Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is the editor-in-chief of Living the Country Life and executive editor of Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.

March 6, 2013

Straight rows this year!

Bob's birthday present is below. I ordered it yesterday.

He is always impressed by the volume of veggies my garden produces, but he grumbles about the way I do it. He likes straight rows and my rows wiggle. Basically, I just stick seeds in the ground as I go along. The onions do not care. But the German in Bob won't let him accept the rambling way my garden grows.

Every year I try to change up my garden by growing something I've never grown before (last year it was Swiss chard). This year, I'm changing up my garden by using a new tool.

It is a Precision Garden Seeder. It's a gift that keeps on giving, because now Bob will want to plant the garden for me.

March 4, 2013

The Towers still stand

Bob and I revisited our old stomping grounds yesterday, the 10-story concrete dorms called The Towers at Iowa State University. I lived there for two years and Bob for three. It was cheap. Two of the four Towers were imploded a few years ago because they were tilting. The two that are remaining have not changed inside or out. The stairwell is exactly as it was 32 years ago. Only the people have changed.


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March 1, 2013

The future for libraries

I've been thinking a lot about libraries lately. Mom was a county librarian and we checked out stacks of books every week (that's me on the left with my sister, Molly). I grew up without television, unless we visited our grandparents to watch the Olympics, the miniseries Roots, or The Waltons. Books were our entertainment, along with radio and records.

In January, I visited my parents in Maryland and stopped by the county library with Mom. At age 75, she was finally retiring for good (she had been substituting). The evening before I had helped Dad and Molly feed the homeless at their church. When I looked around the library, I recognized most of the people there as folks I had fed the night before. It was a cold day and they were taking shelter at the library, most of them sleeping in chairs.

Back in Iowa, I am on the board of the friends of the public library foundation. We plan educational and fundraising events for the town library. Last Saturday we held a Dr. Seuss day, attended by 74 children and parents or grandparents. I served green eggs and ham.

I talked to the library director about the future for libraries in this era of rapid transition to digital books. Only a few publishing houses will allow libraries to lend digital books. Have libraries become a hangout spot for the homeless? They are certainly a place where the poor can access computers. What will happen to libraries as funding is cut?

Do libraries have a future?

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February 28, 2013

Digging out

This was my view from our back porch last night as Bob had fun with his snow machine.

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February 27, 2013

Making predictions

On Monday night, our TV weatherman sent this Tweet: New forecast...very little snow tomorrow-Wednesday. 1"-2" in DSM.

A few hours after that it started snowing and hasn't stopped yet, 12 inches later.
I'm glad my job doesn't require making many predictions, because people can get nasty when you are wrong.
I will make this prediction: Spring is right around the corner. The iris buds are up about 3 inches in my backyard.
By the way, this is not what my front yard looks like today. This is what I am imagining it will look like soon.
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February 25, 2013

Winter blues

I took this photo last week after a snow storm. No filter, no photoshop. This is the winter blues.

We are all a little tired of winter, but we must trudge on through the rest of February and into March before spring arrives.

To brighten up your day, here is the photo we are using on our Early Spring cover. The story is about a tulip farm in Oregon. (

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February 21, 2013

Top 10 movies of the year

2012 was a good year for cinema. I live near a movie theater and saw all nine films up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Here is my Top 10 list, as well as favorite performances. You can debate me, if you'd like!

1. Les Miserables Yes, it was too long, and the new song was bad, and Crowe can't sing (he still makes a perfect cop). But I loved the movie. Such emotion. This is a film to see on the big screen with an audience. It won't be the same on your TV.

2. Zero Dark Thirty Yes, it was too long, and I didn't need to see the torture scenes. But the second half of the film is astounding. Woman catches the ultimate bad guy.

3. Lincoln Yes, it was too long (see the pattern?), and the politics were boring. But Day-Lewis is mesmerizing. The quiet parts of the film were my favorites. I would have ended it when Lincoln was walking down the hall. We all know what happens next; the director didn't have to show it.

4. Moonrise Kingdom This is such a quirky, fun film. I lost myself in that world.

5. Argo This will probably win, because it has the fewest flaws and won't upset people. But it fell slightly flat for me.

6. Django Unchained A total blood spurting sport. I hid my eyes several times. But what a ride.

7. Life of Pi Ang Lee is my favorite director. His films are paced and styled so well. They have soul. Nobody else could have made this lovely movie.

