Why Do They Do That – Side Dressing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Do They Do That? Track Crop Progress

Around this time of year (April through June) it is common to hear or read news stories touting things like “86-percent of corn now planted, 67-percent of soybeans”. But what does that mean? Why does it matter? Who is behind these numbers?

In a state like Iowa, much of the economy is driven by agriculture. Very few people are directly involved in planting and raising crops. In Iowa there are approximately 85,300 farms. If every farm counts two people as farmers we can estimate there are 170,600 farmers in Iowa. Compare that to the state’s population of 3.155 million and we see that only a little more than 5% of Iowans are farmers. While this seems small, agriculture and agriculture related industries employ one in six Iowans or 17% of the workforce (400,000 jobs). Agriculture is responsible for adding $72.1 billion to the state’s economy, or 27 percent of the state’s total. We begin to see the ripple effect as this revenue and these jobs then help support other industries growing and continuing to thrive like manufacturing, finance, healthcare, education, and so much more. Agriculture has been called an engine for Iowa’s economy.

So, you could say a lot is riding on the success (or failure) of the corn and soybean crop. While it might seem like people in an urban setting are removed from the impacts of the farm, a failed crop (from droughts or floods or other factors) would have ripple effects that could lead to a downturn of the economy and we all would be impacted.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture that works with farmers to track planting of crops and the subsequent health of the crops and the quality of the harvest. One of the field offices is located in Iowa and works closely with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Iowa is broken in to nine districts. Each district is closely monitored and then data is compiled into a weekly report. The report details things like days suitable for fieldwork. If it is raining or if the soil is too muddy from rain, tractors and heavy equipment can’t be taken out into the field to plant or work the soil. Farmers have a limited window in which they can get seeds in the ground. Soil temperatures have to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit for seeds to germinate. So too early in the year and the seeds won’t start growing. Crops also need to have enough time to grow. So if they are planted too late in the year they won’t mature before the weather starts turning cold again. The optimal window for planting is April and May. That means that 26.5 million acres need to be planted in a 60 day time period. If it rains for 30 days, then that cuts the planting time in half. As many as one million acres need to be planted per day in Iowa to be successful.

NASS tracks how many acres of corn and soybeans have been planted. They also separately track how many acres have emerged and successfully germinated. Farmers are fraught with challenges. Maybe a farmer is lucky enough to get their planter out in the field and get seeds planted. But then if that is followed by two weeks without rain, the seeds may not germinate. Or if there is too much rain the seeds could get drowned out. So planting is important, but emergence is also important. The weekly NASS reports also track the quality of the crop (very poor to excellent). These data points are tracked from corn and soybeans, but also for hay, oats, and pasture.

Why does it matter?

A lot of farming is based on weather. That makes it a bit of a guessing game. The more information that can be collected, the less of a guessing game it is. One of the biggest reasons we want to track crop condition is to ensure we have an adequate food supply in the upcoming months. It has been a long time since the U.S. has faced any sort of food shortage, but in other parts of the world it can be a real and devastating problem. A drought and loss of one year of crops could lead to widespread famine and the fallout of that famine. Farmers in the U.S. and those who track the progress of those crops have developed a reliable system to hopefully prevent any sort of food shortage – even if severe weather were to hit.

The second reason we want data on crop conditions is to make the economy and market less volatile. Corn and soybean prices change year to year (and day to day) based on supply and demand. The prices are set based on what customers are willing to pay. If there is a high supply and low demand, the price might be very low. If there is a low supply and a high demand, the price might be very high. By knowing what the condition of the crop is early in the planting season there are some guesses, assumptions, and estimations that can be made about what the harvest will be like and what the supply will be like. We can’t always know what the demand will be, but if we know approximately what the supply will be that can help us reduce the volatility and fluctuations of the price.

The third reason that people want to know the condition of crops is to have more security in investments. Farmers and investors can buy and sell crops on the futures market. This means that a farmer might sell their 2021 crop in March before it is planted and long before it is harvested. A farmer would know what costs they would incur during the process. They could negotiate a futures contract that would ensure they cover their costs and make money from their crop. This mitigates risk. However, if the price of the cash market went up, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that. That’s where investors come in. They assume the risk and hope that the cash market price goes up. That would allow for them to make money. It is a bit of a game of chance. But with the right information, like the condition of the crop at various stages throughout the growing season, farmers and investors can make some good guesses and hopefully both come out ahead.

