A Day in the Life of an Animal Nutritionist

If it moos, oinks, bleats, or clucks it probably lives on a farm. And these farm animals eat a variety of different things. So how does a farmer know what to feed each animal? How do they decided what amounts to feed them? Does an animal’s diet change throughout the animal’s life? Just like humans need different types of food, and in different amounts, so do animals.

To help answer these questions I contacted an animal nutritionist. He specializes in animal nutrition and is especially concerned with the dietary needs of livestock animals.

Role of an Animal Nutritionist

Stewart Galloway is a field nutritionist with Hubbard Feeds. He helps farmers, salespeople, and dealers understand and use the right products when feeding their livestock.

Animal nutritionists can help farmers in many ways, and have different career paths open to them. Some animal nutritionists work for a company that creates animal feed. Their work may include working with numbers, collecting and reviewing lots of research data, and developing nutrition profiles for various animals at different stages of their life. Other animal nutritionists may work as an independent consultant where they interact directly with the farmer customers. This type of role offers lots of flexibility and sometimes travel. Stewart visits livestock producers from Kansas to Pennsylvania. Over time, this industry has become 100% specialized which means there are not many general nutritionists.

Stewart says that working with farmers is the best part of his job because he gets to help them solve problems. There are a great number of details that go into creating the perfect recipe for livestock. He uses technology to help people meet four specific goals: increase profit, improve competitive advantage, decrease risk, and make their lives easier.

Day in the Life of an Animal Nutritionist

Each day, Stewart is problem solving for his farmer customers. Stewart says in his job, “you need to be a person who likes working with a variety of people.”

Some of his duties that he might perform each day include:

  • Formulating diets – Just like you use a recipe to make a food dish, it’s important to get the right ingredients, weights, and mix the right amounts for animal feed. Each animal has varied nutritional needs so an animal nutritionist reviews the food labels and measures the right amount of each ingredient for specific animal types. Food labels contain the amounts of calories, fat, protein, sugar, vitamins, and sugars.
  • Teaching in front of groups of farmers and completing dealer training.
  • Writing articles for various communications media such as extension publications, email, and print trade magazines.
  • Developing decision making tools spreadsheets and dashboards for producers.
  • Creating educational webinars that can be viewed by producers across the country.
  • Conducting meetings with farmers to set goals or check in on their farm animals’ progress, and making feed adjustments as needed.

He says it really helps to be proactive and evaluate any feeding plans a livestock owner has in place. “Animals have a perfect opportunity for good health and nutrition because they don’t have the bad eating habits that some humans do,” he said. One great thing about feeding livestock is animal nutritionists can determine scientifically what animals should eat and predict how they should grow. Stewart mentioned that the genetics in animals now are so good, “we can’t get enough nutrition into them to make them grow as fast as they are capable.”

One surprising thing I learned about Stewart’s job is that he spends little time with the animals. He works with a team of specialists who are actually in the barns. This is not just due to COVID, however. For many years the hog industry has been concerned with biosecurity, and not been able to allow many people to visit in and out of the barns. One of the best ways farmers can keep their animals healthy is by practicing good biosecurity procedures. For more information on biosecurity and its importance, view one of our past blog posts on the topic.

What Kind of Education is Needed?

While in school, Stewart decided he liked animals more than plants, so he went to Iowa State University for Agriculture Studies and gained a diverse agriculture background. After obtaining a master’s degree and a PhD, he went to work in the feed industry. While a master’s degree or Ph.D. is not an absolute requirement, it is more common for individuals in this career field to pursue graduate degrees. A graduate degree is usually required to work in research positions or to secure management or other upper-level roles. Many aspiring animal nutritionists pursue graduate veterinary degrees so they can care for animals in all aspects of their health and nutrition.

If you want more information on what different animals eat, check out this blog Fueling the Body. You will learn what different kinds of fuel people and farm animals need to be healthy and productive.


