Thursday, December 17, 2015

Can Barbie and Chewbacca Pitch Manure?

No offense, but my brothers and I never hoped for a Barbie doll as a Christmas present--even if it could carry on a conversation. We were farm kids growing up in the Davy Crockett era, and--as noted in the essay below--we were into plastic cows, miniature-scale tractors, and a wooden barn with a hinged hay door.

Toys that talk back are apparently big sellers this year, but this article points out that things can go astray--the Hello Barbie doll is susceptible to cyber hacks. A talking horse was as far as we went, and Mr. Ed was only on our black and white TV.

I imagine some farm kids still play with the traditional toys, but the lure of drones and robots must be big. It's a good thing they weren't around when we were young. Dad would have nixed any talk of drones: "You boys will just use them to scare the cattle and drop cow pies on each other." True. With our maturity level, we would have asked for drones licensed by the Three Stooges--ones that made irritating noises and caused mayhem.

Robots would have been more attractive as we grew into "farm chore age." A manure bot could have cleaned the hog house for us on Saturday mornings, and the robo milkers they have now could have "squeezed not pulled" on our one milk cow--Bossy. 

Star Wars robots are big this year, with the Sphero BB-8 Droid literally flying off the shelves. Can you imagine a Chewbacca bot that could have moved hay bales for us in the barn during cattle feeding time? The neighbor kids would have been impressed.

The techno stuff seems cool, and I'm sure I'll be buying futuristic toys for my grandkids as the years go by. But there's still something to say for the throw-back items. There are still plastic pigs that need feedin' and fuzzy carpets that need hayin'. 

Farming the Carpet

When Dad spent hours building a classic barn for a Christmas gift, we kids were lucky in several ways. First of all, he is not a carpenter by nature. Baling wire and masking tape are his fix-it preferences, but he held a productive family farm together for decades, so maybe he was hiding his engineering talents. 

On that Christmas morning years ago, we found a beautiful red barn with white trim—and a hinged haymow door that had us baling the carpet and hoisting small Lincoln logs we used for hay bales.

My brothers and I were fortunate in other ways. Johnson’s Hardware in our small town and the Ben Franklin store in the nearby county seat had basic farm toys—cabless tractors, a wagon or two, a few plastic Holstein cows. We could usually find packets of white plastic fence and during the holidays, the bigger store might have something exotic like a four-row planter.

But the offerings were basic, so we had to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Erector set pieces provided some props, and we could use small boxes, marbles, thread spools, or other items to make grain feeders, pig sheds, or water tanks. On special occasions, we used jelly beans or M&M’s for grain, but not surprisingly, the yield was mighty small by the time those loads made it to market.

Our animals looked like early versions of genetic engineering gone bad. They were mismatched sizes, several were bent from being stepped on, and at times I imagine a horse or camel was used to fill out the cattle herd in the pasture. The tractors weren’t much better. Enough of the tire rubber came off you’d think we were in the steel wheel era, and most of them had scrapes or mud left over from the summer when we’d set up a farm in the lane.

On winter days, we could work in 70 degree comfort as sun rays slanted in through the large picture window. Most of the cattle grazed comfortably in one spot unless my younger brother ran through the room and did a five-year-old’s version of cow-tipping. We probably had to move the operation to the “South Forty” at times when Mom and Dad needed the living room, but some type of farming occurred on the carpet until the spring thaw arrived.

Now, when I check the Internet or walk through kids’ stores, I see plenty of the basic “Old Macdonald’s Farms” for the little ones, and an impressive variety of machines ranging from classics to high-tech monsters. But with fewer family farms dotting the countryside, I wonder if the “let’s play farm” experiences are the same. Old-style windmills, slatted corn cribs, and small, square hay bales are probably found only in the relics section on eBay. 

And now that we see so few pigs, chickens, or even cattle in the open air, I’d imagine the Christmas morning carpet is covered with less livestock--and many more action figures or discarded video game boxes.

I can understand. Even most farm kids aren’t going to ask for a confinement building or a liquid manure spreader for Christmas. Then again, you never know. I recall occasionally spreading shredded paper manure on the carpet after cleaning the pens in that classic red barn. We must have stepped in it too. Seems that once you’ve lived on a farm, it’s awfully hard to scrape the lifestyle and good memories off your boots.

by dan gogerty ( top pic from, middle pic from aquietlifeinaloudhouse.blogspot, and bottom pic from

Friday, December 11, 2015

Double Vision--Ag Courses from Teacher and Student Perspectives

As Lauren Houska finishes her university agriculture and communications studies, she has a few suggestions for fellow students.

