Why Do They Do That? –Irrigation

Most of us are familiar with weather and know that it is not consistent every year, and rain doesn’t always come when farmers need it. This is why some large fields resort to using some kind of irrigation system. Even though you may see a large irrigation system while driving down the road, it is helpful to note that most of Iowa’s cropland is not irrigated. According to the USDA, other states outside of the Midwest, such as California, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Idaho, rely more heavily on irrigation systems. This is due to their irregular and infrequent precipitation.

Using this method of irrigation systems to water crops, farmers can control their crops’ water requirements if there is not enough rainfall. Like many things in the agriculture industry, the control of these irrigations systems can be automated and can be done right from the farmer’s phone or tablet. With different technologies, farmers can adjust the water pressure, the amount of water, and more without even being on the field, similar to how you could control your home’s security or temperature with smart technology while being on the road. As advanced as this may seem, these irrigation systems continually advance with the rest of the agriculture industry with solar-powered irrigation systems being implemented more widely in the future.

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

When deciding what kind of irrigation system to use, farmers have several choices: sprinkler vs. drip and center pivot vs. linear.

sprinkler irrigation system:

This system imitates rainfall by distributing the water above the field surface, allowing it to fall on the crops and soil. All plants on the field should receive the same amount of water, hopefully resulting in similar growth. This system is one of the most popular kinds of irrigation, and you probably have seen them in the fields at one time or another. This system is also similar to what many homeowners use to water their lawns. Like every system, sprinkler irrigation has some advantages and disadvantages. A farmer may decide to go with the sprinkler system because of the reduced cost of overall farm labor and reduced soil erosion. Another farmer may opt out of sprinkler irrigation because of the high initial cost of pipes, motors, and installation, and because of the high water loss due to evaporation.

drip irrigation system:

Compared to a sprinkler system, the drip irrigation system can be more efficient than a sprinkler system because the water is being dripped from a lower point, drop by drop (there is less evaporation water loss). With this kind of system, the soil soaks in the droplets before they can evaporate or be blown away by the wind. The water is applied closer to the roots where it is truly needed. Although drip irrigation may seem like the more beneficial choice, there are some downfalls, including that the water outlets get clogged because they are in direct contact with the ground. These systems also take a lot of training to understand the machine and manage the system.

center-pivot irrigation system:

This type of sprinkler irrigation is just what it sounds like: a mechanical system that moves in a circle with a center point. This machine can also be used to apply fertilizers and pesticides. The chemicals are mixed into the water as the water is sprayed onto the field. This multipurpose system can be used on a variety of crops, including vegetables and fruit trees. The center point is usually a permanent, stationary point where the water is pumped up from an underground well. The long arm of the system stretches across half the field and as it moves in a circle, it waters the entire field. The arm is supported by large wheels that travel across the ground and hold the arm up. If you’ve traveled in a plane over Midwest states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado and looked out the window, you’ve likely noticed the circular fields. Each one of those fields has a center-pivot irrigation system on it.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Linear Irrigation System:

Linear irrigation systems are marketed to irrigate 98% of the field by traveling across the field in a straight line, forward, and reverse working best in square or rectangular fields. This system is another example of a sprinkler system. The water used is either taken from underground or a hose that drags behind the machine’s wheeled cart. In a linear irrigation system, soil compaction is reduced. It is also easier to work in windier conditions, unlike the center-pivot system because they are lower to the ground. Center-pivot systems can work on tall crops like corn. Linear irrigation system are better for shorter crops like alfalfa.

Now that we know what types of irrigation systems are out there, the final question is, why use them? With this kind of technology, crops can be watered in a controlled environment where the lack of rain can be less of a burden on farmers and their yield. Controlling the amount of water applied in a slow and steady manner can lead to less runoff and erosion. Plus, the time that farmers would typically take using more complex kinds of irrigation can now be spent perfecting other areas of the field or farm operation.

Next time you see one of these systems as your driving down the road, now you will have a better idea of what it does! If you’re a farmer, let us know in the comments what works best for you!


