Farming 101 (or, the Difference Between Hay and
Although I've never lived on a farm, I've always been interested in farming, for reasons I can't really explain. Now
don't laugh, but when I lived in Portland, I went to Portland Community College each spring to watch the
annual Oregon Draft
Horse Plowing Exhibition (I asked you not to laugh -- now stop it!) During the all-day event,
a small group of local farmers dusted off their draft horses and riding plows and demonstrated how farmers used to plow their fields
(see News: May 19, 2001). And each
May, when I excitedly asked my friends if they were going to the Draft Horse Plowing
Exhibition too, they either laughed or gave me a blank stare. Well, at
least I thought it was
learned a lot about farming while traveling through the Midwest during the past
few weeks. So to complete this agrarian-themed page, I thought I'd add a brief primer
though I'm interested in farming, having grown up in the suburbs of California,
I never knew know much about it. Well, I DID know more about farming
than this cute girl I once dated in college. I'll call her "Monica" (because
that was her name). Monica was a sweet girl and a darn good chess
player and could usually checkmate
me in a dozen moves or less. However, Monica was definitely not, shall we say, a future homemaker of
America. I learned this one night at dinner with her in the U.C. Riverside
cafeteria when I started talking about
bread and realized that she didn't have a clue where it came from (here's a hint,
certainly no expert on farming and there's a lot more to it than this, but in
case Monica's reading this, I wanted to pass along a few things I've learned.
Here it is for your, um, consumption:
A Brief Explanation of the Difference
Between Hay and Straw:
several nutritional grasses and legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, that is cut,
dried, and then used as fodder for farm animals.
stalks of grain (such as wheat), used mostly as bedding and garden
mulch, but which is
also used as feed. Straw has less nutritional value than hay.
And if you ask a cow, she'll say that it doesn't taste as good,
If you want to
learn more, check out the photos below.
Above left: Before you can plant seeds, you have to break up the soil.
This is at the annual Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition in Portland, Oregon. Of course, these
days they use tractors to plow the ground instead of horses, but it's fun to see
how they used to till the land.
Here's a three-horse team and riding plow.
Many farmers back in the 1800s used a single horse and a hand plow,
which is a lot more work and a lot slower than a riding plow.
Draft horses are huge. They're descendants of the
horses used in battle by knights in shining armor during the days of
King Arthur. Each draft horse weighs about 2,000 pounds and eats around 20
pounds of hay every day.
Above left: Alfalfa is a long grass that's grown throughout the
Midwest. "Hay" typically refers to cut alfalfa, but can also refer to
other types of cut and dried grasses. Hay is usually harvested in the late
summer. After it's cut, the grass is spread out to dry, then is often bundled into round bales, shown here. Farmers feed hay to
their livestock during the winter months when the fields are covered with snow.
Each hay bale feeds one animal for about a month.
Note: In 2012,
an astute reader named Trev wrote to me and clarified that alfalfa is
not actually a "grass" but rather a legume (a bean species). As he
pointed out, legumes like alfalfa are important because they add
nitrogen to the soil rather than extract it, while grass consumes
nitrogen. That's why soybeans, another legume, are often planted
after corn on the same land, to replenish the soil with nitrogen.
Above center: Wheat (shown here), corn, and soybeans are the three main crops
in the Midwest. Wheat needs less water to grow than corn or soybeans and therefore is found in drier areas that can't support corn,
such as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. The two main types of wheat are "spring
wheat" (used for bread) and "durum wheat" (used mainly for
pasta). I took this picture at the Laura Ingalls Homestead in De Smet,
Above right: A head of wheat, shown here, contains numerous kernels, one of
which is visible. A wheat kernel is extremely hard, similar to a popcorn
kernel. After the wheat is harvested (i.e., cut), it's threshed to remove the kernels
from the chaff (the non-edible portion). The hard little wheat kernels are then ground at
a mill to produce flour, used, of course, for baking bread or making pasta.
The wheat shaft is called "straw," which is used mostly for bedding in
barns. When a farmer harvests his wheat fields, he'll often make two
passes. In the first pass, he'll cut off the heads of wheat. During
the second pass, perhaps weeks later, he'll cut lower and harvest the straw. Although farm animals prefer to eat hay, they can also eat straw, if necessary.
Above left: Corn was a New World crop, totally unknown in Europe before the
1500s. These corn cobs are from the 1200s, if not earlier. I saw
these at Grand Gulch in Utah during a three-day backpack trip through the
Anasazi ruins there a few years ago. They're only a few inches long, not at all like the huge
corn cobs that we're used to.
Above center: These are corn's larger descendents. This field is in
Walnut Grove, Minnesota, near the site at Plum Creek where Laura Ingalls
Wilder lived in the 1870s.
Corn requires more moisture than wheat, so in the
Midwest, corn is typically found in areas to the east of wheat-growing areas,
including Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The Midwest truly is the breadbasket (and cornbasket) of
Above right: Most corn stalks have about two ears of corn. Corn is used in a
number of ways: as corn-on-the-cob with melted butter, as livestock feed, for corn
syrup, and it's also made into ethanol and added to gasoline. My favorite
corn product, though, is Nacho Doritos.
wasn't that even more interesting than the Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition?
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Between Hay and Straw