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?





Calving on the Farm


A day old calf…a very large, day old calf

There is something wonderful about being eye to eye with a newborn calf.  The soft, warm, eyes and long eyelashes have a profound way of looking out into the brand-new world. They are patient and accepting, even welcoming as if to say, “Well what’s gonna happen next?”

The calf has undergone quite a journey.  A cow’s gestation period is roughly the same as humans. While it may be commonly considered nine months,  anyone who has first hand experience will tell you 40 weeks is actually ten months. For the past 38 to 44 weeks (the approximate range for cattle) the mother cow has fed and protected her young as all mammals do, inside her uterus. Just like a human mother, the cow has been carrying her offspring, protecting it, nourishing it and keeping it just the right temperature as it grows insider her.  From the outside looking in, this is pretty unremarkable.  But as calving day approaches, a dramatic event is about to unfold.

A cow and nursing calf.

The first sign that a cow is calving is when she begins to “bag up” which is a way to say her udder is filling with colostrum in preparation for her calf’s first meal. As soon as this happens, the farmer will make an effort to keep this cow under observation. This can be a difficult task since most cattle will go off by themselves when their time is near.  We watch our livestock and only aid in calving assistance when it is apparent the calf will not come on its own.

After the cow’s water breaks, the calf needs to start moving through the birth canal. If this process takes too long, the calf is at risk of suffocating as it is no longer getting as much oxygen through the umbilical cord inside its mother. The umbilical cord will break shortly after birth and the cow’s body prepares for that by starting to reduce the blood flow during labor. During the spring we watch our cows, especially the young heifers, closely. We usually start intervening and assisting the cow no more than one hour after we know the water has broken. We also step in to help the cow deliver when we begin to see the hooves emerge from the cow.

“Pulling” a calf is a process where straps are applied to the calf’s feet, and then, well, we pull. First, the cow needs to be secured in a chute or by “tying her off” with a rope around a pole, tree, or even a tractor if we have to pull in a field. The process is not easy (on the cow or the farmer) so we only do this when absolutely necessary. It prevents the cow from moving and hurting the farmer or herself. Next, we fit nylon straps over the calf’s hooves and apply gentle pressure on the puller. Working with the cow, we pull when she has contractions. First come the hooves (front feet) and next the head. Once the head is out, we continue to draw out the rest of the body. Shoulders come in a gush and the midsection of the calf is exposed. Usually the hips offer the second wave of resistance, but this is a good thing. If the cow is still standing, and if the calf has inhaled any amniotic fluid this “hanging period” allows the lungs to clear out. After the hips are exposed, there is a rush of calf and fluids where the newborn drops to the ground.  Whoosh!

Mother cow cleaning off her calf

Drying off the calf is the next important job for a mother cow. She will lick the calf with her tongue to clean it and to stimulate blood flow which warms up the calf and helps it begin to move its limbs. As a calf moves around on its knobby knees and wobbly legs it is determined to stand. Standing is the only way the calf will receive the nourishment from its mother that it needs to survive. The calf has to stand to reach the cow’s udder. Slowly, the calf will need to make its way to her udder. The colostrum  is the first milk which provides antibodies to assure the health and well being of this young calf, who might be only 30 minutes old. The suckling calf will also stimulate the

“after” photo of cleaned up calf

mother to expel the placenta or “after birth”. If this does not happen on it’s own it can be very dangerous for the cow and cause infection. Again, livestock farmers watch their animals closely intervening only when necessary. Plus, removing a placenta that doesn’t get expelled is a pretty smelly job.


A Red Angus cow and calf pair.

Once “paired up”, that is the cow has accepted the calf as her own, the calf will grow quickly each day. It will learn about its new environment, and make sure to stay close to mom. “Mom”, who is a full-grown cow, can weigh around 1200 pounds depending on the breed. Because of their size, cows can be intimidating to humans – especially kids who are less than a 10th of their size. But calves are a lot smaller, and well, who doesn’t like to learn about baby animals?

My job as a farmer can be tough, but it makes my job as an educator easy. When we talk about the calves (or lambs, or chicks, or piglets), students are hooked.

And the questions pour in.

“How big is a baby calf when it is born?” The students eyes are open wide and incredulous when they hear. A newborn calf can weigh up to 70 pounds! That is bigger than two preschoolers combined!