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!


The Big Picture of Iowa’s Pork Production Cycle

Iowans are known for a lot of things. Kindness, die-hard loyalty to sports teams (go Cyclones!), and using the word “ope” instead of “excuse me”. However, there’s one more thing that Iowa is really, really good at: raising pigs. Iowa is the number one producer of pigs in the United States and in today’s post we are going to dive into the reasons Iowa can produce so many. The reason is all in one word- sustainability. Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Iowa’s pork production is very sustainable, as we have the ability to uphold high levels of production, and have for a while now. The reason behind this is that pork production in Iowa is a circular cycle. Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, not only do we grow the pigs in Iowa, we also grow their food right here in Iowa. Pigs require a diet with two major components, corn for energy and soybeans for protein. Iowa ranks number one in corn production, and either number one or two for soybean production (that title alternates with our neighbors directly to the east).


Iowa is the #1 producer of pork in the U.S.

According to the USDA, in 2018, Iowa farmers harvested over 13 million acres of corn and nearly 9.9 million acres of soybeans. Pigs eating the crops we grow creates a cycle, which is part of the overall sustainability circle. Pigs provide a market for the crops, and crops are grown to provide food for the pigs.

Why do we grow the crops here? I’m glad you asked! Iowa is the perfect place for crop production of corn and soybeans due to our rich black soil, our climate, and the manure that we get from our livestock, which includes – you guessed it- pigs! Iowa’s topsoil is some of the best in the country- in fact, it is known as “Iowa’s black gold”! Our climate provides the temperatures and moisture that crops need during the growing season.

Now let’s get down to the matter of manure. This topic is an incredibly vital part of our sustainability cycle of pork production in Iowa. According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, around 25% of Iowa’s cropland is fertilized by livestock manure. If you’ve ever driven by a farm and it smells particularly potent (manure-y), or seen a large tank with disks being pulled behind a tractor across a field, you’ve witnessed the pork production sustainability cycle in person.


Manure Spreader

 Manure can provide many benefits to cropland, including important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – the trio is often referred to as NPK – and it is very valuable to crop production. Manure can provide these elements for Iowa’s cropland, and the process through which it gets from barn to field is part of what makes Iowa’s pork production so special. The manure is pumped out of the pit underneath the barns into the big tanks. Then the farmer can take the manure and spread it in nearby land. The proximity of cropland and barns creates an easy access to spread good fertilizer on farmers’ fields. Farmers don’t like to haul manure long distances, and so being able to have the manure as close as possible to their land is important. This is a large consideration when farmers consider putting up new hog barns, and when they consider buying new farmland. 

Manure creates the ability to produce crops for a lower price, because farmers don’t need to purchase as much fertilizer. In turn, this preparesGray Bubble Cycle Diagram Chart the ground to grow corn and soybeans which will be fed to our pigs.  

Iowa is known for our pork production, and there’s a reason. The sustainability process of producing pork is incredible and allows us to produce the most in the country. Pork production benefits our economy, it allows us to provide more food, and it gives manure a great purpose!



Hello everyone! My name is Ellie Cook and I am the new Education Programs intern with Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. I am from a family farm in Hubbard, Iowa, where we raise corn, soybeans, pigs, and cattle. I’m currently attending Iowa State University, where I major in Agriculture Communications. I’m very excited to be with IALF!


What the World Eats

Each year, you see common or familiar posts that you may have seen before flying around social media about different themes. Whenever I see the ‘What the World Eats’ post I’m always so curious about what other parts of the world eat. Even what people eat in different parts of our own country is fascinating.

People from around the world eat many different types of food. The food people eat is often determined by what can be grown or raised near them. Different types of crops and livestock have been domesticated and raised around the world. Types of food are also determined by local culture.

close up photo of sushi served on table

For example, Japan is an island country surrounded by ocean. People in Japan rely on fishermen and the sea to produce a lot of their food. Many of their dishes include fish and seaweed – like sushi for instance.