In the thick of Dead Week here at Iowa State University, last-minute projects are being finished, Netflix is being watched while notes sit idly open, and students are closing down the library instead of Welch Avenue bars at 2:00 a.m. As graduation day looms, I think of the freshmen who are just finishing up their first semester. If your first semester was anything like mine, you can definitely see room for improvement. I had the opportunity to be an undergraduate teaching assistant (TA) in animal science for the past three semesters, so I have spent a little time on the inside. I have heard professors talk about "those kids" and let me assure you, you do not want to be one of them. So, here are a few pro tips to help you out next semester.
  1. Learn how to write an e-mail. Yes, you know how to send one, but do you know how to write one? If it doesn't start with Dr., Mrs., Ms., or Mr., you are probably doing it WRONG. I once read an e-mail to a professor that started with "yo"--it physically hurt me to read it. Respect your professors, and they will respect you. Do not demand a better grade by using poor grammar and texting lingo. Ask politely for a discussion about your grade and be respectful of their time--you will see how much better life can be.
  2. Make friends with the staff in your department. I bet you're already best friends with your department's administrative team, but if you're not, learn their names and tell them hello. If you are trying to get in to see an extremely busy professor or get information about an opportunity in the department, you've got a friendly face to help you out!
  3. Respect guest lecturers. Sure, if you get up and walk out or spend the whole time chatting with your classmate during your professor's lecture, you're probably not on their favorites list. However, if a professor has taken the time to bring in a professional from your field, do NOT embarrass your professor by being disrespectful. Listen, take notes, contribute to the discussion, and when the class is over, thank them for coming. You're going to impress two birds with one extremely professional stone.
  4. Problem solving is a valuable skill. As a TA, I fielded questions from many students on how to complete projects. One assignment required a YouTube-compatible video file, and it was due at 11:59 p.m. I had e-mail silence all week, and the night it was due I had more than 15 students wanting to know why their video wouldn't upload. Professors don't always assign things just to ensure you know the material; part of your assignment is to just figure it out on your own.
  5. Be nice to the TA. Okay, so this is a little self-serving, but hear me out. Unless you've got an undergrad TA on a power trip (which is impossible, we have no power), we are generally pretty nice people. We're always willing to help as long as you respect our time, and while I can't change your grade, I can help you get a better one. All you have to do is ask. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

It's Alive! The CRISPR Debate

January 2017--Gene Editing Updates

One of the biggest stories of our times might be the biotech angles opening up with gene editing and techniques like CRISPR. These new links are only a few of the many articles about this science that offers hope... and some trepidation.

**  New Yorker writer Michael Specter discusses emerging biotechnologies that will make it possible to remove disease and change the characteristics of life by rewriting the genetic code in cells

**A new generation of crops known as gene-edited rather than genetically modified is coming to the market. 

**Gene-editing techniques could help to improve stocks of farmed pigs by boosting supplies of sperm from prized sires.
**This BBC article considers opportunities but also discusses potential dystopic issues also.   

**From an earlier post**  

Unlike some alarmists, we won't describe recent gene editing advances by using the word commonly given to the "monster" concocted by Mary Shelley and revamped by Mel Brooks. But no matter what terms anyone uses, genetic topics are hot now--especially because of CRISPR, a revolutionary technology that can edit genetic mistakes.

The technique might help get rid of diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and cancer. This Harvard scientist thinks it could be used to "cure" aging. But some scientists are worried about the potential negatives--like "designer babies." Check out these articles for more background and commentary.

** This comprehensive article examines the history, promise, and implications of the powerful new gene-editing technology.
** This short article looks at the basics and includes cautionary comments from one of the leading scientists involved
in the development of the CRISPR technique.

** And this online magazine offers several related "CRISPR articles,"
including one discussing how much regulation should be involved.

Exciting times—and no doubt we will have controversy and debate. Plenty to be hopeful about, but maybe two quotes (taken out of context) from Young Frankenstein sum up the potential.

“Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!” 

“Wait Master, it might be dangerous . . . you go, first.”

by dan gogerty (top pic from; bottom one from