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Farming 101  (or, the Difference Between Hay and Straw)

(Reprint from News: August 18, 2001)

August 18, 2001

 

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 cool.

 

I've 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 on farming.

 

Even 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, Monica: "flour").

 

I'm 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:

  • Hay:  Any of several nutritional grasses and legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, that is cut, dried, and then used as fodder for farm animals.

  • Straw:  Hollow 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, either.

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.

Above center 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.

Above right:  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.   

 

1-6000_Bales_of_Hay.jpg (37865 bytes)    1-5939_Wagon_on_Prairie.jpg (35710 bytes)    1-5948_Head_of_Wheat.jpg (52199 bytes)

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, South Dakota.

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.

 

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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 the world.

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.

 

Now wasn't that even more interesting than the Draft Horse Plowing Exhibition? 

 

 

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