COVID-19 Precautions and Biosecurity

Biosecurity is a common practice in raising livestock. Essentially it means that farmers try to keep outside germs away from their animals to avoid those animals ever getting sick. Farmers know that it is easier to raise a healthy animal from the beginning than to raise an animal that gets sick and needs treatment and recovery time before they can reach the market. This makes biosecurity a humane practice as well as a financial benefit.

Current COVID-19 preventative measures are exactly the same.

Wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands; these are some of the same measures that farmers take around their livestock. Their purpose is to keep germs away from organisms to prevent them from ever getting sick.

Teacher guests to a pig barn wear disposable coveralls, hair nets, and booties inside the facility to avoid bringing in outside germs.


Pigs and poultry species farmers are especially careful about biosecurity practices. These species generally live indoors to avoid predators, extreme temperatures, and disease-carrying wild animals. Because they generally live indoors together, if a germ gets in to one animal, it can spread through the barn very quickly. This is not unlike COVID-19 in a nursing home facility.

Wash your hands and wear a mask

Knowing this, pork and poultry farmers take a variety of precautions when entering their barns. They may take full showers before they enter and after they leave. They may have special clothes that only get worn on-site. They may have special shoes, hairnets, or caps they wear. They may walk through disinfectant footbaths to clean their boots. If outside tools or equipment are required, they may get sanitized on-site to kill any lingering germs. This is not unlike nurses wearing special suits, masks, goggles, face shields, and gloves when working in our health services.

Educator guests to a pig barn wear hair coverings to prevent bringing in outside germs.

Social distance

Farmers also social distance. For example, two poultry farmers will rarely visit each other’s barns; especially not wearing the same clothes they would wear in their own barns. This helps keep one flock’s germs away from the other flock, and vice versa. This is not unlike staying home and away from friends when the potential for COVID-19 exposure at their grocery store, pharmacy, and clinic may be different from that of yours.

Get vaccinated

As COVID-19 vaccinations are being rolled out, we also have a unique perspective on the importance of vaccinations. Farmers have long known that by vaccinating livestock against common and deadly diseases that they can protect their livestock’s health and even their lives. We, too, will soon be able to protect our own health and the health of the people around us by getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pig farm staff and guests wear designated barn clothes that stay onsite. Staff and guests shower before entering the barn and before leaving the barn.

This is a unique time in our history where we have such parallels between livestock health and human health. We are seeing firsthand what farmers try to avoid every day. We are also seeing how important it is that everyone holds up their end of the bargain. If a farmer visited a different farm without taking proper precautions and forgot to wash their boots upon re-entering their own barn, how would that impact those animals? If a person visits a restaurant and then goes to the pharmacy without wearing a mask, how would that impact those pharmacists and patients?

So, even as the COVID-19 precautions seem foreign, cumbersome, invasive, or even just annoying, it’s really nothing new or radical. These steps we take every day are the same things our farmers do to help protect their animals and secure a safe and abundant food supply for us.


Pigs. The Inventors of Bacon

Pop quiz! What is the gestation period of a pig?

That’s right! 114 days. It is easy to remember if you think 3-3-3, that is 3 months, three weeks, and three days.

Question number 2. What is the average number of piglets a sow can have?

Yes! 7.5 is right. Pigs regularly have up to 14 piglets per litter, but the average across all breeds is around 7.5.

We don’t often think about pigs. But every Saturday morning when we pull out that packet of bacon for brunch we can say thanks to pigs for providing us such a tasty treat. We raise pigs in Iowa because it is close to the feed they eat. The main staples of a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans and those are the two top commodity crops grown in Iowa. It isn’t coincidence then that Iowa is the number one pork producing state. But Iowa as a powerhouse in swine production didn’t happen overnight. Pigs as a species of livestock have a history that stretches back over 40 million years!