“Does it hurt them when you put on the ear tags?” The ears of a calf are mostly cartilage without a lot of nerves. We never intend to cause our livestock pain, or any discomfort, but the little pinch of the ear tagger can assist a commercial cattle farmer in making important decisions regarding that calf. The tags play an important role in helping us identify the calves, the offspring of one cow and one bull. Decisions need to be made about to whether or not that was a successful pairing based on how well the calf is growing. We target specific traits and use genetics to determine which cows to pair with which bulls for optimal outcomes. Also, when it comes time to vaccinate, it is important to keep tack of which calves got what vaccines.

Preschool students make their own ear tags.

During my classroom visits, the students get a chance to make their own ear tags which we hang on their ears with yarn. Numbers on the right side of the tag identify the cow. Numbers on the left identify the bull, and the large number in the center of the ear tag is the order in which the calf was born on our farm. The tenth calf born in a season is tagged 10, the eleventh one born is tagged 11 and so forth.

“How does the momma cow know which calf is hers?” A mother cow can tell which calf is hers by smell and by sound. The cows can identify a calf’s cry even in a large herd. Cows and have a sense of smell that can detect scents five miles away.

“How long will a calf get to stay with its mommy?” How long the pairs stay together depends on each farmer and their particular operation. The optimal time on our farm, is 7-8 months.  We like to have our young calves weaned, that is, no longer paired with the cow, when the grass is still good, and the weather is nice.

Over the past 16 years as a farmer, I have assisted in the birth of many calves. It is quite the experience and a joy to be near another living thing during its first few minutes of life. Likewise, it is a joy to share a bit of these experiences with students and watch their curiosity grow as they learn about agriculture.


Why do they do that? Anhydrous


Early in the spring and late in the fall it is common to see tractors pulling large white tanks across bare farm fields. So, what are these strange white tanks? What’s in them and why is it applied to fields?

They are anhydrous tanks filled with anhydrous ammonia (NH3) – one of the most efficient and widely used sources of nitrogen fertilizer for agricultural crops like as corn and wheat.

Nitrogen is one of the 17 essential elements required for plant growth. Nitrogen is most commonly found in the atmosphere making up approximately 78% of the air that we breathe. But in the air it is in the form of N2 which is not available to plants to use. Nitrogen is part of chlorophyll which makes plants green and allows them to use sunlight to produce sugars (food) from oxygen and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Nitrogen supports strong vegetative plant growth, which is vital for good fruit and seed development.

Plants use nitrogen by absorbing either nitrate (NO3) or ammonium (NH4) ions through their roots. Soybeans and other legume plants can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form because of nitrogen fixing bacteria on their root nodules. Other plants, like corn, need to have an ample supply of available nitrogen in the soil. Farmers can add nitrogen to fields in the form of livestock manure, granular urea, liquid nitrogen (UAN solution), and anhydrous ammonia.


When making environmentally and economically sustainable decisions about fertilizers, farmers consider the 4Rs best management practices. This helps them select the right fertilizer source and apply it at the right rate, right time, and right placement in the soil.

Anhydrous ammonia is often a preferred nitrogen source for many reasons. It is more concentrated than other forms of nitrogen, containing 82% nitrogen. It is readily available, because it is used in the manufacturing process of other nitrogen fertilizers. It can be applied long before the crop is planted. It is usually the most economical option as well.

Farmers store and transport anhydrous ammonia in liquid form in pressurized tanks. Using an anhydrous applicator pulled by a tractor, the high-pressure liquid converts to a liquid-gas mixture as the pressure drops while traveling from the tank to the knife outlet on the applicator. The knife slices the soil and injects the fertilizer 6 to 8 inches into the soil.

Once in the ground, the ammonia (NH3) ions react with moisture in the soil and convert to ammonium (NH4). Ammonium ions are very stable in the soil. They carry a positive charge and are bonded to negatively charged soil particles like clay and organic matter. These ammonium ions can be taken in by plants and used directly in proteins. Over time, the ammonium converts to nitrate (NO3) which is the form of nitrogen most used by plants for growth and development. Nitrate does not bond to soil like ammonium does and could leach out of the soil and into waterways. Nitrogen fertilizer stabilizers are often added to anhydrous ammonia before application to slow the conversion of ammonium to nitrate, thus helping to reduce nitrogen loss from leaching.


Because of the stability of anhydrous ammonia (and converting to ammonium) it can be applied in the fall with less potential to leach, volatilize, or to be lost in water runoff than other nitrogen fertilizers. Cooler soil temperatures help keep the ammonium ion stable and so farmers try to apply it in the fall after the soil temperature drops below 50°F. If applied in the spring, it is best to apply it at least 3-5 days before planting to avoid damaging seeds and emerging roots.

