Thursday, December 5, 2019

We Moved Our Blog!

After 10 years of using Blogger to share agriculture-related quips and clips, we decided to merge our website and blog through one cohesive platform. 

You can now access our blog at

We will keep this blog active as an easy access to all our entries from the past decade, but we encourage you to check out our new website for future CAST content.

You can view all our old entries and more importantly, our latest posts, at

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Student Member Spotlight Q&A: Sarah

Our members are the lifeblood of our organization. They are students, farmers, researchers, department heads, industry experts, food scientists, agronomists--the list goes on. No matter their background, we all have the same wish: to assemble, create and share credible, balanced, science-based information. 

Read about who makes up CAST in our Member Spotlight series. In this post, you will meet  Sarah, a third-year doctoral student at the University of California-Davis.

The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

Meet Sarah

A third-year doctoral student studying animal science at UC-Davis, and a 2018 CAST Science Communication Scholarship winner

What are you studying?
I am studying beef cattle sustainability and system dynamics. 

What agricultural issues are most important to you?
Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article where the first line read, “[The] city that banned plastic bags and plastic peanuts is now taking on factory farms that pump antibiotics into livestock.” This article is only one of countless articles condemning agricultural practices with little to no information regarding current animal welfare, food safety, or environmental sustainability practices. 

Furthermore, with only 2% of U.S. citizens in agriculture, the rampant stream of anti-animal agricultural media will only continue to increase, dictating the immediate need for scientific educators to broadcast the truth about the economic, social, and environmental contribution of livestock in our society. 

As a beef cattle sustainability specialist, I will utilize my scientific foundation and knowledge of beef cattle production to aid in ameliorating the agricultural education barriers to help ensure food security and sustainability.

How has CAST been a part of your life? 
Although I have been extremely fortunate to work and learn from ranchers and scientists across the country, there is still a great deal more to learn and more to do. As a CAST scholarship winner, I have been fortunate to take part in important opportunities to improve my agricultural education and outreach so I may become a better teacher, a more informed scientist, and one-day leader in agricultural sciences.

What is your current research?
Today’s consumers have become increasingly concerned regarding food animal production in relation to human health and environmental sustainability. Among many consumers, grass-fed beef is regarded as the “healthier” and more environmentally sustainable beef option as compared to traditional (grain-fed) beef production.  As such, there is now an increase in the demand for niche beef production systems, causing producers to speculate if incorporating grass-fed beef into their production system would be economically adventitious.  

Although previous research has compared grass-fed and grain-fed beef production, no empirical research has been performed to examine the validity of both consumer and producer concerns using current CA grass-fed production practices. Therefore, we are conducting research to compare the environmental footprint, economic outcomes, food safety and meat composition and food safety of three varying beef production systems in northern CA. 

For this proposal we aim to create a grass-fed beef budget tool to aid producers in grass-fed production decisions using the results of the current research trial. The three treatments include (24 steers per treatment): 

  1. Conventional or grain-fed beef (CON), 
  2. 20 month grass-fed beef (20GF) 
  3. 20 month grass-fed with a 45 day grain finishing (45G), and 
  4. 26 month grass-fed beef (26GF).   

By performing this study many consumer and producer questions will be addressed including: 

  1. What are the input and output costs of each production system given current economic and environmental conditions?, 
  2. Which production system maximizes total human edible food?, 
  3. What are the varying carbon footprints of each system on a calorie and kg of protein basis?, 
  4. What beef production system limits pathogenic E. coli production, and 
  5. What are the differing meat compositions between treatments and will consumers prefer one of the two grass-fed treatments compared to grain fed beef?

Overall, with continual interest in food sustainability within California and across the country, it is imperative that we provide a tool to answer these beef production questions so that producers, consumers, legislators, and stakeholders across the beef supply chain can make informed production decisions.

Passionate students studying an aspect of agriculture, like Sarah, will not only help advance their field through their research, but also provide the necessary communications with audiences who will be affected by this type of research.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story and how CAST has impacted your student career.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Farm Safety--Precautions, Danger, and Healing

A Quicksand of Grain

Farm Safety Week is a good time to reiterate how dangerous farming can be, and a recent article highlighted that peril in the form of two gripping episodes in Midwest grain bins. On a farm in Iowa, a young man made an "astonishing Lazarus-like emergence from the depths of a grain bin." His life was saved due to actions taken by friends, and his "whimsical" purchase of a respiratory mask at a farm show. The grain bin safety item turned out to be "the purchase of a lifetime."