The fourth reason that we want to know the condition of crops is because of that ripple effect mentioned earlier. Consider John Deere and other implement dealers. It can take them months to build a new tractor start to finish. And they have to source all of the parts from various suppliers around the world. The whole process could in theory take a year or more if you consider taking the raw ingredient (mining iron ore) to steel (processing the ore into steel) to a finished tractor (shaping parts, assembly, etc.). A limited number of tractors can be built each year with limited workers, limited factories, and limited time. Now consider the farmer. They might only buy a new tractor if they have had a good growing season and were able to sell their crop for a significant profit. (New tractors might cost $500K or more.) Knowing that farmers will only buy tractors when the conditions are good, John Deere can watch the crop report and have a better idea of how many tractors they should build in a given year. The people and businesses that supply the parts for John Deere can have a better idea of how many widgets they should build in a given year. The people and businesses who supply the raw ingredients can have a better idea of how much iron ore or other raw material might be needed.

So, the crop report might only be a brief story on the evening news. But its importance to a stable food supply and economy cannot be understated. For this year (2021) as of May 24, things are looking pretty good. Planting of Iowa’s expected corn crop is nearly complete at 97%, two weeks ahead of the 5-year average. Corn emergence has reached 75%, five days ahead of normal. Seventy-eight percent of the crop is in good or excellent condition with only 1% in poor condition. Eighty-nine percent of the expected soybean crop has been planted, 15 days ahead of the 5-year average. Soybean emergence has hit 53%, nine days ahead. Topsoil soil moisture levels are at 82% adequate or surplus. Subsoil soil moisture is 60% adequate or surplus.

Stay tuned (or check back in) for the fall as the crop reports will continue to monitor the quality of the harvest. More challenges are in store there as farmers need to dry the grain in the field to the right moisture level, avoid fall rains that might get combines stuck in the field, and avoid mold, wind, or other issues that might damage the crop that they’ve toiled to grow.


American Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Science 101: Roots

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

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

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

Credit: United Soybean Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Cindy

Science 101: Photoperiodism

Saturday is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Since June 21, the Summer Solstice, the days have been getting shorter. As a parent, I look forward shorter days and longer nights for one reason. My kids go to bed easier. They are cranky and do not function well unless they get 10-12 hours of sleep, and they sleep better when their room is dark. Many plants are similar.

Poinsettias, strawberries, cotton, and soybeans may not seem to have a lot in common, but the plants they come from sure do. They set flowers in response to shorter days and longer nights.  And without flowers, they will not produce what we want – beautiful red bracts for the Christmas season; fiber for clothes; sweet berries to eat; and beans for biodiesel, livestock feed, vegetable oil and more.

There is a key science phenomenon behind this seasonal response to day-length.  Photoperiodism is the ability of plants and animals to use the length of daylight or darkness to trigger development or a modification of activities. In many organisms, photoperiodism causes seasonal activities like growth, flowering, reproduction, migration and dormancy in some organisms. Temperature and moisture affect growth and other seasonal activities too, but they are much less regular in timing. Consequently, they are less effective “clocks” to trigger activities needed for organisms to survive and reproduce.

In the plant world, flowering is the most common and significant activity affected by photoperiodism. Plants are divided into three categories: short-day, long-day, and day-neutral. While these names suggest that the length of daylight triggers flowering, it is actually the night length that is most critical to development.

Short-day plants bloom when the length of day drops below a critical threshold. This threshold varies by species, but short-day plants generally require greater than 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness to flower. Other short-day plants include the chrysanthemum, Christmas cactus, rice, green onion, and sugarcane.

Conversely, flowering in long-day plants is triggered when daylight lasts longer than their critical threshold, typically in spring or early summer, after the spring equinox.  Examples of agriculturally significant long-day plants include lettuce, spinach, turnip, radish, sugar beet, and potato.

You might be wondering; how do plants sense light? Unlike my kids, plants do not have eyes to tell night from day. Instead they have photoreceptors, specialized proteins bonded to light absorbing pigment within cells. When the pigment receives certain wavelengths of light, the photoreceptor protein is altered and causes changes in hormone production, gene expression, and growth.

So, why does photoperiodism matter and how does it affect farmers?

