Dairy products can, in theory, come from any lactating mammal. Humans regularly consume milk from goats and sheep, but most dairy products come from cow’s milk. Humans and cows have evolved alongside each other for as many as 10,000 years. Cows were valuable animals in early days of agriculture because they could pull plows or turn grinding mills. But cows also provided meat when they were butchered and their hides were turned into leather for clothing, armor, and tools. When a mother needed more milk for her baby, cow milk was an easy alternative.

Different breeds of cattle are thought to have been domesticated in Africa and Europe. Those cattle were bred over thousands of years and the ones best at producing milk were selected separately from the ones best at producing muscle. Today, breeds like Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, and Guernsey are known for their high milk production. They produce much more milk than goats and sheep and so cows are a natural choice. Because humans (particularly those with European ancestry) have been consuming dairy for so long, humans have evolved to be able to better digest milk. Not everyone has adapted, though, and that is why some people are lactose intolerant.

IMG_0072.JPGEarly farmers found that a cow starts producing a lot of milk after they have a baby calf. That calf can grow healthy and strong with that milk because it has all of the right nutrients. But eventually the calf will start eating grass. Early farmers discovered that if they keeping milking the cow after the calf has been weaned (starts eating grass) then the cow will continue producing milk. This milk could then be used for human consumption. It could be preserved into things like cheese and potentially be saved for lean times.

Dairy cows like Holsteins are bred for one purpose and that is to produce milk – approximately 6-7 gallons of it a day! Male dairy cattle are raised and sold for beef. Female dairy cattle are raised until they are about 1 year old at which time they are sexually mature. They are typically artificially inseminated and will become pregnant. It is through the process of pregnancy that their bodies start producing milk. Calves are weaned at a young age and farmers will start milking the cows and collecting the milk for human consumption.

IMG_1235.JPGFarmers have learned that a healthy, balanced diet will allow the cows to produce more milk. So they work with nutritionists to try to find the best feed ration for their cows that has the right balance of grains, roughage, vitamins, and minerals. For cows to make milk they need to drink a lot of fresh water – sometimes as much as 15 gallons or more a day. So the cows always have access to as much water as they want. Farmers have also learned that if the cows are comfortable and not stressed they will produce more milk. So farmers go to extreme lengths to make their cows comfortable and happy. They provide fans and misters in barns and outdoor areas to keep them comfortable and cool in the summer. Buildings are also heated in the winter to maintain more comfortable temperatures. Dairy cows are often provided with nice sand sleeping stalls that are comfortable for them to lay in. A lot of thought is put in to making the animals happy and comfortable.

The cows are milked two or three times a day and they easily fall into a routine. When their udder gets too full it can be somewhat uncomfortable and they usually want to get milked. Many modern dairies are highly automated and so animals can get milked at their leisure. The teats are washed with brushes and then lasers line up the cups to each teat. Gentle suction starts the milk flowing and it is then pumped to a storage tank. Cows like to get milked because they usually get a little ‘treat’ – maybe some extra feed when they are in the milking parlor. But if a cow tries to come through the milking parlor more than two or three times, automated sensors will not let that cow in. The automated milking parlors recognize which cow is in the parlor and adjust the teat cup settings to match that cow. The computer will track how much milk is let down and compare it to data from previous milkings. It is easy to quickly identify if there is anything wrong with an individual cow because milkings are usually pretty consistent.

A cow will continue to lactate and be milked for up to 10 months. During which time she is inseminated and becomes pregnant again. About two months before she is due to give birth again, milking is stopped and the cow is ‘dried off‘. This is intended to let the cow rest and be strong and healthy for the new baby. Once the new baby is born, milk is produced again and the cycle starts over.

Milk production becomes more and more efficient as farmers continue to learn to manage their animals including keeping them healthy, well fed, and comfortable. This in turn leads to cows producing a lot of great milk products for humans to enjoy. As a part of a balanced diet, why not enjoy a tall glass of milk or a summer treat like a bowl of ice cream!


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!


What’s Cookin’: Fresh Cranberry Sauce


I often take advantage of shortcuts when cooking during the holidays.  I think a pumpkin pie made with canned pumpkin puree, is just as good if not better than starting with a whole fresh pumpkin.  Cranberry sauce, on the other hand, is worth the extra effort to start with fresh cranberries.  Cranberry sauce is simple to make, you can adjust the amount of sugar to your tartness to your family’s liking, and the flavor and texture far exceeds that of any canned sauce.  With just a few ingredients and 15 minutes, it is guaranteed to be a hit on your holiday table!