In Wisconsin, a long-time farmer was "lulled to sleep" by the sea of corn he stepped into. Once again friends, family, and--as in many cases--emergency workers helped to free him. Purdue University’s Bill Field is an authority on grain bin accidents, and he emphasizes the dangers of delay following the critical moments of an accident. “Every second is crucial.”         

National Farm Safety Week

Farming ranks high on the list of dangerous professions, and every year we read about tractor accidents, grain bin deaths, and other tragedies. Using technology, education, and safety awareness, the agriculture community is working hard to change the grim statistics. 

Each year since 1944, the third week of September has been recognized as National Farm Safety and Health Week. This annual promotion--initiated by the National Safety Council--has been proclaimed as such by each sitting U.S. President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The development and dissemination of National Farm Safety and Health Week is led by the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, the agricultural partner of the National Safety Council. 

It's What Farmers Do

This archived blog includes many links regarding farm safety incidents, procedures, and statistics. One aspect the statistics can't show is the way rural communities respond to tragedy. As the final story in this blog shows, accidents occur way too often, and "danger in the fields" is always lurking--but friends and family are there to create a bond of healing.  

by dan gogerty (top photo from and bottom graphic from usda)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Can Video Games Help Mitigate Agricultural Risks?

Recently, my boyfriend dusted off his Playstation 1 and popped in the oldie-but-goodie farm simulation game Harvest Moon (originally released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the late 1990s). 

I watched him laboriously build his farm, plant crops, and take care of livestock. One animal that gave him particular trouble was Rusty, a clever, mischievous horse that somehow managed to escape the barn whenever it rained. My boyfriend spent 20 minutes chasing that horse into the barn so the darn thing wouldn’t get sick. Ironically, it was my boyfriend’s character (not the horse) that ended up in the hospital because he overworked himself.

Testing Risk in a “Safe” Space
While the game is quite simple, some of its objectives and outcomes seem pretty realistic. And those components of the game have only advanced since the 90s--so much so that real-life farmers are playing the latest farm simulation games to test out authentic equipment, operations, and scenarios based on their real-world equivalents. 

For example, Farming Simulator boasts their 2019 update includes “300 authentic vehicles and machines now including John Deere - but also Case IH, New Holland, Challenger, Fendt, Massey Ferguson, Valtra, Krone, Deutz-Fahr, and many more.” (By the way, the game’s fan base has grown so much, there’s a convention dedicated to it, and the game can now be played competitively.) 

This game allows players to dive into agriculture and use different equipment and strategies that they may not have access to in the real world. Essentially, they can take on as much risk as they want and suffer only virtual, game-based consequences, not real ones (except in my boyfriend's case, where he suffered from short-term annoyance).

Testing risk and risk management of farmers seems to be a theme in 2019. For example, a University of Vermont study used video games to better understand risk management practices of farmers through different scenarios. Based on the scenarios introduced, players changed their behaviors in the game to reduce risks. The study found that the smallest behavior changes dramatically impacted the outcome of preventing a risk, which can be used to create more effective strategies in real-world situations.

Another study released this year argues that “serious gaming” (i.e., games that aren’t played for entertainment purposes) should be considered as a communication strategy in agriculture to open up “new ways of thinking” about critical issues, such as climate change, and help provide new adaptive strategies.

Research of the Future?
Testing human behavior and attitude change via video games is becoming more popular because of the digital era we live in. And it’s a safe, controllable place to test strategies aimed at preventing serious risks such as the spread of livestock diseases (see the UVM study above). 

It will be interesting to see how this intersection of agricultural and psychological research progresses in the coming years as scientists work out new ways to prevent risk and mitigate issues such as climate change and African swine flu outbreaks. 

By Kim
Illustration made in Canva

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Member Spotlight Q&A: Dr. Sally Flis

Our members are the lifeblood of our organization. They are students, farmers, researchers, department heads, industry experts, food scientists, agronomists--the list goes on. No matter their background, we all have the same wish: to assemble, create and share credible, balanced, science-based information. 

Read about who makes up CAST in our Member Spotlight series. In this post, you will meet Dr. Sally Flis.

Meet Dr. Sally Flis
Director of Agronomy

Who do you represent and what is your role at CAST? 
I represent The Fertilizer Institute, we are the industry trade group for fertilizer manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers in the U.S. I serve as the chair of the Plant Work Group and as the representative to the CAST Board of Directors from the Plant Work Group.

How long has your organization been a member of CAST? How long have you been a member of CAST?
TFI has been a member of CAST for 3 years and so have I.