Good nitrogen management is critical for growing healthy plants, good yields, and a profitable farm business. Farmers consider crop nutrient requirements, results of soil tests, soil conditions, weather, cost, time, and equipment available before choosing a fertilizer program that is the best fit for their operation.


Science 101: Germination

germination stages

Seeds are amazing. Although they might appear to be tiny lifeless objects, seeds are powerful living things just waiting for the right conditions to do their thing! Each seed contains exactly what it needs and is designed specifically for the job it must do. All seeds have the same mission. To germinate and grow into a plant that will produce more seeds.

It is important for farmers, and gardeners, to understand the science of seed germination so they can maximize yields while efficiently using resources.

So, what exactly is germination? And how does it work? Let’s explore these questions and others.

What is germination?

In simple terms, it is the process of a seed developing into a plant. Germination occurs below ground, before the stem and leaves appear above the soil.


How does germination work?

To understand the process, you’ll need know the main parts of a seed and their function.

All fully developed seeds contain three basic parts, the embryo, endosperm and seed coat. The embryo is the part of the seed that develops into a plant. It contains the embryonic root (radical), embryonic stem (epicotyl and hypocotyl), and one or two seed leaves (cotyledons).

structure and fuction of dicot and monocot seeds - lumenlearning.com

Structure of Seeds (Source: Lumen Learning)

The endosperm contains the starch or stored energy for the developing embryo. The endosperm is the largest part of the seed and packed around the embryo. The seed coat is the outer layer that protects the seed’s internal structures.

The first stage of germination, called imbibition, occurs when the seed is exposed to water. The seed absorbs water though its seed coat. As this happens, the seed coat softens.

Next, water triggers the seed to begin converting starch to sugar. This provides energy for the embryo during germination.


More water is then absorbed and the seed’s cells start to elongate and divide. The radicle, or primary root, is usually the first part of embryo to break through the seed coat. It grows downwards to anchor the seed in place and absorb water and nutrients from the soil.

Next, the shoot and seed leaves emerge from the seed coat. The process and order depends on type of seed. Monocot and dicot seeds are structurally different, which affects how they germinate.

Soon the shoot will emerge from the soil. The seed tissue will diminish as the plant’s roots, stems, and leaves develop.

What do seeds need to germinate?

All seeds need water, oxygen, and the proper temperature to germinate.

The soil temperature must be warm enough so seeds can germinate, but not so hot as to damage the seed. Cold soil temperatures can cause seeds to remain dormant, increasing their vulnerability to diseases and insect damage. Temperature requirements vary between species. Soybeans, for example, need a minimum soil temperature of 50 °F for germination, but 77°F is optimum.


Water triggers germination to start and is needed throughout the germination process. Soil should be moist, but not saturated with water. Some seeds require more water than others. The critical soil moisture level for corn is 30%, while soybeans need soil that it at least 50% moist in order for germination to occur. That’s because beans absorb more water. Beans take in two to five times their weight in water, while corn only absorbs about 1.5 times its weight.

Oxygen is found in the air we breathe, and in soil too! Oxygen is usually on the list of things plants need to grow. However, it’s not always included when discussing germination.

When a seed is exposed to the proper conditions, water and oxygen are absorbed through the seed coat and cause the embryo cells to enlarge. If there is not enough oxygen present, germination may not occur. The most common reason for a lack of oxygen is too much water in the soil due to over-watering or flooding.

Do seeds need light to germinate?

Sometimes, not usually. Most seeds do not require light for germination and germinate best in dark conditions. However, some seeds like carrots & some lettuce varities need light to germinate. The stimulus of light causes them to break dormancy and start germination once exposed to water and proper warmth. These seeds germinate best when planted on the soil surface or just barely covered with soil.

soybeans in field

Why does planting depth matter?

Although it may be tempting to plant seeds shallow so they emerge sooner, it is important to follow the recommended planting depth. Planting too shallow can result in insufficient soil moisture for germination or a weak root system. Planting seeds too deeply causes them to use all of their stored energy before reaching the soil surface. Like temperature and moisture, ideal planting depth varies by plant species. As a general rule of thumb, larger seeds can be planted deeper because they contain more stored energy to reach the soil surface than smaller seeds. Farmers consider other factors like soil type, planting time, and temperature when deciding how deep to plant.

Nearly everything we eat and most of what we use would not be possible without germination. Vegetables, grains and fiber crops are grown from seed. Meat, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that were fed seeds or plants that grew from seeds.