Before I share the recipe, here’s the agriculture story behind the ingredients.

cranberreis2CranberriesCranberries are one of only a few fruits in the grocery store that are native to North America. Native Americans used wild cranberries long before Europeans arrived and the first thanksgiving was celebrated. They ate them fresh, dried the fruit for longer storage, and made tea out of cranberry leaves. The also used the versatile fruit to cure meats, dye fabric, and treat wounds.

You probably think of water when you picture where cranberries grow. Cranberries naturally grow in bogs and wetlands, water-soaked areas that create a transition from dry land to open water.  But cranberries do not grow directly in water. Wild cranberries naturally grow right at the edge of the water, taking advantage of the rich and acidic soil there.

Cranberries grown for juice, dried fruit, and other processed foods are wet harvested. This technique takes advantage of the fruit’s natural ability to float.  Farmers flood the bogs with water and use machines to shake the berries loose form the plants.  The floating berries are then corralled together and loaded into trucks.  Fresh cranberries, like the ones used in this recipe, are dry harvested using a mechanical picker.

sugarSugar:  Sugar you buy for baking and other sweet treats can come from two agricultural crops,  sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar beets are a root crop grown in the upper Midwest.  Sugar cane is a tall perennial grass grown in more tropical environments like Florida, Latin America, and South America.  Although the plants are very different, the process of turning juice from sugar beets and sugar cane into granulated sugar is very similar.  After the juice is extracted, it is purified, and the crystals form as the water is removed through several stages of evaporation.

lemonsLemon Juice:  Lemons are the fruit of a small evergreen tree, native to Asia. In the United States, California is the land of lemons, producing 92% of U.S. lemons!  Even though we think of lemon as summer fruit, winter and early spring is when lemons and other citrus fruits are harvested.

The juice of the lemon is about 5% to 6% citric acid, with a pH of around 2.2, giving this fruit its distinctive sour taste. Lemons are a great source of calcium, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium, minerals and antioxidants.

butterButter: Fresh whole milk from dairy farms is collected and brought to the creamery. The cream is separated from the milk and rapidly heated to a high temperature. Pasteurization removes any disease-causing bacteria and helps the butter stay fresh longer.  The cream is then churned by shaking or beating it vigorously until it thickens. The remaining liquid, appropriately called buttermilk, is removed. The clumps of butter are then washed and formed into sticks or blocks. Check out this video to see exactly how butter is made.

Fresh Cranberry Sauceingredients

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1 ¼ cup sugar

1 cup water

1 T butter

1 T lemon juice


20171122_100619Bring water and sugar to a boil in a saucepan.  Add cranberries and return to boil.  Reduce heat and bil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and butter.  Pour into a bowl, cover, and cool completely at room temperature.  Refrigerate until serving.



Break The Fast

Whether you are young or old, you have probably heard or said “Eat your breakfast- It’s the most important part of the day.” Why is it so important, and what kind of food is best 146807105_4x3to start the day with? My daughters are now grown and I still tell them how important it is to feed your body in the morning. I would say, “You have to break the fast – eat a healthy breakfast!” But as young kids, my girls didn’t want to eat breakfast. I had to be creative at times to get them to eat. It can be fun to create new and crazy things that are healthy to eat. (Like a mock pizza for breakfast – English muffin with a little pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese.)

Eating healthy food in your breakfast meal helps fuel the body. Eating foods that are rich Capturein whole grains, fiber, and protein and low in sugar helps to enhance a child’s ability to concentrate and focus for better learning in the school day. Foods high in fiber are things like apples, bananas, berries, as well as bran cereal, oats and English muffins. It is easy to link healthy food to the foods that farmers provide to us throughout the year. By adding a glass of milk, you also supply the child much needed calcium and protein. Finding foods that are nutritious and not packed full of sugar can be easier if you concentrate and try to provide something from at least three of the five food groups which consist of vegetables, fruits, grain, dairy and protein. It could be as easy as a piece of toast with peanut butter and bananas, along with a glass of milk or juice.

Teachers should watch for signs from children that come to school hungry. They might be sluggish, less alert, and have difficulty concentrating. Schools face problems of children coming to school hungry and because of this many are serving free breakfast. Some schools are serving breakfast in the classroom, so that there is no shame in not being able to afford the food. As parback to schoolents, we don’t want our kids’ grades to falter because they can’t stay focused. There is reason to believe that eating well does help performance of students. Many studies have been done and they all express the same results that those who eat breakfast perform better than those who do not.