Pigs were first domesticated around 7,000 years ago in western Asia. They scavenged human garbage for food and this close proximity and regular interaction led to their domestication. Pigs traveled with humans as humans began moving around the globe. By 1500 BCE they were widely used for meat in Europe. They even sailed across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus when he journeyed to the New World. Pigs are omnivores, which means they will eat most anything (meat based or plant based). The common image is ‘slopping’ the pigs or feeding them table scraps and waste products from human food. While that might have been a cheap way to feed pigs in days of old, that is largely an antiquated idea. Pigs today have carefully controlled diets that allow them to grow quickly and stay healthy. Farmers plan their diets with the help of veterinarians and nutritionists. The pig’s diet will even change as they get older to meet their nutritional requirements.

Pigs were first introduced to America in the 1500s. As corn became the most common feed, more and more pigs were raised in the Midwest. Corn was relatively easy to grow and provides quick energy to the pigs. It also provides most of the essential nutrients needed for the pigs to grow. By the 1850s nearly 70,000 pigs per day were shipped through Ohio to the East Coast. Pigs were produced in the ‘corn belt’ states and then shipped to the population centers along the coasts. The invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1887 made this even easier as pork (instead of live pigs) could be shipped and the meat refrigerated to keep it fresh over long distances.

By the 1990s farmers had made significant improvements in swine production. Through selective breeding techniques, pigs now have larger litters, less disease, and more muscle growth. Larger litters allow farmers to raise more pigs and meet consumer demand. U.S. pork is exported to more than 100 different countries around the world. The swine industry also changed to meet consumer demand. In the 1950s it was not uncommon to see fat pigs. Consumers at the time liked to see pork chops with a thick rind of fat around them. Today’s health-conscious consumer wants less fat in their diet. Pigs now are raised to be lean and muscular, and not fat.

Today’s modern pigs have come a long way from their ancestor – the wild boar. There are numerous specialized breeds that offer better features depending on what the farmer wants (lean meat, good mothering, long body length, etc.). Breeds like Chester White, Duroc, and Berkshire are just a couple of examples. Why different breeds and different colors? It is based on selective breeding. Imagine a bowl of M&Ms where there were 20 brown M&Ms and one yellow M&M. You are asked to pick just one. Which one do you choose? Most people would pick the different colored one – the yellow one. That is how selective breeding works. When a pig exhibits a different trait (like color) the farmer takes notice of the difference. If it is a positive trait, the farmer will then often use that animal as a breeding animal. That trait that the farmer wants then gets passed on to the progeny.

As we look at the future of the pork industry we can see it growing and being an important part of our food system. There is a lot of science and research that is working to benefit the industry. Scientists are studying things like the gut biome to help pigs more efficiently digest their food. Research is being conducted on swine diseases to help keep pigs healthy and prevent disease. Research is being done on how pork can be a healthy and protein rich part of the human diet. It is exciting to think about the future of pork production.

But for now, I get to enjoy my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Thank you, farmers!


Supply & Demand of Agriculture in the Time of COVID-19

Life in many ways has been upended. The pandemic has created unique challenges for people around the world. The first and most pressing challenge is trying to treat and cure people who have contracted the virus. The second challenge is trying to prevent others from catching the virus through social distancing.

Through the closure of businesses, we have seen this pandemic have ripple effects through our entire infrastructure, economic system, and beyond. There are a couple of key things that we can point to as evidence of the effect on our agricultural system. But before I go on, I want to preface this by saying each of these scenarios are complex and affected by many different factors. I’m trying to key in on how the pandemic has affected farmers, but there are many things to consider.

When we consider agricultural products, we see things on a timeline that closely relates to the life cycle of each animal or plant.

Day 1

EggFarm-101.jpgChickens produce one egg roughly once every 24 hours. In the first days of social distancing, we saw grocery stores run out of eggs as people began stocking up on essential food items. People bought enough to last longer than normal as they wanted to make fewer trips to the grocery store. Store shelves sat bare of eggs. But this didn’t last long. The number of chickens producing eggs wasn’t effected. As they produce one egg a day and the stores get regular shipments and deliveries of eggs, the store shelves were quickly refilled with eggs. Iowa’s egg farmers lead the nation in egg production, caring for nearly 55 million laying hens producing nearly 16 billion eggs per year. That’s almost one out of every six eggs produced in the United States.