How did you first hear about CAST? 
I had heard about CAST at some regional American Society of Agronomy Meetings and through visits to TFI from Kent [Schescke] and other board members.

What agricultural issue is most important to your organization? What agricultural issue is most important to you? 
Water and air quality are high concern for our organization and reducing loss to these systems through improved 4R nutrient stewardship practices. 

To me the most important issue is general knowledge of crop and animal production systems and the science that is used to make decisions every day on the farm.

Why does your organization support CAST? Why do you choose to support CAST? 
TFI supports CAST because of the quality of the programming across the board, from the papers to the role out events to the annual meeting. TFI values the approach to distilling and disseminating ag science. 

I value CAST for all of the same reasons in addition to the person connections I have made in a broader spectrum of the industry through involvement in the working group and on the board.

What role does CAST play in our society? 
CAST plays a critical role in distilling and analyzing the body of work available on ag science topics that makes it easier to share with everyone.

Thank you, Dr. Flis, for sharing your story and why you are a member of CAST.

Stay tuned for our next installment in CAST’s Member Spotlight series.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Building Relationships and Memories in Rome

The question I am always asking myself is, “Where to next?”

During the fall semester of 2018, I was looking for a challenge—a new opportunity with a new destination that I had not yet experienced. (I have been able to blog about my previous travel experiences to Argentina and Brazil on the CAST blog). I wanted to grow my understanding and professional experiences in my discipline of global resource and horticulture systems. With that in mind, I applied to the annual Dean’s Global Food and Agricultural Leadership program in Rome.

This program is a special partnership between Iowa State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It focuses on giving undergraduate students the opportunity to work with professionals on real-world issues in agriculture and gain a new cultural perspective by living in Rome during the four-week program. Students are prepared through a semester-long pre-course that allows them to team build and use their critical thinking skills for important discussions about agricultural issues and learn how to improve as a team of professionals.

Caryn (far right) with her Iowa State peers during their free time in Rome.

I applied to this opportunity with some key things in mind. I wanted to gain more research experience, learn how to work in a high-functioning team—especially how to handle conflict in professional situations—and increase my competency of world issues, specifically those relating to food production. 

I was in Argentina on winter break when I heard the news that I was accepted to the program. I was ecstatic. In that moment, I was reminded that each decision I make to better my future I do with purpose, critically thinking about how I will grow and how it will benefit me or how I will use that experience later on. That moment reminded me how passionate I am about living and traveling internationally to contribute to advancements in agriculture, and what an honor it is to work with FAO as an undergraduate student.

Preparing for an Adventure
During the spring semester, we met twice a week with our leading professors to prepare for the program in May. We discussed working together over the next few months towards a final product to present at the end of our stay in Rome. This preparation was vital to our team’s functioning by grasping the issues that we would be researching, improving our skills in comprehension of science literature, and practicing presenting that comprehension.

One of the most exciting moments was finding out what our project topics would be. As a team of nine, we would split up into two groups and work on researching the upcoming and innovative technology of in vitro meat as well as a potential global shift to plant-based diets and the impact on livestock. We started our research and literature reviews by contacting professors with expertise relating to these topics at Iowa State for background knowledge and their opinions on these topics, then continued our research in Rome and guided our writing through the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) framework.

Working Hard
Arriving in Rome was surreal. After months of research and preparation we were ready to take on the biggest task. Each week, we met with our FAO mentors to discuss the progress of our research, ask any questions, and adjust to any redirection necessary. We worked diligently on our deliverables for the project: A 40-page literature review, a detailed slide deck based on that literature review, a shorted presentation for our FAO seminar, a policy maker slide deck, and a one-page summary of the results of our research. At the end of those four weeks we presented our findings to FAO staff members at a special seminar. Each team performed extremely well, growing professionally, handling conflict maturely, and we had a lot of fun together.

Caryn, center, with fellow students at the FAO.
Another special opportunity that arose while in Rome was the opportunity to meet the newly elected US Mission to the UN FAO, Ambassador Kip Tom. This was a unique moment for students as we met with Ambassador Tom to discuss our views and what we are learning about issues and agriculture and specifically what we were working on in Rome. It was an honor to meet with such a respected individual and for him to take time out of his day to learn about undergraduates’ interests and work, and he encouraged us to strive forward.