Hi! My name is Madison Paine and I am the education programs intern at IALF for the next year. I am currently a junior at Iowa State University studying agriculture communications. I grew up on an acreage outside of Maxwell, IA where my love for agriculture first sparked. I am very excited to be here and can’t wait to see what this next year all entails!

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

Keeping Livestock Comfortable In Frigid Conditions

It is no surprise that Iowa winters are frigid cold. The freezing temperatures, snow, and sometimes icy conditions can wreak havoc on livestock producers. How do farmers care for their livestock in the frigid temperatures?

1.       Keep Enough Feed and Water Available

Increasing the amount of feed available to livestock can help them prepare for the cold. They are consuming more nutrients in the feed and that means they are consuming more energy. Providing good quality forages like alfalfa and grass hay goes further than just providing more grain

water heater

Image borrowed from: factsaboutbeef.com

Livestock must also have access to water at all times. To keep water troughs from freezing, farmers can use a variety of tricks. Electric tank heaters provide a steady supply of heat to keep the water above freezing. The heater can be submerged, like the photo,  so animals won’t bother them as much. The warmer water also encourages consumption. Water temperature of 37° Fahrenheit or warmer is ideal for livestock. If heaters are not an option, producers should offer fresh, unfrozen water several times a day to make sure that livestock can meet their daily water requirements (three gallons for sheep and fourteen gallons for cattle). 


2. Shield Livestock from the Elements

Image borrowed from: http://Flicker

Farmers provide windbreaks to protect the livestock from strong winds. The windbreak should be located perpendicular to prevailing winter winds. In Iowa, windbreaks are located on the north and west side of the fence. Wind breaks can be made using different designs. The multi-row windbreak design incorporates three or more rows of trees and shrubs.  Dense conifers are planted in one row. The multi-row windbreak design provides a large plant population, greater protection, and valuable wildlife habitat. There is also a twin-row, high density design that uses closer tree spacing between rows than the multi-row design. You can also use portable wind fences to protect livestock. Wind fences can be made of bale piles (hay or straw, or inedible biomass). Even snow piles pushed up by loaders can dramatically slow wind speed. Whatever type of windbreak farmers provide, it will dramatically reduce wind speed and increase temperatures for the livestock.

3. Have Bedding Available


Image borrowed from: soilassociation.org

Bedding helps livestock stay dry and comfortable in winter conditions. It insulates the livestock from the cold ground. Straw, corn stalks, wood chips are a few types of bedding that livestock producers use. Newborn animals should be provided clean, dry bedding as needed in their pens. The bedding keeps animals relatively clean from mud and protects them from frostbite. Providing bedding for livestock can also improve feed efficiency and overall animal health.

With a few added steps during the cold climates, farmers will have their livestock feeling comfortable in the frigid Iowa winter. 




future ag teacher 2

P.S. My name is Laura, I recently started as the Education Programs Intern for IALF. I am a Sophomore at Iowa State University studying Agriculture and Life Sciences Education. My agricultural background started on our family acreage in Southeast Iowa raising sheep and chickens. I was highly involved in 4-H and FFA and now continue to be involved in collegiate organizations: Sigma Alpha, AGED Club, CALS Council, and CALS Ambassadors.





6 Reasons Farmers Use Cover Crops

There is a challenge that farmers are faced with every day of their career—how do we protect the land we work on? Farmers work with the land everyday of their lives and work to protect and restore the land for future generations. They understand how the land provides for them—after all, without taking care of the land they work they would not be able to grow a product, such as corn and soybeans, and be able to make a profit for their livelihood. One way farmers work to protect the land is through cover crops.

What is a cover crop? This is a plant that is grown in fields to protect land quality for the future. There are many benefits of implementing the use of cover crops—and here are 6 reasons farmers use cover crops in their operation.sloans-cover-crop-in-corn-stubble

1.)Soil Erosion: One thing I will always remember from my American History lesson of the Dust Bowl is that bare ground is not the answer. Open topsoil is something to avoid in farming practices. Wind and water can carry the soil away through erosion. My dad always said that we can’t rebuild the soil, and he’s right—it takes many years to produce organic matter that makes up Iowa’s rich topsoil. By planting cover crops we help stabilize the soil and protect the topsoil layer by not exposing it to erosion by wind and water.