Week 1

IMG_0701.JPGYou have likely seen early stories of farmers having to dump milk on the ground. Dairy cows produce an average of 70 lbs. of milk per day (8 gallons). That milk is immediately chilled but it can’t be stored for long. Usually within 24 hours it is picked up from the farm and taken to a processing plant where it is pasteurized and then either bottled or turned into any number of delicious dairy products like cheese. Each processing plant usually specializes in a few products – like individual serving sizes for schools. As another example, while there may only be 8-10 general types of cheese, of those, some people estimate that there might be 5,000 to 20,000 varieties of those cheeses. Not every processing plant would make all varieties. And the same would be true for yogurt, milk, and other dairy products. Then each one of those processing plants will have a limited number of customers that it might sell its cheese to. For example, if a national pizza chain closes because of state or federal orders it stops buying cheese. The processing plant that produces the cheese doesn’t have a customer to sell to and so stops buying milk.

But the one thing that can’t be stopped is the cow producing milk. Every day the cow will produce milk. And the cows can’t stop and start again. So even if the farmers can’t sell the milk they have to continue collecting it. So without anything to do with it, they dump it on the ground. The broken supply chain can be fixed. But it’ll take time for the processing plant to find a new end market (potentially needing to change the product that they produce). But the farmer will largely have to wait until that is fixed because it is uneconomical to send milk to a processing plant farther away.

Month 3

Chicken can grow from an egg to a market weight bird (5-10 pounds) in approximately 12 weeks. Because there is a high demand for chicken across the U.S. the end market hasn’t been as affected as with milk and eggs. Chicken is easy to cook at home and it can easily be stored frozen at home. Because chicken can be stored frozen, there isn’t an immediate need to find an end market. Because chickens can be raised in a relatively short period of time, the supply and number of chickens raised can be increased or decreased relatively quickly as demand fluctuates up and down. Chicken is also a ‘protein substitute’ which means that it is often looked at as a cheaper option than pork and beef. If pork and beef prices are low, consumers will buy more of those and less chicken. But if pork and beef are high, consumers will quickly switch to chicken in favor of the less expensive option.

Month 6

PorkFarm-100a.jpgPigs can grow from a piglet to a market weight hog within approximately six months. Profit margins in agriculture are very slim. A farmer will feed and raise livestock as long as they are still growing. But farmers don’t want to feed the animals (which is an added cost) if the animals aren’t growing and don’t have the potential to be sold for a higher profit. Most pigs will be sold at a market weight of 270 to 300 pounds. Many processing plants won’t take pigs that are bigger than that because a lot of their machines have been standardized for animals that fall within that weight range. So if farmers aren’t able to take pigs to market, they lose money continuing to feed them and potentially won’t have a market to sell to if they get too big.

As COVID-19 ripples through our state and communities it can potentially impact anyone and everyone. When employees at a processing plant get infected, it is important to shut down to minimize the chance of spreading the disease to other employees. The plant should be thoroughly sanitized and until everyone has been tested, even the healthy employees shouldn’t return to work. But where do the pigs that are ready for slaughter then go? While there are other pork processing plants, farmers might lose money shipping them farther. Or they might lose money continuing feeding the animals and waiting for the plant reopen. But the worst-case scenario would be to euthanize animals and not be able to use them at all. Farmers can start reducing their future herd numbers now to adjust, but they have been raising this current batch of pigs for the past six months. They need to find an end market.