8. Silver Linings Playbook I enjoyed this and laughed often, but felt slightly uncomfortable throughout. Bradley Cooper does nothing for me.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild Imaginative and fun. The young actress is extraordinary.

10. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Loved the trolls. Everyone else panned this film, but I was entertained.

Also good

11. Amour Best performances of the year, but waaaaaaaaay too depressing.

12. The Sessions Well done, but I didn't need to see that.

13. Skyfall Daniel Craig, Daniel Craig, Daniel Craig. Nice.

14. Anna Karenina Keira Knightley is so beautiful and stylish. Loved the costumes. But this was no Dr. Zhivago.

15. Snow White and the Huntsman The bad witch was very bad and very good.

Best performances

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Christoph Waltz, Django

Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Director: Ang Lee

Did not see, but heard good things:

The Master

The Impossible


Cloud Atlas




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February 19, 2013

Hoop beef barn

Bob was working cattle for a client one day and came home with these photos. He was so happy to be in a comfortable climate while pounding calves through the chute. Some days he's hours in a cold wind.

He told me I needed to write a story about Gary Thompson's new barn. So here it is:


High winds and heavy snow are on the way, but Gary Thompson of Liberty Center, Iowa, is not worried about how he’s going to feed his stocker cattle in a blizzard.

“During the last snow storm, they never missed a beat,” he says. Thompson finished construction on a hoop barn last November that can hold 320 head of stocker calves in a deep bedding system.

The barn is 44 feet wide and 368 feet long. It was designed by Hoop Beef Systems ( and built by local contractors.

Thompson says he had been researching a switch to the hoop barn system for six years. A muddy spring finally tipped him over the edge.

“I’m old and tired and didn’t like chasing cattle all over,” he said, only partially joking.

The new barn has two 80-head pens and four 40-head pens, plus 48 feet on the west end for a working facility. The layout allows him to size and sort calves better.

“We built it for efficiency,” says Thompson. “Cattle gain more efficiently and grow faster.” His calves added about 4 pounds a day in January. “They were smoking, gaining like crazy.”

Environment inside

The temperature in the barn is not a lot different than outside, he says, but “there is no wind, and it’s dry. Cold is not the issue with cattle – it is wet and wind.”

In the hot days of summer, air rises off the cattle and out the top of the barn. There is a curtain along the north side.

For 70% of the year there is no difference between the performance of his outdoor cattle and those in the barn, says Thompson, “But for 30% of the days there is a huge difference.”

He’s looking at one of those days heading his way this week.

Hoop Beef System

8 Anderson St
Vermillion, SD, 57069
Phone: 888-683-9076

Gary Thompson:

The photo below was taken by Jon Beck.

February 18, 2013

Running out of hay

Bob is hearing from clients that are running out of hay. Cattle auctions in some parts of the Midwest are flooded with cows, as producers hit with drought last summer liquidate herds.

Some farmers are backing off on rations to hold out until spring. This can be dangerous when cows are close to calving. Bob advised one client with skinny heifers to "push the groceries and sleep with the herd." Meaning: Watch them night and day, because there will be calving trouble.

I reported this news on Twitter and heard from Avery Kasper: "It's the same way in Kansas. No pasture and nothing to supplement. Guys are shipping cattle out of state to sell."

We are two months until first cutting, so the situation is getting serious.

We culled our ewe herd to 38 last fall, and have two small cuttings of alfalfa still stacked in the barn, so we are good.

Unless we have another drought.

February 15, 2013

Let's keep wrestling!

This was a week of surprising news on many fronts (the Pope retires!), but in Iowa, where wrestling is king, the news that wrestling may be dropped from the Olympics got the most attention. The Iowa high school wrestling state tournament is going on as I write this, and a family friend from Indianola is just one win away from the finals.

As a former wrestling cheerleader, I'm going to the mat to overturn this dumb decision by the Olympic committee. Here is a note I got with ways to help.

Thank you for signaling your support for wrestling in the Olympics. We are looking to organize Iowans around this issue in the coming weeks and will be in touch with more information soon.

Please tell your friends and family about and spread the word on Twitter ( and Facebook (


Governor Branstad Committee

Below: Here I am as a wrestling cheerleader with my friends Robin, center, and Kelly, right.

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