Monthly Archives: July 2012

Straw or Hay?

Last week I showed you boys picking up straw bales in the wheat field, but do you know what straw is?  Or how it is different from hay?  Before we begin, take a moment to create a hypothesis.  That crazy word actually means “educated guess.”  It is not a wild a crazy guess.  For example, it would be a bit silly for you to guess that straw bales are moon dust and hay is fairy dust.  Definitely not right.  But you do know a few things you could use to base your guess on.  You know it probably has to do with farming.  Yes, that is broad, but it would certainly eliminate moon and fairy dust.  You know straw has to do with a wheat field too.  That narrows it down a lot.  And you might know a few things I haven’t told you, like who eats hay or how your neighbor uses straw.  Now, using that information try to create an educated guess about what hay and straw are.

Write it down in your science journal.  Even if the answer is different from your guess you can still learn things from your guess.




Straw is the stalk of the wheat.  The combine can cut the wheat close to the ground, sucking in lots of stalk, separating it from the grain, and spitting in out in rows behind the combine.   Then the stalks can be gathered up and pressed tight into bales by a machine like the one in the picture above.  This machine wraps a plastic rope around the bales, holding them together.


Hay, on the other hand, is cut grass.  And often not just any old grass, but certain types of grass, like alfalfa.  Farmers cut the grass when it is a few feet tall with a special mower.  The grass dries, becoming hay.  A tool called a rake is pulled behind the tractor and the grass is moved into neat rows.  Now the baler can scoop up the hay, just like it does straw, pressing it tight and wrapping it with twine.

Straw and Hay are also used for different purposes.  Since animals eat grass all summer, farmers feed them hay in the winter.  Using special grass like alfalfa helps keep cows, horses, sheep and goats healthy when the grass isn’t growing.  Straw is often used on construction sites to keep the dirt from washing away and to keep the lawn wet as new grass grows.  Have you seen it on the sides of a new highway project or in a newly constructed neighborhood?  Straw is also often used a bedding for animals to sleep on and you might lay straw in the rows of your garden to keep weeds from growing.

Compare this answer with the guess you wrote down in your journal.  How do they compare?  Did you learn anything new?

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Part of working on a farm is learning about plants, weeds, soil, and equipment.  Part of being a farmer is learning how to drive a tractor and fix a combine.  And part of farming is just plain old hard work.  These boys are picking up straw bales from the wheat field behind our house.  They pick up each bale and stack it on the trailer.  When the trailer is full they stack each bale in a semi trailer.  When the semi trailer is full they stack each bale in the shed.  They worked for three days on just this field.  All three days the temperature was above 100 degrees with a higher heat index.  All three days they started at 5:00, after they had worked their regular jobs.


That is farming.

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Super Simple Soil Experiment

If you didn’t see them last week, scroll down to Law of Supply and Demand Lesson Plan and check out the tires on the tractor, cart, and combine.

What do you think?  Pretty big, huh.  Well, today you will learn why farm equipment needs to have such large tires!

To begin, let’s try a super simple soil experiment.  You will need three things.

1.) Either some soil or sand

2.) Your finger

3.) Your hand

Like I said, super simple soil experiment.  Let’s start with the soil or sand.  All you need is a pile.  It can be in a pot, in the bag you bought it in, or in the sandbox, but you need a pile, not just the ground in your backyard.

Soil Science experiment

Next you need your finger.  Got it?  Good.  Poke your finger down into the soil.

soil experiment

Did your finger go down into the soil?  Unless your dirt is really a rock, your finger likely went in all the way.  Now, spread your fingers wide and place your whole hand on the soil.  Push down again.

soil experiment

Unless your soil is more like oozy mud, your hand probably made little more than a print.  Compare the two “holes” you made.  Do they look like mine?

soil experiment

Your finger made a much deeper hole, didn’t it.  And this hole was not made by taking soil out of the pile, but by pushing it in.  Soil being pushed down is called “compaction.”  Compacted soil is hard.  It has little room for air, water, or roots to grow.  Compaction is bad!

Unfortunately, compaction is also a reality.  Farmers must drive tractors, combines, sprayers, and other equipment over the ground.  So they have to do something about it.  Historically farmers have solved this problem by plowing their fields.  Horses pulled the first steel plows through the ground hundreds of years ago.  The metal knife cut into the ground, breaking the soil into pieces.  This helped with compaction, but can you guess what it hurt?  Erosion.  When the dark brown dirt was turned over and the seed bed was smooth even a small rain could wash away the soil into ditches, streams, and rivers.  Big rains could wash away entire portions of a field.

So today many farmers use a method called “no-till”.  Instead of plowing the ground farmers plant seeds into dirt that was left just as it was after last year’s crop was harvested.  Roots from the old plant hold the soil together, preventing erosion, BUT the soil was again compacted.