Year 1

_MG_8525.JPGCorn has many benefits as a grain crop because it is harvested dried from the field and then can be stored dried for a long time. While the corn supply is more insulated from the effects of the pandemic, it isn’t completely insulated. Corn has three primary end markets in that it can be used for human food (corn flour products like tortilla chips, products with corn syrup, and countless others), animal feed (food for pigs, cows, and even dogs and cats), and ethanol fuel. Iowa produces a lot of corn and also has a lot of storage facilities for that corn – both grain bins on farms and at co-ops. In the spring of the year, we are still using the corn supply from last fall’s harvest. But as farmers take to the field to plant we need to ensure that the corn is sold and used so there is room to store this year’s corn come harvest in October. If there are fewer pigs and other livestock eating the corn, less corn will be used.

You may have also seen news stories talking about the negative prices of oil. The negative prices are a result of high supply and low demand. One of the uses of corn is to produce ethanol. Ethanol is a fuel substitute and so the price of ethanol is very closely related to the price of crude oil. If there is no demand for crude oil, there is low demand for ethanol. For now, ethanol is still being sold for profit, but the price is much less than it was a few months ago. The future supply of corn and the demand for fuel will largely affect what that price will be.

Year 2

IMG_1588.JPGCattle can grow from a calf to a market weight animal (approximately 1300 pounds) in 18 months. Cattle can be kept and fed out to up to 1500 pounds. So there is a little more flexibility with cattle. But the current closing of meat processing plants still affects the animals that are currently at market weight and ready to be harvested.

Long term, farmers will have to guess at the demand for beef and either start reducing their herd size over the next two years or start building up their herd. How long the pandemic lasts, the supply of feed like corn, the supply of protein substitutes like pork and chicken all affect the farmer’s decision-making process. So even if the pandemic ends tomorrow, because things like cattle have an 18 month or more life cycle, we will still be feeling the ripple effects for the next two years.

What Can Be Done? – Short Term

The first thing that we can do and have been doing is managing the human virus similar to the way farmers manage the prevention of diseases on farms – through biosecurity. In farming we consider biosecurity to mean doing everything you can to reduce the chances of an infectious disease being carried onto your farm by people, animals, equipment, or vehicles. This includes wearing face masks, disinfecting shoes, washing hands. For humans, we have been social distancing, wearing face masks, washing hands. It is much the same. Farmers, especially pig, chicken, and turkey farmers have a lot of experience with this disease prevention strategy. The more we can slow down the spread of the disease, the better off we all will be and get back to life as normal.

One thing some farmers are doing to try to adjust the supply of pigs to the market is to adjust their feed rations. Feed rations have been optimized to maximize the rate of growth. The faster a pig will grow, the quicker it can be sold and then the process can start again. But in this time of closed processing plants, we need to slow the rate of growth in animals. A less optimal feed ration will still provide the animal everything it needs, but simply slow the rate of growth.

One of the issues is the supply chain of food to restaurants. With restaurants closed, where does that food go? It can’t be rerouted to grocery stores easily. The packaging is different. Labeling is different. Some restaurants have figured out that they can become grocery stores. This requires creative thinking, repackaging, and recreating logistics. It doesn’t fix all the problems, but it does offer one potential solution to keep the food supply flowing. With the same number of people needing the same number of meals each week there isn’t really a decrease in the demand for food. We just need to figure out how to reroute it.

One of the shortages that we have experienced is that of hand sanitizer. The disinfecting properties of hand sanitizer come from – the same alcohol that ethanol plants make from corn. But that doesn’t mean we can just switch to making hand sanitizer at ethanol plants. There are many logistical issues like packaging into small quantities that come into play. The other ingredients that go into hand sanitizers also quickly become a limiting factor. Some local, small scale distillers have started creating hand sanitizers and they are much better equipped to do this when compared to large scale ethanol production plants that produce in bulk.

Our current food system relies on consistency and regularity. So one thing consumers can do is shop as you normally would. Keep buying trends consistent, especially for products that have limited flexibility in their supply chain. Farmers have to plan months and even years into the future. A more consistent consumer allows for them to ensure we have enough food at the times we need it.