2.)Nutrient Management: Cover crops are a great way to add valuable nutrients back to the soil. Not only that but cover crops also add back organic matter to the soil as they decompose. In my agronomy class at Iowa State University, I am learning how certain types of legume plants have the ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, such as hairy vetch and winter peas. Nitrogen is an essential element in plant growth. By adding in certain cover crops we are also adding in ways to produce nitrogen. Adding in nutrients is not the only benefit, but also balancing nutrients in the soil is a great perk of cover crops too. Adding in certain cover crops, such as non-legumes cover crops (radishes and rye), also have the ability to tie up the nutrients and prevent them from runoff or leaching. Which leads us into our next reason, water quality.

3.)Water Quality: With nitrogen in the soil also comes nitrogen runoff—both which farmers work towards maintaining. Our water streams are easily exposed to nitrogen runoff and other pollution sources. Not only do some cover crops help produce nitrogen, but others like, radishes and rye, also work to lock in nutrients and keep them from producing runoff or leaching. If you think about it, cover crops work as an extra filter system on fields.

4.)Biodiversity: Not only are farmers introducing a new plant onto these fields, they also introduce new interactions of all types of life. Cover crops bring in new habitats, they bring in beneficial or repelling insects, they attract wildlife, and provide protection against wind and water erosion. Creating an area of diverse species only boosts the circle of life and provides new opportunities to grow.

5.)Weed Suppression: Competition is a real thing in the plant world and farmers use cover crops as a way to eliminate weeds from their fields. Roots of cover crops extend deep down into the soil to take up any nutrients or water available. While doing so they also ‘weed’ out other weeds (no pun intended) for those nutrients. Not only do cover crops compete with weeds below the soil surface, but they also compete above the surface for sunlight and space. The competition from cover crops is too stressful for the weeds to handle, making it easy for farmers to have complete weed control.

6.)Green Pasture: Some farmers who also have cattle also have the option of grazing their cattle on the cover crop fields. Its just another way farmers can save feed costs. Cattle love to graze on certain forages, especially crops like clover, radish tops, and rye. Not only can the farmer feed his cattle, but he can also fertilize his fields in the process. The cattle’s manure makes a great source of fertilizer—so basically it’s a two for one deal here.screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-11-47-14-am

There are many reasons why farmers use cover crops—each reason presents an opportunity to improve soil and land quality for the future. Now you may wonder why not all farmers use cover crops. Well even though there are benefits there are also challenges. Cost is a big challenge facing farmers and one of the key reasons that they do not use them. Although cost takes a toll in the present, the benefits can outweigh the costs for the future. For example adding in nutrients and managing weeds work to boost yields, not to mention protecting the topsoil works to help plant growth too. A farmer may be faced with many challenges each day, but they also know how they can work to make the best decision for their operation as well as for the land to be worked on in the future.

-Hannah Pagel

Why do they do that? – Terraces and Tile Lines

Much of Iowa seems flat, but as we’ve previously discussed there is actually a lot of variety to the Iowa landscape. In addition to this, many Iowa farmers dabble in terracing – creating terraces on the slope of a hill. But why do they do that?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed it, but look closely at Iowa fields – especially in the southern half of the state – and you will see terraces on many hillsides.

One thing that Iowa farmers struggle with is soil loss and erosion from water running across the field. When water after a rainstorm flows across the field it can pick up soil particles and carry those particles downstream. Loosing that soil off the field might make the field less fertile. The steeper the slope or grade of the land (like a hillside) the faster the water will move. The faster the water moves, the more soil it might pick up and carry away with it.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Iowa.

So farmers need to try and slow down the movement of water. Hence, terraces. Terraces are man-made earthen structures that intercept runoff on slopes. They change long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. At each level of the terrace, water has a chance to slow down and the soil has a chance to settle out which keeps it on the field. The result is that cleaner water leaves the field and not as much erosion occurs.