People in Italy are known for being very healthy because of the food they eat. Olives grow throughout Italy. Many Italians cook with olive tomato salad with olive oiloil which is considered to be good for heart health. The Italian or Mediterranean diet is also full of fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains.

Many cultures around the world eat rice and beans at almost every meal. Rice is a valuable source of energy. Beans are rich in protein.

The American diet is considerably different with more fat, sugar, meat, and dairy. The average American consumes 3,641 calories every day. Thirty-seven percent is from sugar and fat. Worldwide daily calorie intake is 2,870. Half of that is calories from grains.

For a closer look at what everyone eats, you can read a book titled Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. They traveled the world to document hungry planetwhat we all eat. Their book showcases meals in 24 countries. The portraits from their book were also exhibited by the Nobel Peace Center to give patrons a glimpse into kitchens from Norway to Kuwait and China to Mexico. The book also gives insights into the environment, cost and calories of dinners around the world.

Curious how our diets have changed over the last few decades? The National Geographic created a series of graphs and charts that show you how things have changed over time. You can select different regions to see how consumption patterns have changed in the last 50 years.

If you’d like a closer look at the Hungry Planet book it’s available in the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation’s Lending Library. Email IALF to request it for free for two weeks.

For whatever is on your plate tonight, be sure to thank your local farmers!


Want to make dinner tonight a little more exciting? How about insects? Insects are eaten in many countries as a good source of protein. More than one-quarter of the world’s human population eat insects. Beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts are all eaten. Many insects, like crickets, are high in protein and fat, and are enjoyed in other countries. So, would you eat a grasshopper?

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 www.iowaagliteracy.org where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


Prime, Choice, Grass-fed, Flank steak, Round roast….What does it all mean?

Standing at the meat cooler in a grocery store can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many options. And it is even more intimidating to talk to the butcher and ask for a specific cut of meat. How do you know what to ask for? There is so much lingo and jargon. All you really want is a delicious dinner for your family.

Let’s try to break it down and make sense of the word soup. Let’s be specific and talk about beef. Pork and chicken have some of their own terms.


Where the meat on the animal comes from and specifically how it is sliced or chopped, will determine the cut of meat. For beef, the animal can be broken down into four main quadrants. Cuts of meat from the hind leg are from the round. Cuts from the front leg are the chuck. The two middle sections are then the rib and the loin.

Different cuts of meat are better for different dishes that you may want to prepare. Briskets come from the chuck of the animal and can be very tough and dense meat. It needs to be cooked for a long time at a very low temperature so that the meat will break down and become softer. Briskets are perfect for corned beef. If you prefer to cook meat for a short period of time over high heat you want to start out with a cut of meat that is naturally tender. Filet mignon which is a cut of the tenderloin is known as being one of the most naturally tender cuts of meat.

If a recipe calls for a specific cut of meat, you could potentially make a substitution if you know what part of the animal it comes from. For example, you could interchange top sirloin steaks, New York strip steaks, and Filet mignons because they are all from the loin section of the animal. This video from Bon Appetit gives a complete breakdown of cuts of meat that butchers can get from a steer. Cuts from different parts of the animal can also have different flavors.


Within each cut of meat, we can assess the quality for the meat. Beef is evaluated by skilled meat graders and rated with a scale created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meat is evaluated for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor as well as the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. The four grades are prime, choice, select, and standard.

8424794896_550f4beb1d_h.jpgPrime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (fat interspersed in muscle tissue). It is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.

Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat. Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.

Marketing terms

If you know the cut of meat and the quality you should be set for a high quality, delicious meal. Marketers try to help consumers understand the beef that they are buying. But sometimes it can actually muddy the waters.