Day-length influences a wide range of plant responses in the crops farmers grow across the country and around the world. Flowering in soybeans, bulb formation in onions and garlic, runner development versus flower bud initiation in strawberries, and even seed germination of some plants are affected by the amount of daylight and darkness.  Because of this day-length plays a big factor in what farmers grow when and where.

Some crop’s critical day -length differs among varieties. Soybeans, for example, are classified into maturity groups according to their response to photoperiod. Maturity group zones were developed to define where a soybean cultivar is best suited.

Some crops’ critical day-length differs among varieties. Onions, for example, can be short-day, long-day, or day-neutral. Farmers choose varieties best suited to their part of the country. In the South, winter temperatures are milder and summer and winter days do not vary much in length. Because of this, southern farmers plant short-day varieties in the fall for a late-spring harvest. Short-day varieties can be grown in northern states, but the bulbs will not grow as large.

soybean4All soybean varieties are short-day plants, but there is still some variance in the critical day-length threshold required for flowering. Therefore, photoperiod response is one of the primary factors used to classify soybeans into maturity groups. Plant breeders use maturity groups to define where a soybean variety is best suited. Soybean maturity groups range from earliest (000), to latest (10). There are gradations within maturity groups formed by adding a decimal to the number. For example, a seed company may offer a soybean variety with a 3.6 relative maturity.

Soybean yield is a product of the number of days seeds have to develop and the rate at which they develop. Later maturing varieties have more days for seeds to develop, which helps increase yield.

Earlier maturing varieties, on the other hand, produce more leaves before flowering starts. Leaves are the plant’s energy factory, and energy is needed for seed development. So, as you go up the maturity group scale, the signal to start flowering is delayed. This gives the plant more time to develop a bigger factory, thus increasing the rate of seed development and yield potential.

Soybean field lit almost orange during sunset, with background of blue sky and some cloudsIf a late-maturing soybean is planted too far north, frost may occur before the seeds are fully mature. If an early variety is planted too far south, seed development may take place when the plant is stressed from summer heat or drought. Either scenario can result in lower yields.

Farmers choose maturity groups based on their location, weather, and other factors. If spring planting is delayed by weather, they may choose a maturity on the earlier side of the range suitable for their location. Some farmers choose to plant a variety of maturities so their crop matures at different time.  This helps to spread risk and time planting and harvest around other farm activities.






How Far Apart are Crop Rows?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 2, CROPR3161

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that answers some of your questions!


What’s Cookin’?: State Fair Sweet Edition

Mmmm… who doesn’t love the smell of freshly-baked caramel rolls, cupcakes, and yummy eclairs. These were just some of the delicious treats our expert judges sampled this year during the ‘Iowa’s Big Four’ cooking competition at the Iowa State Fair.

Each year, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation hosts this cooking competition in honor of Iowa’s agriculture industry and its biggest commodities – corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs. Iowa is a major producer of many agricultural commodities. In fact, one in five Iowa jobs is tied to the agriculture industry! The following statistics will give you a glimpse of why agriculture is a significant contributor to the Iowa economy.

Iowa Big Four Facts

  • 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. Source: Iowa Egg Council
  • 99 percent of corn grown in Iowa is field corn, not the sweet corn that we enjoy on the cob. Corn is in more than 4,000 grocery store items such as shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, marshmallows, crayons, and paper. A small portion of field corn is processed for human uses such as corn cereal and corn oil, however, most of the corn harvested is used for livestock feed, ethanol production, and manufactured goods. Source: Iowa Corn
  • Nearly one-third of the nation’s pigs are raised in Iowa. Iowa producers market approximately 50 million pigs a year. Exports of pork from Iowa totaled more than $1.1 billion in 2017, with Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico, and South Korea as the leading customers for Iowa pork. Source: Iowa Pork Producers
  • Iowa ranks second nationally in soybean production, accounting for around 14.5 percent of all soybeans grown. In 2018, Iowa harvested 9.91 million acres of soybeans, which valued at $4.8 billion. Source: Iowa Soybean Association

With these impressive stats, you can see why we honor Iowa’s agriculture community with a food competition. At our food competition, aspiring chefs from across Iowa prepare a sweet and/or savory dish using at least one of the big four Iowa commodity ingredients or by-products of corn, soybeans, pork or eggs.