Farmers mound up soil on the hillside creating a somewhat level area with a short steep backslope down to the next level. The top, flat area can still be farmed with crops. The short steep backslopes are seeded with perennial grasses. The roots of these perennial grasses help hold the slope in place.

Sometimes terraces can also include a tile line and drain. In some cases and if there is considerable water build up, farmers can install a tile line and drain. This will allow the soil to settle out and the water to be siphoned off into an underground pipe. This allows the water to run through the pipe down the slope without collecting any soil. The water is discharged at the end of the pipe. This also reduces soil compaction and and enables good root development.

In Iowa, terraces are a fairly common practice. In fact hundreds of miles of terraces help cut soil loss. In one watershed management area terraces reduce soil loss by as much as 13 tons! New terraces might be installed in the fall of the year after growing crops have been harvested or in the spring of the year before crops are planted. In addition to reducing soil erosion, terraces can help retain moisture for growing crops and water conservation purposes. Terraces can even help create nesting habitat in the grassy back slopes that are largely untouched.


Fertilizing – Why do they do that?

We all know that plants need nutrients to grow. But don’t they get those nutrients from the soil? Why do farmers need to apply fertilizer?

You might hear Iowa farmers talking about ‘applying manure’ or ‘dragging anhydrous’. What they are really talking about is the application of fertilizers to fields with the hopes of increasing crop productivity. All plants need a variety of nutrients to grow and be healthy. A lack of any one nutrient might cause symptoms like yellow leaves or brown spots or other unhealthy symptoms like wilt or susceptibility to diseases like mold or insects.

Plants need a whole host of nutrients to stay healthy. They need micronutrients like boron (B), carbon (C), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), hydrogen (H), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), oxygen (O), and zinc (Zn). Recycling plant matter is an excellent way of providing micronutrients to growing plants. They also need secondary macronutrients like calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). But plants need the most of primary macronutrients which are N-P-K. These nutrients are usually lacking from the soil because plants use large amounts for their growth and survival. The three primary macronutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).

26e53c8Nitrogen is part of all living cells and helps transfer energy in plant cells. It is part of chlorophyll which makes the plants green and allows them to produce food through photosynthesis. Nitrogen supports quick plant growth and maintains strong leaves and good fruit production. Nitrogen can be fixed from the air through the nitrogen cycle or it can be added to fields in the form of fertilizer.

Phosphorus is also an essential part of photosynthesis. It helps the plants form oils, sugars and starches. Phosphorus aids in turning solar energy into chemical energy and helps the plant withstand stress.

Potassium benefits plants in building protein and producing high quality fruit. It also helps plants be more resistant to diseases.

Soil can hold some of these nutrients in place so that they are available to the plants when the plants are ready to use them. So often times farmers will apply manure (high in organic matter and nitrogen) or anhydrous (high in nitrogen). Because the soil can hold these nutrients, farmers can take advantage of slower seasons like the fall (after harvest) or spring (before planting) to apply fertilizer. But soil can’t hold an infinite amount of these nutrients. If there is too much nitrogen it can leach into waterways with a big rainstorm. Nitrogen in water can be a problem for wildlife and humans that rely on that water.

27067Farmers try very hard to only apply the correct amount of fertilizer. Too little and the corn or soybeans won’t grow well. Too much and the nitrogen will be wasted and potentially run off into the watershed. Precision application can use soil testing data to apply fertilizer only to the parts of the field that need it.

Anhydrous ammonia application in the fall should be done after the soil temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (usually around the first week of November). This prevents nitrogen losses from leaching. In the spring it is best to apply nitrogen within two weeks of planting the crops to avoid loss.

Once the crop is growing it may need some additional fertilizer (nitrogen) to maximize growth and yield. Even legume crops like soybeans (that have nitrogen fixing bacteria) sometimes need some extra nitrogen to help them grow. In that case it is important to apply the fertilizer as close to the period of maximum crop growth as possible. This ensures that it is available for the plant and won’t leach into the waterways.