One of the terms that is used is grass-fed. While this doesn’t have an official definition, it typically refers to cattle that have been raised on pasture their entire life. Many cattle spend the last two months of their life on a diet that is supplemented with corn and nutrients in addition to grass. This is called grain-finished beef. This diet of corn helps increase the marbling of the meat and can increase the quality of the final cuts. It is harder for cattle raised on only grass to achieve the Prime grade. In the United States grass-fed beef seems to have a perception of higher quality, in part because it isn’t as readily available. In other countries like Australia, grain-finished beef has a perception of being higher quality. Most beef sold in the U.S. is grain-finished.

Marketers might also use terms like hormone-free or antibiotic-free. Hormones occur naturally in the body and help the animal grow. The FDA regulates any artificial hormones that might be used. Meat raised with hormones have to be safe for humans to consume and can’t harm the animal or the environment. If hormones are used, they are usually synthetic versions of naturally occurring hormones. So, the meat can’t be 100% hormone free, but it could be synthetic hormone free.

Antibiotics are an essential strategy to help animals get healthy if they get do get sick. Just like a doctor might prescribe an antibiotic for a sick human, a veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic for a sick animal. The important thing to know is that antibiotics have a withdrawal period before that animal can be harvested. Many antibiotics have a 60 day withdrawal period. That means that the animal waits 60 days or more before it is slaughtered. The animal won’t have antibiotics in its system or in the meat. If the meat is being sold, it is required by law to be antibiotic free. The label ‘antibiotic free’ doesn’t mean much.

beefcow34.jpgYou might also see beef labeled as 100% Black Angus. Black Angus is a great breed of cattle. There is a certification process to guarantee that it is Certified Angus Beef. However, is Black Angus better than Hereford, Simmental, or even Holstein? Some might argue that it is, but all three can grade the same and be Prime or Choice. If looking at two steaks right next to each other you, probably couldn’t tell the breed of the animal or which one is a Black Angus steak. And both steaks are going to taste great.

So the next time you are at the grocery store, stop and look at all of the labels. See if you can decipher the code and pick the best cut of meat for your next dinner.


The Farmer Grows a Rainbow

Where does our food come from?  This is always the first thing I ask students when presenting a lesson for Ag in the Classroom in Mahaska and Marion counties.  When I first started, the answers were “the grocery store” or “the refrigerator”. Now every hand goes up with confidence as the say, “THE FARM!”  My reply then is, “Yes, because we know that farmers are growing plants and raising animals for our food.”

20160926_095610.jpgBecause so many of our students are removed from the farm, it seems that keeping it simple is the best approach.  I visit preschoolers through third grade in Mahaska County and third grade in Marion County.  I visit most of them once a month. At some point in the year, each of the grade levels have a lesson from “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” which is based on the MyPlate.

It’s fun to ask the kids if they know that the farmer grows a rainbow for them. We talk about the MyPlate and all the many colors of the foods, a RAINBOW, and how all of the food comes from the farm.

For preschool, I have a large MyPlate mat that we lay on the floor.  Each of the students is given a food card to put in the correct food group.  They can check their answers by looking on the back of the card and the color is the same color as the food group.  The students then take turns looking at pictures of items that come from the farm and some of them we eat, like beans and broccoli and some we don’t eat like shirts and crayons but all of these are possible because of our farmers. The final activity with preschool is to put pictures from each of the food groups in categories using a traffic light with green being food to eat regularly, the yellow light being foods to eat once in a while as they are not very nutritious and high in calories and the red light represents products like chemicals, cleaning products and animal feeds that come from the farm but are unsafe to consume.

20161118_125949.jpgThe lesson for kindergarten discusses nutritious choices in each group.  For the grains group, which is more nutritious, whole wheat toast or a doughnut?  For the vegetable group, a tossed green salad or French fries? For the fruit group, an apple or apple pie?  For the dairy group, yogurt or a milkshake?  For the protein group, grilled chicken or fried chicken? By showing each of these choices, the students “vote” on which is the more nutritious choice.