What Can Be Done? – Long Term

Long term there will likely need to be a lot of changes to our food system. Grocery stores practice just-in-time delivery to prevent overstocking and to minimize food waste. But this system doesn’t work when a lot of people want to stock up at the same time for extended periods of at-home-living. So food systems might need to find a balance between stocking shelf-stable food and still minimizing food waste. Consumers too can share responsibility. The LDS church regularly encourages their members to keep a three month supply of shelf-stable food on hand. For times like this, that may be good advice for everyone – or at least stocking up a little bit more than normal. Consumers would just have to manage that food supply and constantly use some of it that is close to expiration and constantly restock what gets used. There is no need to buy a huge supply of food tomorrow. But in periodic trips to the grocery, buy one or two extra items until you’ve built up a store.

Some systems are flexible. Ethanol, for example, is a simple molecule. The process of producing ethanol is largely a chemistry experiment and with tweaks at various stages different chemicals can be produced. Some of these different chemicals could be different types of fuels or other additives for industrial and commercial products. Even chemicals for things like cosmetics and make-up could be produced. But this would require retrofitting the processing plant and would take time and money. It depends on what products will be needed and that is yet to be seen. Maybe there will be a continued need for ethanol as it is.

Farmers are very good at producing food. There is plenty of food produced each year. What we are seeing is disruptions in the logistics of processing that food and then getting it to where it needs to be. Components up and down the food system need to be looked at and potentially changed. We need to look at dry storage capacity of grains, cold storage for things like meat, imports from other countries, and balancing that with the locally produced products.

Ultimately, this pandemic will end. When is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, things have changed and will continue to change. But the agricultural industry and the larger food system has a job to do and that is to provide food to feed America. We are all in this together.


A Turkey Does Not Equal a Cow

Or does it?

barn.jpgWe recently had the opportunity to visit a new turkey brooding barn in Sac County, Iowa. The new poults (day-old birds) were set to arrive within two weeks and workers were putting the finishing touches on the barn, the feeding systems, the watering systems, and the ventilation systems. All-in-all it looked to be a pretty cushy place for the birds. They would have a nice bed of sawdust and straw. They have food and water through automatic feeders. And because the poults are so young they need a high temperature. The barn will be kept at around 95 degrees F!

The poults will be raised in the barn until they are five weeks old at which point they will be moved to a finishing barn where they will continue to grow until they are market weight. They’ll be in the finishing barn for another 11 to 14 weeks where they will reach 16 pounds if they are hens (females) or 16 to 24 pounds if they are toms (males). Most, if not all, of these birds will be toms, which is what are predominately raised in Iowa.

IMG_9945-5839(rev 0).jpgWhen the birds are moved to the next barn, the bedding (wood chips and/or straw) which contains all of the manure is pushed to the far end of the barn and then removed to be composted or applied to fields. The barn is then cleaned and power-washed to get ready for the next batch of birds. This barn was expecting 30,000 birds. I asked at what point they needed to have a permit for manure management and the answer was if they have 116,000 birds. This seemed like a random or arbitrary number. Who decided that you needed a manure permit or application license if you have more than 116,000 birds?

Well, it has everything to do with what are called Animal Units. Animal Units is a scale or a measurement system that can be applied in agriculture – specifically the livestock industry. When scientists are measuring pH they use water as the neutral of 7. The scale or measurement system goes from 0 to 14. Everything above 7 is considered to be alkaline. Everything below 7 is considered to be acidic. Similarly, Animal Units has a base or a reference point. One feeder cow (approximately 800 lbs.) is equivalent to 1 Animal Unit. Then the rest of the measurement system is built around that reference point.

Every other animal is then compared to feeder cattle. A mature dairy cow will weigh more, eat more, and produce more manure. A mature dairy cow is equal to 1.4 Animal Units. Sheep are much smaller. They eat less and produce less manure. One sheep is equal to 0.1 Animal Units. And in the case of our one-day-old poults, they don’t eat much at all and don’t produce much manure at all. One poult is equal to .0043 Animal Units.