Soil-water-conserv-weekApplying fertilizer takes a lot of scientific understanding of plant physiology, the nitrogen cycle, soil testing, and good management decisions. But with good management of fertilizer, crops can produce their maximum yield and we can still protect water quality here in Iowa. This is one small way that farmers celebrate Soil and Water Conservation Week – April 24 through May 1, 2016!


Lessons Learned

Our last day took us to the top of one of the natural wonders of the world – Table Mountain in Cape Town. The 1,000+ meter ascent by gondola was a bit nerve racking, but the view from the top was absolutely incredible. The flora and fauna are truly unique and very diverse.

As the Iowa Farm Bureau market study trip to South Africa draws to a close I reflect back on lessons learned. My observations don’t fully encompass the scope of this beautiful, diverse, and complex country but I walk away thinking. Here is what I observed.

  1. Water is essential: The most urgent crisis that the country faces is the drought. The lack of rainfall has decimated crops throughout the central part of the country and will likely put many farmers out of business. South Africa – typically a net exporter of maize – will see severe shortages and need to import huge numbers of bushels to meet their food demands. The importance of water either natural rainfall or irrigation can not be understated for the success of crops. Iowans are lucky that in some cases we have to tile fields to drain excess water away.
  2. Capital makes a world of difference: Whether you are starting a new business, expanding a farm, or just managing a yearly production operation, having capital is essential. Borrowing money is sometimes the only way to manage finances of that business and achieve success. A functional banking system and being able to cooperatively work with bankers is essential. We didn’t spend much time investigating the financial system here in South Africa but it was an underlying theme in many of the operations that we visited.
  3. Untapped labor potential: South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 26% (unofficially 35-40%). To me this represents a huge untapped resource for the country. If they could put even half of these people to work I have to believe that they would see a large economic growth. The downturn of the mining industry has put many out of work. The high immigration rate also leaves a lot of illegals searching for jobs. A Roosevelt era public works project may not be a bad idea to address this. Or a culture of entrepreneurship and small businesses could significantly address the problem. But the caveat is that these people need to be motivated to work. We didn’t experience it first hand but in the poorer populations there is seemingly a disinterest in improving their station.
  4. Risk is risky: With the drought as a primary topic of conversation we asked about crop insurance. Because the risk is so high and droughts occur so frequently, the economic model of insurance likely wouldn’t work. This puts all of the risk of planting crops squarely on the shoulders of the farmer. American farmers enjoy many subsidies and crop insurance programs that diversify the risk and provide somewhat of a safety net when planting.
  5. Education is paramount: Without adequate funding and appropriate standards, the educational system in South Africa is by many accounts failing. The tertiary schools are world class, but the primary and secondary schools are laughable. This is evidenced in the lack of scientific understanding of HIV, farming, medicine, and many other subjects. Witch doctors rule the rural areas and prescribe bogus treatments that might be severe as cutting of the finger or ear of a child to cure the adult. Many uneducated believe that HIV is actually spread by the use of condoms. And their president was quoted as saying that (after having sex with a prostitute) a shower immediately after would clean the HIV virus off him. A basic understanding of science could go a long way to addressing these issues.
  6. Rule of law and government support is key: We have heard many times about the governmental corruption that occurs. While we were in country the ANC (ruling party) met to discuss removing the sitting president. The president remains in office but is still dogged by allegations of corruption. Without a stable government that enforces rule of law it makes it very hard to make good management and business decisions. The uncertainty forces conservative decisions and being reactive instead of proactive to changing conditions. In addition, there seems to be little governmental support for farmers to ensure food security for the country or to promote international trade.
  7. Think outside the box: When the government began buying land and leasing it to emerging farmers (black farmers), Nick Serfountain saw potential disaster and a potential loss of his land and business. But he represented innovative thinking and began to vertically integrate his business. He began to work with the emerging farmers to ensure a steady supply for his feedlot and arbaiattor business. He started several other businesses and instead of folding under a challenged system he figured out how to work in the system and thrive. Senwes is another example of an innovative business model when they shifted from cooperative to full fledged agribusiness. Grain storage and grain marketing represents an important part of the value chain that they have been able to capitalize on.
  8. Address the root issue: Rhinos in Africa are threatened. Many are poached for their horn which is ground and sold to Chinese and southeast Asian markets as an aphrodisiac or medicinal supplement. Many efforts have been made to try and stop poachers or to stop the Chinese demand for the powder. But with rhino horn selling for thousands of dollars per kilo, both have had negligible success. If we can’t mitigated the demand for the rhino horn, is there a way to sustainability supply it AND promote wildlife conservation? Some argue that the legalization of the sale of rhino horn would allow for rhinos to be raised for their horn and it be harvested without hurting the animals. This would also supply revenue for wildlife conservation.
  9. Embrace technology: It was evident on the farms that we visited that technology was an important factor in their success. Whether it was genetically modified seed, livestock selected for specific traits, GPS tractor guidance systems, or economies of scale and efficient systems, technology played a major role.