This year’s winning recipe in the sweet category was Iowa Éclair submitted by Kathleen Tinley of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The recipe uses eggs, corn, and soynuts.

Iowa Eclair - 1st place c

Iowa Eclair – 1st Place, Sweet Category

Iowa Éclair


Pate a Choux
1/2 C Whole Milk
1/2 C Water
1/2 C Unsalted Butter
1 T Sugar
1/2 t Salt
1 C Flour
4 Eggs, Room Temperature

4 T Unsalted Butter, Room Temperature
1/2 C Brown Sugar
1/2 C Flour
2 T Soy Nuts, Finely Grounded
Pinch Salt
1/2 t Vanilla
Green Food Color Gel
Yellow Food Color Gel

Sweet Corn Diplomat Cream
5 Cobs Sweet Corn, Cleaned
2 C Whole Milk
6 Egg Yolks
1/2 C Sugar
1/3 C Cornstarch
3 T Unsalted Butter, Cubed
1 C Heavy Cream

Blueberry Sauce
3/4 lb. Blueberries
1/3 C Sugar
3 T Lemon Juice
1 T Water
1/2 T Cornstarch
1 T Unsalted Butter


  1. Beat together butter, sugar, and salt. Beat flour and soy nuts into butter. Mix in vanilla.
  2. Divide dough in half. Dye one half pale yellow and the other half light green.
  3. Roll doughs out between two sheets of wax paper until 1/16-inch thick. Place both sheets of dough in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.

Sweet Corn Diplomat Cream

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add corn to the boiling water, cover with a lid, and turn off the heat. After five minutes, remove corn from water and allow to cool.
  2. Cut corn off cobs. Squeeze excess liquid off cobs. Add corn and liquid to a medium pot with a heavy bottom. Add milk to corn and place over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once the milk comes to a boil, remove the pan from heat.
  3. Strain 1 1/2 cup milk from corn mixture. Blend remaining milk and corn with a stick blender. Strain corn puree, discarding solids. Set puree aside.
  4. Whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch until thickened and pale yellow. Transfer strained milk and puree back to the pot and bring to a simmer.
  5. Slowly whisk 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg mixture. Add resulting mixture to milk remaining in the pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring custard to a boil and simmer for two minutes.
  6. Strain custard into a clean bowl and let cool 10 minutes. Stir in butter and vanilla. Cover the surface of custard with plastic wrap and allow to cool completely.
  7. Whip cream to just before stiff peaks. Fold into custard.

Blueberry Sauce

  1. Combine blueberries, sugar, and lemon juice and cook over medium heat allowing berries to break open.
  2. Whisk together cornstarch and water. Add slurry to blueberries and cook until thickened, about one minute. Stir in butter. Cool.

Pate a Choux

  1. Preheat oven to 400 Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Combine milk, water, and butter in large saucepan and heat over medium to melt butter. Bring mixture to a boil. Add flour and beat in quickly until fully combined. Remove from heat.
  3. Allow dough to cool a few minutes before beating in eggs one at a time.
  4. Transfer dough to a pastry bag fitted with a ¾-inch piping tip. Pipe 12, 5-inch eclairs on prepared baking sheets.
  5. Cut out corn husk-shaped pieces from green craquelin and corn cob-shaped pieces from yellow craquelin. Place on top of strips of dough.
  6. Bake eclairs for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake an additional 25 minutes, until golden brown.
  7. Transfer eclairs to a cooling rack. Pierce bottom of each éclair in three places to allow steam to escape.


  1. Transfer sweet corn diplomat cream and blueberry sauce to pastry bags fitted with plain piping tips.
  2. Fill eclairs about 1/3 full with diplomat cream through steam holes in the bottom. Add a small amount of blueberry sauce through each steam hole. Fill eclairs completely with remaining diplomat cream.

Second and Third Place

Jennifer Goellner submitted the second-place recipe (2nd Place – Maple Bacon Cupcakes Recipe). Maria Monahan submitted the third-place recipe (3rd Place – Grandmas Caramel Rolls). Both ladies are from West Des Moines.

Keep an eye on this blog for the next What’s Cookin’ series as it will feature the winning recipes in the savory category!


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.