This system of measurement is very helpful for farmers, especially in grazing situations. You don’t want to overgraze your land and use up all of the available grass. So when determining stocking rates it is important to calculate how many Animal Units the pasture can handle. Calves that have just been weaned won’t eat as much as fully grown cows, so you could potentially put more calves on a pasture. But then farmers also have to account for wildlife like deer that might also eat the grass. So in grazing situations, animals like deer are assigned an Animal Unit as well so that they can be figured into the calculations.

This Animal Unit measurement is helpful in managing manure. Iowa state law requires commercial manure applicators to be certified. This helps ensure they are properly trained and can help minimize the chances of manure running off fields and into our Iowa waterways. Livestock operations that have 500 Animal Units or fewer can manage their own manure and are considered private applicators. They don’t need a certification (although they should still implement best practices to prevent manure runoff into waterways). Livestock operations that have more than 500 Animal Units must utilize a licensed commercial manure service and be certified. Manure applicators take a training and have to pass a test to become certified.

This law applies to every operation with 500 Animal Units. So that could be 500 cows. Or it could be 1,250 pigs. Or it could be 250 horses. Or it could be 50,000 chickens. You can do the calculations yourself with the Iowa State University Animal Units Calculator. These larger livestock operations also need a manure management plan that helps producers identify the amount of manure being produced, the nutrient concentration in the manure, the number of acres that are required for land application and the amount that will be applied to each available acre.

A full grown turkey is much smaller than a cow. So no, a turkey does not equal a cow. But a full grown turkey does equal 0.018 cows!



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’s Cookin’? – Corn Custard brûlée

The second of our annual cooking demonstrations in the Elwell Family Food building at the Iowa State Fair featured an unusual dish. This recipe was adapted from a recipe that was originally submitted as part of the Iowa’s Big Four Cooking competition at the 2018 Iowa State Fair. The original recipe was submitted by Sharon Gates of Des Moines and won 2nd prize in the sweet division of that contest. We’ve made some slight modifications from the original. But first, where do all of the ingredients come from? Here is the farm-to-fork story.

Bacon:  This tasty pork product comes from the side and belly of the pig. Pork bellies are cured in a salt brine and flavorings to provide the rich taste. The curing process evolved before refrigeration as a way of preserving the meat. Iowa is the number one producer of pork in the U.S. Companies like Farmland Foods and JBS Swift have meat packing plants in Iowa and employ hundreds of Iowans.

Sugar: Granulated sugar can be refined from either sugar cane grown in tropical climates or from sugar beets. Many sugar beets are grown in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. After the beets are harvested, they are sliced and soaked in water which extracts the sugar. The beets are pressed to remove additional sugar. The syrup is filtered and then boiled to reduce to sugar crystals. The crystals are then packaged as sugar.

Corn syrup: Corn syrup comes from field corn. Field corn is harvested after it is dried in the field. The corn kernels can then be ground up and the starches removed. Using enzymes, the starches can be converted into a mix of fructose and sucrose sugars – or corn syrup. Field corn can be used for a variety of human foods (everything from corn meal in tortilla chips to the corn syrup in ketchup), but it can also be used to feed livestock or turned into ethanol as fuel for vehicles

Sweet Corn: Although Iowa farmers do raise some of the best-tasting sweet corn in the country, less than 1% of the corn in our state is sweet corn. Although one is considered a vegetable and the other a grain, sweet corn and field corn are close relatives. Sweet corn is a naturally occurring genetic mutation of field corn. The sweet corn plant is shorter, matures faster, and its kernels have a higher sugar content.

Milk:  Milk or heavy cream is a great source of protein and vitamin D in our diets. Most dairy cows in the U.S. are Holstein (the black and white ones) which are prized for their ability to produce up to 8 gallons of milk per day. Once milk is collected from the cow it is trucked to a processing plant where it is homogenized and pasteurized before bottling. Once bottled it is sent off to grocery stores or other consumer outlets. The whole process takes less than 48 hours and the milk is never touched by human hands.