It is hard to sum a two week trip up into a few short lessons. This barely scratches the ears of the hippo. I can with full confidence attest to the vibrancy of South Africa and highly recommend it be added to your list of future travel destinations. This quote from author Gegory Daivd Roberts resonated with me.

Fear is a wolf on a chain, only dangerous when you set it free.

Farmers here have every right to be fearful. The risks they encounter, the government they work with, and the weather the attempt to manage give cause for concern. But there is an undertone of optimism that cannot be ignored. And South Africans are not willing to set fear free.

Sorrow exhausts itself in the net of forgetting.

Apartheid is ended only a little more than 20 years ago now. Racial issues are still forefront in many people’s minds. But there seems to be a shared desire to work together and forget the past.

Anger, for all its fury, can be killed by a smile.

I found South African people – whites, blacks, and coloreds – to be warm, friendly, and engaging. There is a relaxed approach to collaboration. They regularly express frustrations with government, weather, and other stressors. But this rarely leads to anger because they are so quick to smile.

Only hope goes on forever…


Water & You


faucetWater is essential for life. Plants, animals and people need it to survive. Water makes up about 60 percent of your total body weight. Every system in your body depends on water. For example, water helps regulate body temperature, carries nutrients to cells, and provides a moist environment for ear, nose and throat tissue.

It’s no surprise that water is essential to a healthy lifestyle, but there’s more to it than drinking water. Water is also needed to grow fruits, vegetables and grains, and produce the dairy and meat needed for a well-balanced diet. One half gallon of water is needed to grow a single strawberry, and more than five gallons are needed to produce a head of broccoli.

Water is easy to take for granted. It seems to be everywhere. All we need to do is turn the faucet, stop at a water fountain, or pick up a bottle of water to get a clean and refreshing drink of water. Water seems to be everywhere outside too. It’s found in the ocean, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Although it seems to be everywhere, the amount of fresh water available is pretty small.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOceans are salt water. They make up 96.5% of all water on earth. A little more is found in inland seas and lakes, like the Great Salt Lake in Utah. People, plants, and animals need fresh water. Most fresh water on earth cannot be directly used for drinking or agriculture because it is frozen in polar ice caps. Only 30% is available for us to use. Some is in surface water like lakes, rivers, and streams. Most of the water we use to drink and grow food is found underground. Groundwater is found in the cracks and spaces in the soil, sand and rock. Wells let people bring water from underground – water tables and aquifers – to the surface where it can be used or stored for later use.

irrigationWe all play an important role in conserving and protecting the small amount of fresh water available on earth. Just like you conserve water by turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, farmers conserve water by the choices they make. They select crops that are well suited to their environment. This is one reason Iowa farmers primarily grow corn and soybeans. We usually receive adequate rainfall to grow a bountiful crop without additional irrigation. Farmers in other areas of the country use high-tech systems to irrigate. Sensors that monitor soil and weather conditions help them decide when and how much to irrigate. With the help of technology, farmers have greatly reduced the amount of water they used compared to 20 years ago.


Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?