As you drive past fields of emerging crops this spring, think about the amazing science phenomenon happening before you.

– Cindy

Why are Baby Farm Animals Typically Born in the Spring?

ThinkstockPhotos-483531372.jpgThis unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having in February has us thinking about spring. And spring on farms usually means babies! Some of my friends even celebrate events like ‘Lambaggedon’. So many baby lambs can be born on a single weekend that family and friends have to come from miles away to help out. They make the event fun with a little contest. Guess the number of lambs to be born between Friday morning and Monday noon. Closest guess gets the privilege of naming one of the lambs.

But why are so many babies born in the spring?

In a lot of ways spring is the perfect time for babies to be born. Mother mammals usually need better, richer food to produce quality milk for their babies to nurse. For grazing animals like cattle, sheep, and horses, the fresh green grass and other plants on pasture in spring and early summer are rich in nutrients. These plants can have a higher percentage of protein and ‘total digestible nutrients’. This can lead to better milk production for the babies. Most calves are born between January and May because of this reason. Read more about early calving here.

ThinkstockPhotos-139923089.jpgSpring is also a good time for babies to be born because the days become longer and temperatures rise. With the warmer weather it is easier for the baby to survive. There is less chance of harsh weather. Just like humans, animals need to be protected from severe weather. Cows often like to wander away from the herd to give birth in solitude. This can put the mother and calf at risk. If the cow has any problems during the birthing process, a farmer might not be available to assist and help pull the calf. Away from the herd, especially in cold weather, the calf might be less likely to survive. Away from the herd, the baby might be in danger from predators like foxes, coyotes, or even large birds of prey like eagles. In many, contemporary farming operations calving and farrowing happens in a barn or ‘under roof’. This protects the mother and baby from many of those dangers.

Because spring is such a good time of year for babies, many animals evolved to accommodate these natural cycles. Many Iowans are familiar with the deer rut that happens in October, November, and December. Male deer are at peak testosterone, get more aggressive, and start fighting for mates. They wander out of their natural habitats which leads to increased motor vehicle accidents when they cross roads. This is in large part because the female deer come into estrus in the fall. As the days shorten, their hormones trigger the estrus cycles. A deer’s gestation will take 201 days. So if the female gets pregnant on October 1, you can expect a fawn around April 20th.

In farming generally, pregnancy and gestation follow these same deep-seated, natural cycles. Cattle gestate for 283 days. So if farmers want to start calving in February, they need to artificially inseminate or introduce the bull into the herd in the middle of April.

ThinkstockPhotos-489807042.jpgHowever, in contemporary farms piglets and chickens are born year-round. This might be attributed to two main reasons – consumer demand and differences in rates of development. Consumers want fresh meat and eggs year round. They don’t want fresh meat only in the fall when animals born in the spring are fully grown. Because consumers demand fresh meat year-round, farmers try to stagger when their animals go to market. This means that they might have to stagger when the animals give birth. Also, animals like pigs and chickens have much shorter gestation and development rates. Gestation of a pig is roughly 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. Pigs farrow (give birth) and then piglets are usually weaned within a month after being born. This means that a sow could have two or possibly even three litters per year.

ThinkstockPhotos-459924937.jpgChicken eggs take almost exactly 21 days to hatch. A chicken can lay an egg every single day. This rapid turnaround can produce a lot of birds quickly. Traditionally, chickens did not lay eggs in the winter. With the shorter daylight, their bodies stop producing the hormones that make them ovulate and produce an egg. But on contemporary farms, chickens are raised in barns where the light can be controlled. With artificial lighting, chickens can and will continue to produce eggs year-round. This is a huge convenience for modern shoppers who expect to see eggs in grocery stores even in the winter months.

So, while many farmers are still in tune with the natural cycles of the season with their animals, modern farming practices have helped solve some of the problems that restrict births to only the spring. There is an abundance of babies in the spring, but in agriculture babies might be born all year long.


Why Do They Do That? – Burning Fields and Ditches

This time of year you may see billowing plumes of smoke rising up across Iowa. Menacing blazes are seen by motorists traveling the state roads. Ditches are being burned and in some cases entire fields get burned. But, why?

Seventy-one years of Smokey the Bear have ingrained in us that fires are bad. We see their destructive power when they level a house or destroy a forest. But, throughout history fires have been an essential tool in land management.