Second grade has great visuals with talking about portion sizes.  It’s interesting to ask them if they have ever eaten something healthy but eaten too much of it and then they have a stomach ache like too many grapes or too much spaghetti. By showing them objects that represent foods, they see what the correct size should be. Some of the examples are chopped vegetables being the size of a computer mouse, string cheese the size of a tube of lip balm and meat being the size of deck of cards.  That one is always a big shock!  They are given a puzzle piece to match up with a friend to see if they remember which object represented which food.

Third grade gets very specific with what foods are in each food group, what nutrients are in those foods and what the health benefits to those nutrients are. The students then put pyramid puzzles together to check their answers.

Each of these lessons concludes with singing “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” song.  I try to incorporate singing into many of my lessons as music helps to retain the material.

After each of my lessons, I leave them with some sort of snack to remember the lesson. With “The Farmer Grows A Rainbow” lessons, I leave the classes with a bag of carrots to enjoy. The second graders get a “computer mouse” which they think is funny since for the correct portion size of carrots, it should be the size of a computer mouse. I encourage them to look at their plates or school lunch trays when they eat to see if they have a rainbow of colors. That way they know they will be getting a variety of nutritional foods.

It’s always a good reminder to the students to thank the farmers for growing their rainbow of food!

-Karen Adams is the Ag in the Classroom lead for Mahaska and Marion Counties

Why do they do that? Grass-fed vs. Grain-finished beef

Whether it is prime rib on Christmas, hamburgers on Independence Day, or a tender steak to mark a special occasion, beef can be a delicious part of any meal.

Beef (Meat)

Beef provides more than 10% of the daily recommended value of 10 essential nutrients. These nutrients include zinc that helps you think and improve memory, iron which carries oxygen through your blood, and protein which helps build and repair muscle and tissue.

But is there a difference in the types of beef we eat? What is the difference between grass-fed beef and grain-finished beef? Why do farmers feed their cattle grain?

Cattle & farmer.jpgCattle are herbivores. More specifically, they are ruminant herbivores. Cattle have a four-compartment stomach that gives them the ability to break down plant material more efficiently than monogastrics. Plant cells have thick cell walls that make them difficult to digest. After grazing, cattle will regurgitate the grass to chew it again and mechanically break it down into smaller pieces. Then bacteria in the cattle’s stomach helps them break down those thick plant cell walls to utilize the nutrients.

This ability of cattle to get nutrients from tough grasses makes them ideally suited to graze land that humans can’t use for cultivation. Ruminant herbivores naturally eat grasses, forbs, and shrubs as their main source of calories. This diet produces a lean meat animal that has higher concentrations of some nutrients. The flavor of the meat of these grass-fed beef animals is more similar to venison (wild game) than what we might know as modern beef.

While grasses and forbs might be the typical cattle diet, cattle are well adapted to get nutrients from any plant matter. Grains like corn, wheat, and oats are easier for cattle to digest. Because grain is easier to digest, cattle can put on weight more quickly on a diet of grain.

Beef Marbling Picture - Moderately Abundant

USDA Prime

Whole cuts of beef are graded on a scale. You may have heard of USDA Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select. Prime cuts are usually the most expensive because they have the most marbling. Marbling is the fatty tissue that is interlaced into the muscle. When it is cooked, the fat melts and makes the steak juicy, tender, and flavorful. Grain finished beef = more marbling = better flavor = more expensive. Choice cuts have a little less marbling and Select cuts are even leaner.

Beef Marbling Picture - Slight

USDA Select

Grazing cattle on grass is a cost effective way to raise cattle. Cattle raised exclusively on grass would typically not achieve higher than a USDA Select rating and consequently could earn farmers less income. While Americans are being more and more health conscious and seek out leaner meat, they still prefer high quality flavor.