In the spring, you might see some interesting looking plants popping up over last season’s crop remnants. What may seem like early growing weeds could actually be a way for farmers to promote soil and water health and reduce erosion in a system called cover cropping.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops, also called “green manure”, are short-seasoned plants that grow quickly after the ground thaws in the spring . Farmers will plant these crops in the fall after harvest to help give the land extra cover when their main crop, generally corn or soybeans in Iowa, is not established in the late fall and early spring months.


What do cover crops do?

Though there are many types of plants used in cover cropping systems, they all serve some of the same purposes. They help hold the soil together to reduce erosion, they serve as a guard against runoff (promoting water quality downstream), suppress weed growth, use different nutrients than cash crops, and can help build healthier soils by increasing organic matter and reducing compaction.

Why do farmers plant cover crops?

Some of the biggest benefits of cover cropping are nutrient recycling and soil and water health. If a farmer plants cover crops, their soil health will increase, and their main crop can see a yield boost. Farmers also realize that taking care of their soil is important, because without it, none of their crops could grow.

How do farmers plant cover crops?

There are a variety of ways farmers can establish their cover crops. Many farmers will drill the seeds into the ground to avoid extra tillage of the soil, which can cause increased erosion. Other farmers will have small airplanes or helicopters do aerial seedings. Other farmers may plant using a broadcast system that scatters the seed, or precision planting with a corn or soybean planter.


What kinds of plants are used as cover crops?

In Iowa, cereal rye is a commonly used cover crop. However, other small grains such as oats or triticale are also used, and some legumes such as crimson clover and hairy vetch  are used. Some farmers may even plant turnips or radishes! Producers can mix and match different kinds of plants according to their strengths and weaknesses to help them meet many goals with their cover crop rotation.

What do farmers do with cover crops?

Cover crops are interesting in that their main purpose is just to grow. Though some farmers may use them to graze cattle or to get added value from the plant, others may terminate them by mowing over them or by using herbicides.

All in all, this system of planting a short-season crop to break up regular cycles and to provide extra benefits to the environment is becoming more and more popular in the state. Farmers have found many different ways to make the idea work in their fields and operations, and will likely continue to find innovative and interesting ways to meet the same goals. What do you think will come next in cover cropping?


Farming. Why do they do that?

As humans we have to consume food to survive. But why do we farm at all? Why can’t we just live off the land like our hunter/gatherer ancestors?

For thousands of years humans spent most of their lives searching for food – hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. Then around 11,000 years ago people began to settle down and gradually learned how to grow cereal crops (wheat, barley, oats, etc.) and root crops (potatoes, onions, etc.). People began to domesticate animals and raise them close to their settlements. hunter_gatherer_camp_near_Bletchingley__around_5000BC__WSmap_panel_

This domestication of plants and animals drastically changed the way humans lived their lives and gave rise to great cities and entire civilizations. Rice was one of the first crops domesticated. Sheep and goats were some of the first livestock to be domesticated. These animals have a calm disposition and a herd mentality making them ideal partners for humans. Later cattle were domesticated for labor purposes as well as meat and hides.

Cereal and root crops could be stored for months or even years and this provided a stable source of calories. The domestication of plants and animals allowed for more calories to be produced more efficiently. Fewer people were needed to produce food and could start to specialize. People not involved in food production could become involved other activities like art, music, government, trade, and craftsmanship. Trades developed and innovations in technology made leaps forward. Having cattle, sheep and other livestock close at hand also provided a number of by-products for these crafts and trades. Leather and wool were turned into clothing and much more.

This societal shift to agriculture provided huge benefits, but was not without costs. Living close to water sources with lots of humans and animals creating waste was not always sanitary. Wells and rivers were often sources of disease. Water had to be mixed with alcohol to kill bacteria and prevent illness (though germ theory hadn’t yet been discovered). Growing grains and root crops provided the necessary calories for humans to survive but the lack of variety in diet did create some health problems. Early agriculturists were known to be shorter in stature and have more health problems like lost teeth. (Fortunately modern agriculture and trade allows us rich diversity of food. Human health is arguably the best it has ever been with long life spans and diseases of old age rather than malnutrition.)

By approximately 2,000 years ago, much of the Earth’s population had become dependent on agriculture. Agriculture enabled people to produce surplus food. They could use this extra food when crops failed or trade it for other goods. Food surpluses allowed people to work at other tasks unrelated to farming.