042115_Burn_Meier1Each spring farmers and other land managers use controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) to put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land. These intentionally set fires serve a valuable purpose. At the end of the growing season plants will leave a lot of dead matter above the ground where it does not easily decompose. Fire breaks down that plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available to the soil and can help promote future plant growth. These prescribed burns are often applied to road side ditches where dead plant matter can build up quickly.

Fires can also help seed new plants. Many seeds have a thick outer shell that needs to be broken before the seed will start to germinate. Fire can break this shell and then the seed ends up laying in a nutrient rich bed to start growing. Healthy soil is the primary goal of using fire as a tool. Secondary goals of prescribed burn include brush and weed control. Fires can even help control ticks and parasitic worms that might infect livestock that graze on the land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANative Americans also used prescribed burns to manage grasslands long before we started farming in Iowa. Native Americans saw the improved plant growth after a fire and how the animals they hunted gravitated to this new growth. They used fire to manage the grasslands and ensure the herd health of the animals they hunted.

Farmers Take Great Care

stelprdb5294229Prescribed burns or controlled burns are effective because they are controlled. Land managers set fires in the spring when the ground is still wet and there is high humidity. This makes the fire easy to control and direct. It is also important to pick a day with very little wind. Too much wind can make the fire large and uncontrollable.

Land owners doing prescribed burns are careful to never leave them unattended. They carefully monitor the fire in progress. They often work with the local fire department to ensure the fire stays under control. And of course they are sure to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits necessary to do prescribed burns.

grassWhile fire might initially cause ugly, charred pieces of land, it is an important tool to create lush, rich vegetation.

– Will

Groundhogs, Vegetables and More

Earlier this month the venerable weather forecaster Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and made the bleak prediction that there would be six more weeks of winter. The weather in Iowa seems to agree with him as the temperature rarely rises above 32 degrees F. But, spring will come! And that means planting! That means crops. That means flowers. That means vegetables and gardens and so much more! Teaching others about the magic of growing things is fun and easy. Here are our top 8 recommendations for starting spring on an educational high note:

  1. five_me_fiveGive Me Five! This fun and engaging lesson is perfect for an upper elementary classroom. Introduce students to the importance of eating healthy and including the five main food groups. You can do extension activities and talk about all of the different types of fruits and vegetables that can fit into a healthy diet. You can also have students plant different types of vegetable seeds and grow their own salad!
  2. Why are vegetables sold by the pound in a grocery store? Find out in teaching the upper elementary lesson By the Pound to students. This interactive lesson reinforces math skills like measuring, estimation, weight and volume, addition and subtraction. How else do we measure the food we eat?
  3. Vegetable-growing-cheat-sheetPlan your garden. The soil is still too cold to put seeds in, but use this time to make a plan. Figure out what seeds you want to buy. Decide when each seed should be planted. You can even draw a map of your future garden so that you’ll be able to maximize the space you have available whether that is a pot on the porch or a half acre in the back yard. Click here to follow some step-by-step planning.
  4. Read Eating the Alphabet by Lois Erlet with your lower elementary students. Even some adults might be hard pressed to name a fruit or vegetable for every letter of the alphabet. For families this can also be a great game to play on a road trip. Go around in a circle and every person in the car name a fruit or vegetable that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. How many times can you make it A to Z? Get stuck? Check this website out for a quick hint.
  5. GardeninGlove1-225x300Garden in a Glove. Just because you can’t grow things outdoors yet doesn’t mean you can’t continue the learning indoors. This is a great visual way of comparing seeds, comparing growth, and learning about everything from the first root to the first leaves. Follow the step-by-step found here.
  6. When Vegetables Go Bad. This work of fiction written by Don Gillmor is a great tool to introduce nutrition to younger audiences (and get them to eat their vegetables). So, the lesson is: eat your veggies and the nightmares will stop 🙂
  7. Who Grew My Soup Song. We all know that students learn in a variety of ways. Connect agriculture to music with this memorable sing along based on the popular book. Read the book first and then teach the song. Talk about fun!
  8. Re-grow food from kitchen scraps. Involving kids in the kitchen can be a great way of helping them learn about nutritious eating. Invite them to help you cook a meal. Then, take it one step farther and plant some scraps to start growing your own food. When I was in third grade I did this with a pineapple we bought. Many years later that pineapple was still a great addition to our house plants. It even inspired a vacation to Costa Rica and a pineapple plantation. So, what can you grow? And where will it take you? Check out the how-to here.

cover4 We hope that these few tips will get you excited and motivated to get planting! Leave a comment below with your spring inspired lesson. Or tell us how any of these lessons worked for you!