8 Great Spring Lessons about Animals, Plants & Seasons

Agriculture is always good topic for teaching science, but spring is probably the most popular time to include topics related to plants, animals, seed, seasons, etc. Why? Because classroom learning becomes more real and relevant when we can make connections to what is happening outside of school. Students can tell the weather is becoming warmer. They see leaves beginning to develop on trees, young calves in pastures, and tractors planting seeds in fields. These changes that happen outdoors in the spring can spark beautiful science conversations in elementary classrooms!

Below are eight of our favorite lessons and books for teaching elementary students about seasons, and plant and animal life cycles in the spring.

  1. Farm by Alishea Cooper. The farmer or farm animals are the main characters of most farm-themed books.  Not this one.  The farm itself takes center stage.  Through lyrical writing and beautiful illustrations, this books takes the reader on a journey to learn about what happens on a farm in the spring and throughout the year.
  2. Eggology. Incubating eggs is a popular spring activity in elementary classrooms. This lesson provides teachers with many ideas and resources for turning an incubating experience into a rich science learning experience. Through three engaging activities, students learn how the basic needs of a growing chick are met during incubation
  3. Hatching Eggs in Room Six. Whether you incubate eggs in your classroom or not, this book is a prefect way to introduce students to the concept of incubation. It highlights the life cycle of chickens, parts of an egg, incubation, and caring for freshly hatched chicks.
  4. From Chicken Little to Chicken Big. Chickens are a perfect animal to learn about when discussing life cycles and physical characteristics. In this lesson students identify different breeds of chickens, examine their physical characteristics and sequence the life cycle of a chicken.
  5. Animal Life Cycles, This lesson goes beyond chickens to help students learn about animal characteristics and life cycles. Students are introduced to six major livestock species, discover that all animals need air, food, water, and shelter to survive, and compare and contrast animal life cycles.
  6. Seed Germination Necklaces. Planting a seed and watching it grow is one of the simplest, but most mesmerizing things you can do with students. Unfortunately, most of the magic of seed germination happens underground where students cannot see the changes that happen as the seed swells and roots and leaves emerge from the seed. This lesson solves that problem by germinating corn and soybean seeds in a clear bag.
  7. Soybean Life Cycle Sequencing. The soybean plant is an excellent plant to use when teaching life cycles, because it has a very typical life cycle and it is grown throughout Iowa and most of the United States!  After reading My Family’s Soybean Farm by Katie Olthoff, students works as a group to sequence pictures of the soybean life cycle stages and complete a worksheet to match vocabulary introduced in the book to the stages of the soybean life cycle.
  8. Growing Plants in Science and Literature, More than Empty Pot. Students will use the story of The Empty Pot to explore literature and science, practicing story mapping and learning about the needs of plants and the importance of soil and water. Like the characters in the story, students will plant and observe the growth of seeds.


Now it’s your turn!  What is your favorite way to incorporate agriculture in into lessons in the spring?





What’s Cookin’?: State Fair Sweet Edition

The average American consumes approximately 222 pounds of meat per year – more than 46 pounds of which is pork. Pork is something Iowans know a lot about. We raise 22.8 million pigs each year. If each of those pigs was raised to a market weight of 300 pounds, we could expect approximately 144 pounds of meat from each pig. That means each pig could provide meat for three people over the course of a year. There are only 3.1 million people in Iowa so to feed Iowans we only need to raise one million pigs. What do we do with the other 21.8 million pigs? They get sold to other states and other countries around the world. Iowa truly does have a role in feeding the world!

This is why we celebrate the productivity of the state. Iowa is a major producer of several agricultural commodities. Corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs are what I call the ‘big four’. Each year we host a cooking contest at the Iowa State Fair. Aspiring chefs and cooks can enter dishes – sweet and savory. Each dish has to include one or more of the big four ingredients in the recipe. Kudos to those cooks who are able to include all four! The entries are judged by a panel of experts representing each of the commodity organizations that are responsible for helping farmers (Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Council, and the Iowa Egg Council).

This year’s winning recipe in the sweet category was Butterscotch Cream Pie submitted by Jamie Buelt from Polk City, Iowa. This recipe uses lard from pork and four eggs as well as Iowa cream.