Formerly nomadic people stayed near their fields and villages started sprouting up. These villages became linked through trade. New economies were so successful in some areas that cities grew and civilizations developed. The earliest civilizations were near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran and along the Nile River in Egypt.

For thousands of years, agriculture progressed slowly. One of the earliest agricultural tools was fire. Native Americans used fire to control the growth of berry-producing plants, which grew quickly after a wildfire. Farmers cultivated small plots of land by hand, using axes to clear away trees and digging sticks to break up and till the soil. Over time, improved farming tools of bone, stone, bronze, and iron were developed. New methods of storage evolved. People began stockpiling foods in jars and clay-lined pits for use in times of scarcity. They also began making clay pots and other vessels for carrying and cooking food.

Irrigation systems also evolved. Farmers could water fields based on the needs of the plants and not be dependent on the uncertainty of rain. Early farmers developed and improved varieties of plants. Seeds from the best producing plants from each year were saved and planted again the next season. Plants evolved alongside humans as humans selected for the most desirable traits. For example, the wheat that was most prized had large, plump heads and berries. The berries stayed on the head when harvesting so seeds weren’t lost before thrashing. The wheat plant was stronger than previous cereal grains. Its hulls were also easier to remove so the wheat could be made into bread.

Trade quickened the spread of these plant varieties and the spread of agriculture innovations and technology. New tools were developed. Techniques to preserve nutrients in the soil were spread to different cultures including leaving fields fallow and crop rotation.

31-plant-breeding-and-gm-technology-leaver-4-638Produce, food, spices that originated in one corner of the globe began to spread across the entire globe. Chickens and spices like pepper and nutmeg spread from Southeast Asia to Europe and beyond. Wheat and barley originating in the Middle East are now grown around the world. Maize (corn), squash, apples and turkeys that originated in the North America have become staples in many cultures. Potatoes and peppers that developed in South America are firmly now part of European and Asian cuisines alike. Coffee, tea, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, and tobacco are all examples of crops that originated in one small part of the globe but today are being consumed around the world.

World population has continued to increase more rapidly in the 20th century than at any other time in history. Global population is currently over 7 billion and it is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2045. Compare those numbers with the fact that world population was still under 2 billion in 1900. This increase in population requires more food to be produced with limited resources.

Innovation and science have been at the forefront of producing more food and agricultural products. Horse-drawn seed drills gave way to fully mechanized tractors which today can practically drive themselves with GPS guidance systems. Corn and other crops have been selected to produce more on fewer acres. Chickens grow faster thanks to better genetics and precise feed rations. Sheep have been selectively bred to produce higher quality meat and long, coarse wool. Advances in agriculture have made leaps and bounds to try and keep pace with the demand for a healthy, safe, and abundant food supply.

In the early 1900s, an average farmer in the U.S. produced enough food to feed a family of five. Many of today’s farmers can feed that family and 155 other people. This great leap came about because of scientific advances and new sources of power. Farmers now use machines in almost every stage of cultivation and livestock management. Electricity has been able to light farm buildings and power machinery like water pumps, milking machines, and feeding equipment.

Today’s farmers can also better protect their crops and livestock from pests and diseases to keep them healthy. Crop losses have declined dramatically. Fertilizers greatly increase the growth and production potential of crops and supplement the nutrients found in the soil.

Farming today is not the same trial and error system that it was. Scientists and researchers now use sophisticated techniques to make plants better. By modifying genes in some crops, scientists can select for traits that will improve yield and make farming better, easier, and more cost efficient and at the same time improve human health. Genes might make a plant more resistant to cold or might be more nutritious. Certain genes can help ward off insects or increase yield.

Agriculture and food production has been 10,000 years of trial and error. But today it is more refined than ever and that has led to a higher quality of life for you and me. So, why do we farm the way we do today? Because we’ve applied the best practices of the last 10,000 years. But there is always more that can be learned and we can always do more to help ensure that agriculture will be able to sustain us for another 10,000 years.