Eggs: Iowa is the number one producer of eggs in the U.S. There are three different categories of chickens raised with many different species in each category. Chickens are broilers (raised for meat), ornamentals (raised for feathers), and layers (raised for eggs). Chickens typically produce one egg approximately every 27 hours (roughly one per day).  The color of the egg shell has no bearing on the nutritional value of the egg or the flavor. The color of the shell is the same as the chicken’s ear lobe. White skinned chickens produce white eggs. Brown skinned chickens produce brown eggs. Eggs can even come in shades of blue and green. The quality of egg is largely determined by the chicken’s diet. A protein rich diet with various vitamins and minerals will usually yield a richly yellowed yolk. Eggs are one of the best sources of protein in the human diet. Eggs are cleaned and checked for impurities before being packaged and sold to consumers.

Pepper:  Black pepper comes from the fruit of a pepper plant species which grows in hot and humid tropical climates. The unripe dried fruit, called peppercorns, are ground into the spice we call pepper. Pepper was one of the spices that early explores traded because of its high value. It came from the spice islands of southeast Asia which also were known for nutmeg, mace and cloves.

Salt: Salt isn’t exactly an agricultural product. But, is an important component because it is the only rock that humans seek out and regularly consume. Salt can be harvested from salt pans (dried lakes) or mined from underground

Chipotle powder: Chipotle powder is the dried and crushed Chipotle pepper fruit.


  • 1/2 Cup Bacon Chopped
  • 2T Brown Sugar
  • 1T Light Corn Syrup
  • 1 Cup Fresh Sweet Corn
  • 3/4 Cup Heavy Cream
  • 1/4 Cup Whole Milk
  • 6T White Sugar
  • 3 Egg Yolks
  • 1 Egg
  • 1/2 T Salt
  • 1/4 T Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/8 T Chipotle Chile Morita Powder


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Stir together bacon, brown sugar and corn syrup. Spread onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven. Set aside to cool.
  3. Combine ¾ cup sweet corn, whole milk, 3T white sugar, egg yolks, egg, salt, pepper, and chipotle powder sugar into blender and liquify all. Add heavy cream pulse blender to incorporate.
  4. Pour through a fine mesh strainer. Mix in ¼ cup of sweet corn. Pour liquid mixture into ramekins that have been sprayed with non-stick spray.
  5. Place ramekin in a baking dish on the middle rack of oven.
  6. Carefully pour boiling water into the baking dish to halfway up the outside of the ramekins. Bake 30-45 minutes or until the center of the custard registers an internal temperature of 170°F. Cooking time will vary based on the size of the ramekins used. Remove from oven and let cool.
  7. Just before serving, sprinkle a layer of sugar over the top of each custard and brûlée with a torch. Garnish with candied bacon.



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.


Why Do They Do That? – Hormones

We recently had a Facebook post go viral! Well, not viral by standard definitions, but pretty good for us! At last count it was up to more than 17,000 engagements and more than 226,000 people reached. It was one of a regular series we post once a week hash-tagged #FridayFarmFact. It featured turkeys and as we were going into the Thanksgiving season it peaked a lot of interest. Here it is:

It could be that it went viral because it is such an interesting picture. Who doesn’t love seeing a bunch of turkeys just hanging out doing turkey stuff?

Or it could be that it went viral because there is still a lot of confusion about hormone use in production agriculture. Let’s assume it is the latter and let’s try to clear some things up. Do farmers use hormones when raising animals? And if so, why do they do that?

There are three things that often get lumped together in conversation but are actually very different and are often confused – hormones, antibiotics, and vaccines. We’ve discussed antibiotics and vaccines before. As a refresher, antibiotics are typically used to treat bacterial infections AFTER an animal like a pig or a human have gotten sick. Vaccines use a dead or modified virus to stimulate the body’s natural defenses against infection without causing the illness itself BEFORE getting sick. Hormones on the other hand are chemical messengers in the body. They are produced naturally in the endocrine gland and travel through the bloodstream. They control most major bodily functions – everything from hunger to reproduction to temperament. 