1 Cup Flour
1/4 Cup Cake Flour
1/3 Cup Lard
2 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon Baker’s Sugar
3 Tablespoons Very Cold Water

1/4 Cup Real Butter
1 Cup Light Brown Sugar, firmly packed
4 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
1/2 Cup Milk
11/2 Cup Heavy Cream
4 Large Egg Yolks, separate eggs
1/2 Teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1 Pinch Salt
3 Drops of Butterscotch Oil

Whipped Cream
1 Cup AE Whipping Cream
1/4 plus 1 Tablespoon Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift dry ingredients and then cut butter until mixture has the consistency of cornmeal. Then cut the cold lard and butter into pea-sized pieces and cut in with pastry cutter. Move mixture to one side of the bowl and using a fork, rake about one-sixth of the dry-butter lard mixture into the other half. Add one tablespoon of cold water and combine. Repeat with each tablespoon of cold water. Bake for 30 minutes until crust is brown.

Stir brown sugar and butter in a saucepan until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Cook 2-3 minutes longer on low-medium heat, and then remove from fire. Beat egg yolks. In separate large bowl, mix flour with 1/2 of milk, until smooth. Then add beaten egg yolks and salt and mix well. Blend remaining milk with this mixture. Add milk-flour mixture to saucepan with sugar/butter mixture and cook on low/medium heat until thickened (anywhere from 30-45 minutes), stirring constantly. Remove from heat and blend in vanilla extract and butterscotch oil. Stir constantly until well-blended and slightly warm and then pour into a prepared piecrust and chill.

With a mixer, cream with sugar. When cream has thickened, add vanilla and beat until soft peaks form. Top chilled butterscotch filling with whipped cream. A flourish is nice.

2nd and 3rd

Second place was submitted by Sharon Gates of Des Moines, Iowa and was a Corn Custard Brulee with Candied Bacon Crumbles.

IMG_4413.JPG1/2 Cup Bacon Crumbles
2 T Brown Sugar
1 T Light Corn Syrup
1 Cup Fresh Sweet Corn (removed from cob)
3/4 Cup Heavy Cream
1/4 Cup Whole Milk
3 T White Sugar
3 Egg Yolks
1 Egg
1/2 T Salt
1/4 T Freshly Ground (fine) Black Pepper
1/8 T (scant) Chipotle Chile Morita Powder
Sugar for Bruleeing

Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir together bacon, brown sugar and corn syrup. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven. Set aside to cool. Put remaining ingredients except heavy cream and brulee sugar into blender and liquefy all. Add heavy cream pulse blender to incorporate. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a ramekin sprayed with non-stick spray. Place ramekin in a baking dish on the middle rack of oven. Carefully pour boiling water into the baking dish to halfway up the outside of ramekin. Bake 45 minutes or until the center of the custard registers an internal temperature of 170°F. Remove from oven and let cool. Just before serving sprinkle a layer of sugar over the top of each custard and brulee with a torch. Serve candied bacon on the side.

Third place was also a Corn Creme Brulee submitted by Diane Rauh of Des Moines, Iowa. Considering these two winners – clearly these are recipes we should try.

IMG_4441.JPG1 Can (15 oz) Whole Kernel Corn, drained
4 Teaspoons Butter
3 Cups Whipping Cream
1 Cup 2% Milk
8 Large Egg Yolks
1¼  Cups Sugar plus 4 Tablespoons for topping
2 Tablespoons Vanilla Bean Paste

Heat oven to 325°F. In large saucepan, cook corn and butter over medium-high heat until all liquid is evaporated. Spoon out and set aside 1/4 cup of the corn. Reduce heat to medium. Stir in cream and milk; cook until bubbles form around sides of pan. Remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes. Pour in blender container. Cover and blend at high speed until smooth. Strain through wire mesh strainer and discard corn pulp. Return cream mixture to pan. In medium bowl, whisk egg yolks and 1¼ cups sugar with wire whisk until blended. Whisk in a small amount of the hot cream mixture. Return egg mixture to pan, whisking constantly. Stir in vanilla. Sprinkle reserved corn in bottom of 8 (6-8 oz) ramekins or custard cups. Place in baking pan. Add 1 inch of hot water around the ramekins. Bake uncovered 40 to 50 minutes or until centers are set but still jiggle slightly. Remove from water bath. Cool 10 minutes. Cover and refrigerate 4 hours or until well chilled. Sprinkle 1.5 teaspoons sugar over each ramekin. Using brulee torch, caramelize the sugar. Serve immediately.

Enjoy the recipes!