‘Wine Is Not a Drink, It Is a Food’
Because of the intense nature of this course, we took “brain breaks” to do some touristy activities around Rome. Of course, at the top of our list was the Colosseum, Roman Forum, many of the important Italian monuments and fountains, the Pantheon, the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Spanish Steps, and many more of the must-see attractions around the ancient city. 

I always enjoyed history and learning the stories behind important pieces and places because that helps me understand each place I visit better. Every day that we would walk the city, I was in awe that I was walking among ancient ruins and imagined what life was like when they were occupied. We also took a trip out to the countryside to Tuscany where we went on some farm tours to learn about the smallholder farm operations, and wine and olive production. We were met by warm and happy host families that cooked the most amazing pasta. It was an honor to dine with these families and learn up close the important things they value in their culture. One quote I remember from our tour guide Silvio, who has been a part of the program for ten years was that “wine is not a drink, it is a food” as he was explaining the importance and symbolism of wine to Italian culture.

There were so many special moments during this experience that I could probably go on writing forever but I would like to summarize this study abroad experience as a unique opportunity to grow as young professionals by working loosely with college professors, building relationships with peers, and making worldwide connections. Also, there was at least one gelato run a day (sometimes two, thank you Dean Colletti and Drs. Steven and Elizabeth Lonergan), many nights of wine and laughter together and admiring the beautiful art of Rome.

Thank You!
Many thanks to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University for the opportunity to participate in such a prestigious opportunity, especially to Dr. Colletti, as well as Shelley Taylor, our travel coordinator. Many thanks also to Ted MacDonald for the lectures and instruction that prepared us for Rome, and Pia Schneider, Rome program resident director, for welcoming us into the design studio, sharing the yummy prosecco and being available to help us! Last but not least, many thanks to Drs. Steven and Elizabeth Lonergan for believing in us as students and young professionals, having patience with us through the hard parts, and for the hard work they put into this program.

By Caryn Dawson
Photos provided by Caryn Dawson

Monday, August 26, 2019

Cuddling Cows and Caring for Pet Pigs

When it comes to cuddling cows and owning pet pigs, we were way ahead of the trends on my 1960s boyhood farm. In my early teens, I'd have a personal-therapy session with a stubborn Guernsey every morning. And when I was younger, my brothers and I cared for three runt baby pigs--not realizing these little squealers would end up as bacon in the breakfast frying pan. 

Nowadays, comfort seekers apparently pay good money for the chance to snuggle up with a cow--something about the zen-inducing heartbeat and breathing patterns. Maybe it's the rhythmic cud chewing or the fragrance of dried milk and cowhide, but some think the therapy sessions are the best thing since goat yoga. 

Bossy was our milk-producing bovine. The trite name did not disguise the fact that she had her own strong personality, and cuddliness was not one of her traits. Before school, I'd position myself on a three-legged stool and lean my head against her side as I tried to squeeze out a bucket full of warm milk. The sound of the liquid hitting the stainless-steel pail might lull me into a zen stupor, but Bossy knew how to keep me grounded. A sudden back-leg kick could send the bucket flying, or a slow wave of her tail could fling mud and manure at my face.
Most sessions ended with a certain bucolic aura--Bossy would grind away at the grain mixture, the barn cat would lick off the milk I'd squirted onto its fur, and I'd lug the milk to the kitchen before spending time getting the smell of a cow's udder off my hands before boarding the yellow school bus.
Cows do have a certain amount of cool, and I guess the therapy sessions might help some achieve a bovine peace, but I wasn't sad when Bossy dried up and my cuddling days were over.

The pet pig trend has also intrigued me. Teacup piglets are cute, but--like adult humans--they grow bigger and "less cute." The movies have shown us that Wilbur was "some pig" and
Babe was a talented actor. But I'm not sure I'd want the hooved creatures tapping around my kitchen floor.  Some city councils are also dubious, as municipalities deal with neighbor complaints and pet-zoning laws

The closest we came to pet-pig care was when my two brothers and I promised Dad we'd do chores for three runt pigs that had been bullied to near death in the feedlot. That was before we were old enough to get into the pattern of Saturday morning manure-pitching sessions in the hog house, so we still thought pigs were fun.

Dad built the little pen out of wooden end gates, and we probably moved small buckets of feed and ran a hose for water in the best manner we could at that age. I'm sure we had some cartoonish names for the three, but in the end, the porkers headed to town on a truck with the others.

For us, cuddling cows and caring for pet pigs merged with the taste of fresh milk on cereal and the smell of bacon in the kitchen. I guess a certain amount of zen was achieved.

by Dan Gogerty (top photo from, middle pic from, and bottom pic from