It is important to provide kids healthy options. Sugary food is nice and sweet and spike the blood sugar levels, but then in just a couple of hours the levels fall and kids are hungry. Foods that are absorbed slower into the body provide energy that can last until lunch time. This would be the difference of a sugary bowl of cereal or a bowl of granola. Food is fuel for kids. As parents, we need make healthy choices as well as teach our children how to eat healthy. Food gives the body energy, as well as works throughout the body healing and helping bones and muscles to grow strong and healthy

Now that I am a grandma, I try to be even more fun with the breakfast options. It doesn’t have to take a long time. Many things can be prepared the night before to lessen the stress in the morning. Try prepackaging fruits and nuts into mini baggies. Prep fruit the night before for a fruit smoothie they can drink on the way to school. Go ahead, be adventurous and get your creativity going. Have fun making great things for breakfast!



Bread Making—A Form of Art & A Way To Connect Back to Agriculture

As a college student, bread making is not something most think about or have time to do on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to go to the store and pick from a wide selection of sliced breads—just as it is for any food items found in the store. In this generation, it’s easy to take for granted the convenience of a supermarket and the men and women who work to make the food we eat. This is where the gap between the consumer and the farmer begins—because we are not directly making or growing the food we eat—bread making is a prime example of this, and so I spent the weekend learning how to make bread. Here is my story and the lessons I learned along the way.cinrolls

Last week, I had a curious interest about bread making. It was interesting—earlier in the week my roommate and I were having a conversation about how much we love bread and then later on that night I was on Facebook and saw one of those quick food recipe videos—it was about making homemade bread.  It intrigued me just enough that the next day I was making my very own homemade bread.

I went to the store and got all the ingredients, and when I came back I instantly got started on the process. My favorite part of the bread making process was kneading the dough—it reminded me of kneading clay in pottery class—which is something that this process is very similar to. Kneading is an important step in the bread making process. Kneading activates the natural gluten in the wheat bread flour. Gluten is a protein that stretches; when we knead the dough, the gluten stretches and becomes more elastic. Then the yeast does its job in the process. The yeast in the bread releases carbon dioxide creating little air pockets. The air pockets are only possible because the gluten allows the bread to stretch instead of crumble and break apart. This results in a light, chewy, airy texture in the final product.

I think what shocked me the most was the amount of waiting time that went into bread making. After kneading, you must let the dough rise. Letting the dough rise gives the yeast time to metabolize some of the sugars in the flour and release carbon dioxide creating little air bubbles. Yeast is a fungus and is essential in leavened bread. The more active the yeast is, the more the bread will rise. Yeast is most active at room temperature or slightly warmer, but as the baking process starts it then kills the yeast. It takes quite a few hours to let the bread rise and even after that you must do that a couple of times to get the perfect outcome.

bitmoji- breadAs I reflected on the process, I realized that bread making, in its own unique way, is a form of art, and after going through the recipe I can begin to appreciate the process and the people who make bread on a daily basis. It’s an art in the way one kneads the dough, it’s an art in the type of bread made—bagels, dinner rolls, sourdough, rye, or whole wheat—it’s an art in how you let the dough rise, and its an art in how you shape the dough to be baked. A big part of the bread making process is a form of art that some have mastered perfectly.

As the weekend went on, I found myself really enjoying making bread and sharing it with others. After making two loafs of bread on Friday I went on to make homemade cinnamon rolls on Saturday and contemplated the process of croissants on Sunday—which is a blog for another day.

It seems crazy to think how something as simple as making bread can make us closer to our agricultural roots. But anything that takes a raw product, such as wheat and dairy, and then turns it in to something new, like bread, ice cream or yogurt, can connect us back to the industry that allows us to do this—agriculture. Now even though I enjoyed my time making bread and other bakery treats this weekend, I will probably still take the convenient route of going to the store and save making homemade bread for another time when I need to be reminded of how our food is grown.bread and me crop

Recipe for White Bread


1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

2 ¼ cups warm water

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons canola oil

6 ¼ cups all-purpose flour


 Step 1: In large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, salt, oil, and start with 3 cups of flour. Mix together and slowly add in the remaining flour to form a soft dough.

Step 2: Create a floured surface and knead dough until dough becomes smooth and elastic. Roughly knead for 5-10 minutes.

Step 3: Place in a greased bowl. Cover and let dough rise until it has doubled in size. Roughly 1.5-3 hours.

Step 4: After dough has doubled in size, punch down and divide dough in half. Shape the dough and place in a greased loaf pan. Cover and let rise again until doubled in size. Approximately 1 hour.

Step 5: Bake at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.

Step 6: Let cool and Enjoy!