Most often, farmers will raise cattle on pasture grass for around 18 months. Then 3-4 months prior to harvest, they transition from high-forage (grasses and legumes) to high concentrates (grains, grain by-products, high-energy, low fiber feeds). This diet finishes the animals – meaning the cattle achieve the desired carcass and meat quality goals. These feedstuffs are more expensive than pasture grass so it makes sense to keep the animals on grass for as long as possible and maximize the efficiency in the last 3-4 months.

So whether is it grass-finished or grain-finished, it is important to understand how the steak on your table was raised.


What’s Cookin’? Rainbow Roasted Veggies

If you haven’t roasted vegetables, you are missing out. There are several vegetables that my kids won’t eat raw or steamed, but they devour roasted! Roasting vegetables in a very hot oven brings out their sweetness and gives them a whole new flavor. Roasting caramelizes the outside while keeping the inside moist and tender. It is tremendously easy too!

This recipe for Rainbow Roasted Veggies is a fun way to encourage kids to eat a variety of vegetables. A diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables ensures we are getting the nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber we need.

My kids are more apt to try a new dish when they help make it.  Involve them in the process from start to finish. They can wash and dry the vegetables. Depending on their age, have them help cut some of the vegetables using kitchen shears or a kid-safe knife. They will love placing the vegetables one-by-one on the pan and “painting” them with olive oil. Be sure to have your kids help choose vegetables at the grocery store too. While shopping, ask them to guess what plant part each vegetable is. They will be surprised and delighted to learn that the produce section is filled with roots, stems, leaves and flowers!

Before I share the recipe for Rainbow Roasted Veggies, here’s a little agricultural “food for thought” about the veggies in this tasty dish!

red peppers

Bell peppers: Unlike other peppers, bell peppers have a characteristic bell shape, thick flesh, and are not hot. Their lack of hotness is due to a recessive gene that eliminates capsaicin. Bell peppers are found in a rainbow of colors. The variety of the pepper plant and the stage of the ripeness determine the flavor and color of each pepper. For example, a green bell pepper is simply an immature red pepper. As a bell pepper ages, its flavor becomes sweeter.  Botanically, a bell pepper is actually a fruit – the part of the plant that contains seeds. In culinary terms, unsweet fruits are considered vegetables.

carrots -dirtCarrots: Carrots are roots, or more specifically taproots. Carrot plants are biennial, meaning they flower and produce seeds during their second year of growth. However, the plants are generally harvested 2-3 months after planting, much before flowers appear. At this stage the top of the carrot is about 1-2 inches in diameter and still sweet and tender.

broccoliBroccoli: The edible portion of the broccoli plant is its unopened flower buds and tender stems. If not harvested, the green buds will open to form small yellow flowers. Broccoli is a cool season crop, closely related to cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Cool-season crops are often planted before the last frost, and must mature while the weather is still cool. Hot weather and warm soil causes broccoli to flower too quickly, or bolt. Once the plant begins to bolt, anything harvested will be bitter.

beetsBeets: This often overlooked root, is one of the sweetest and most nutritious vegetables.   Most beets are dark purple outside with red flesh inside, but there are varieties with yellow, white, and even red and white striped flesh too. Beets can be steamed, boiled, pickled, roasted or eaten raw.   Because they contain more natural sugar than starch, they are particularly delicious roasted. Roasting concentrates the sugar and caramelizes the outside.


Rainbow Roasted Veggies


1 red bell pepper, cut into 1½ inch pieces

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces

1 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1½ inch pieces

1 small head broccoli, cut into florets and stems chopped

2 medium beets, scrubbed and cut into 3/4 inch wedges

¼ C. extra virgin olive oil

Salt & Pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Brush a large baking sheet with olive oil.
  2. Arrange the vegetables in rows to create a rainbow of colors. Brush vegetables with remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Roast until the vehetables are tender, about 30-40 minutes.

Have fun and experiment with this recipe! Try adding other veggies like onions, zucchini, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, garlic cloves and cauliflower.

– Cindy