Engineers, Scientists, and others worked with equipment companies like Case IH and John Deere to make new tires that would cause less compaction.  They used the same idea you just did with your finger and hand.  Old tractor tires were small and thin, sort of like your finger.  New tractor tires are wide and gigantic, sort of like your open hand!  New tires were made of rubber, instead of steel and farmers often let some air out of the tires to make them squash even more, the way a balloon will squeeze flat when it is almost out of air.  Some tractors and combines even run on tracks, like a bulldozer, which lessens compaction even more.

Farmers care about the earth and the soil on it because they understand how important healthy soil is to happy eating!  And who knows?  Maybe one day you will become a scientist and help create new technologies that will allow farmers to take even better care of our world!

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Law of Supply and Demand Lesson Plan

harvesting wheat

Despite the wind and rain that kept us out of the wheat field in June, we have finished harvesting our crop!

harvesting wheat

But what happens after the combine cuts the wheat?  Great question  😉

The picture above show the combine unloading onto the cart.  We use the tractor and cart because of those huge wheels you see.  A semi drives on roads, but wheels on the tractor and cart can drive through fields  much better.  After the cart is full the tractor pulls it out to the road and unloads on the semi.  Then the semi drives back to the grain bins and unloads the grain into the bins.

And then what?

So glad you ask!  Then we sell the grain.  Have you ever clipped coupons or watched for sales on your favorite foods?  Have you ever purchased lots of something because it was a good price?  Well, grain prices change almost EVERY day and farmers are always watching for a good price!  Is it too cold in the states where wheat is growing?  Prices might go up because buyers believe the wheat will not grow well.  There will be less wheat and they want to be sure to get some!  If they really, REALLY want that wheat they will pay more to make sure they have it.

Is it sunny, warm, and just perfect in the states where wheat is growing?  Prices might go down.  People believe there will be lots of wheat.  Everyone will have wheat to sell and you can get wheat whenever you want it.  There is no need to pay a lot.

We call this the Law of Supply and Demand.  The amount of wheat we have is our “supply” of wheat.  “Demand” means how many people want it.  Lots of supply can mean low prices and not enough demand can do the same thing.  High prices come when there is a low supply and lots of demand.  American farmers help feed the world, so right now demand is pretty high.  Wheat prices often depend on weather– how well did wheat grow?  What is the supply?

When we can, farmers like to sell grain at high prices.  But we can’t always do this.  Sometimes prices stay low for long periods of time and farmers need money.  They have to sell their wheat for whatever price they can to pay for seeds for next year, diesel for the tractor, or to buy groceries for their families!

Sometimes farmers make choices to sell, thinking prices are good, but then prices go up the next day, week, or month.  It can be very difficult to predict the future!

Try this activity to see what its like to buy and sell grain like a farmer!  This website has a simple table so you can see what corn is selling for at three hog farms.  Pretend you have corn to sell.  Choose a time frame, such as two weeks, and check the website everyday to see what prices are.  Write them down in a notebook.  At some point during the two weeks pretend to sell your corn.  Make sure to continue recording until your time frame has ended.  Now, how did you do?  Did you sell at the best price?  Was it good?  Bad?  Did the Law of Supply and Demand affect prices?  Do you think this year’s drought will make prices go up or down?

*Note: you can also try this activity using produce from your gorcery store.  Take your notebook with you and jot down prices.  Do they go up or down?  What factors affect price?

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Pizza Recipe Using Produce from the Garden

Gardens are in full swing about now and gardening with your kids is a great way to learn about farming!  Are your tomatoes wilting in the heat no matter how much you water them?  Did squash bugs kill your cucumber plants and eat holes in your watermelons?  Did you plant sweet corn too late and have nothing but scraggly stalks to show for all your hard work?  These are problems farmers face each day.

But there are also great rewards to gardening with your kids– eating!  One of our family’s favorite ways to enjoy fresh veggies is the all-American favorite, pizza!  We grow cherry tomatoes and basil plants in our garden, but you can make up your own recipes, based on what you planted.

Pizza from the Gardengardening with kids, pizza from the garden

1 crust

mozzarella cheese

cherry tomatoes

basil plant

Start with a crust.  I love to bake a crust using the package mix from the grocery store, but you can buy pre-made crusts or use a homemade recipe.  Cook the crust with no toppings.

Add mozzarella cheese.  Lots of cheese.

Cut cherry tomatoes in half and arrange over the cheese.  Pull basil leaves off the plant, rinse, and arrange with tomatoes.

Grill the pizza over medium heat or cook in a 450 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or cheese is melty.

Eat and enjoy the fruits of your labors!

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