Hormones are produced naturally in all animals. Just like hormones regulate your bodily functions, they regulate bodily functions in animals such as livestock. So the meat, eggs, and milk that we get from livestock will have naturally occurring hormones in them. Any food label that reads “hormone-free” is simply not true. But some labels read “No Added Hormones.” For beef cattle and dairy cattle, farmers have found many positive benefits in including hormones in their management plan. Depending on the hormone, they can be given to the animals as a feed additive, a topical solution, or most commonly as an injected implant that releases the hormone slowly over time. The hormones – sometimes called steroids – are usually synthetic versions of naturally occurring hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.

In beef cattle, the hormones help the animals grow more efficiently. This means they grow quicker using less feed. Not only is this cheaper for the farmer (they don’t spend as much on feed costs) but it can also be better for the environment. A recent study suggests that using hormones can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ~5% by reducing the cattle’s environmental footprint. Dairy cattle may also be given bST or Bovine Somatotropin which is a growth hormone that increases milk production. The synthetic version of this naturally occurring hormone is called rbST. SciMoms does a great job of explaining that both the meat from beef cattle and the milk from dairy cattle is safe to consume even with these added hormones. 

Most people concerned about added hormones in food are concerned about human health consequences. Concerns often cite studies of children exhibiting signs of puberty at an earlier age. But in looking at the data, this trend began before the use of hormones in agriculture. So while there is a correlation, it doesn’t appear that early puberty is caused by hormones. Correlation does not equal causation. Because rbST is a protein hormone it is destroyed in human digestion and doesn’t make it into the human blood stream. Other concerns are over animal welfare issues where some dairy cows developed mastitis. But through improved genetics over the years, farmers have selected for cows that do not get mastitis as easily. The benefits of using hormones in beef and dairy cattle seem to far outweigh the risks.

As the #FridayFarmFact says, poultry (chickens, turkey, ducks, etc.) are raised without any added hormones. Regulations in the 1950s banned the use of added hormones in poultry. Chickens (and turkeys and ducks) are bigger today than they were 50 years ago because of genetics and breeding programs – not because of growth hormones. 

Increase in the size of broiler chickens from 1957-2005 due to breeding. Figure from Poult Sci. 2014;93(12):2970-2982. doi:10.3382/ps.2014-04291

Different breeds of chickens are selected for their  characteristics as good egg layers or good meat producers (broilers). Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are usually raised for their eggs while Cornish Crosses and Delaware Broilers are usually raised for their meat. Some hormones have been tested on poultry but so far they don’t have a significant enough effect. They do have an effect on growth rate and food conversion efficiency so it is possible that we could see some changes in the law in the future. But for now, there are no added hormones in poultry. 

Neither are there added hormones in pork. Pigs have also gotten bigger, but that is because of better nutrition, good genetics programs, and good management programs – not from hormones. There could be some confusion because some hormones can be used in swine breeding programs to help manage estrous cycles, milk let down, and farrowing. But hormones cannot be used in pigs that will be harvested for meat. 

Hormones are not the simplest subject to understand because there are a lot of different hormones that all have different functions. Maybe the most important thing to understand is that beef cattle and dairy cattle production have federal regulations that allow for the use of hormones and poultry and pork production have different federal regulations that don’t allow for the use of hormones. In both instances though farmers are trying to find economically sound ways to improve their operations (while ensuring animals stay healthy) and federal regulators are trying to ensure that the food system stays safe. Based on what we know from research you can have confidence in the food that is being produced by farmers and that makes it to your table. Whether it is a whole turkey, a roast beef, or a big ham that sits on your holiday table this season, enjoy!


Other references:

5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming

spraying corn

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Why Do They Do That? – Vaccines

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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