Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and 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.

October 21, 2013

My DNA Experiment

Last winter, our son Nowlan sent Bob and me DNA kits from Personal DNA testing has come a long way and the price for a kit has dropped to $99. All we had to do was spit in a small tube and mail it back in the postage-paid box. I registered our kits online and then waited two months for the results.

When I told our families about the testing they were supportive. They understand and appreciate scientific advancements, and they trust Nowlan, who now has his PhD in biological sciences. (That is his picture at the bottom of a color stain of the gene Fgf8 in a chicken embryo.)

When I got the email saying my DNA results were ready, my heart was pounding. I wasn't sure what to expect. I will give you a quick glance at my DNA below.

Since January I have bought kits and tested all three of our kids, my parents, Bob's dad, my sister, and two uncles. I've also shared data with a cousin on In a nutshell, our family is probably boring from a DNA standpoint. All of our ancestors came from Northern Europe. DNA did not show any major inherited conditions or health issues. That being said, it was still fascinating.

Here are a few things about my DNA to give you an idea:

The greatest health risk for women with my genotype is venous thromboembolism (deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism). What can I do about this risk? Don't smoke, keep my weight in check, get up and move on airplane flights, and don't take oral hormone replacement therapy. Check, check, check, check.

I am not a carrier for any of the 52 inherited conditions tested by

I am susceptible to infection by the most common strain of norovirus ("cruise ship illness"). Bob is resistant. That means I won't be going on any cruises.

I am a fast caffeine metabolizer: drinking coffee doesn't increase my heart attack risk. That's good to know, because I enjoy my morning cup of joe.

Large pieces of my DNA are identical to that of 23andMe members from:

1. United Kingdom

2. Ireland

3. Sweden

I have 2.7% Neanderthal DNA, which puts me in the 47th percentile among European 23andMe members.

My maternal genetic line is one of the oldest haplogroups in Europe. It arose when modern humans moved into western Eurasia from the Near East about 40,000 years ago. The 9% of Europeans who carry my haplogroup today can trace their maternal ancestry directly back to those early colonizers of Europe.

My paternal genetic line is especially common today in Scandinavia - it reaches levels of over 50% in Sweden. (My maiden name is Johnson.)

I inherited my immune system from my mother.

My mother has more genes in common with my cousin Jacque than she does with my three children. That blew my mind until I thought about it. You always share the most DNA with your full siblings. So the child of one of your siblings could be more similar in DNA to you than you are to your grandchildren.

I've only scratched the surface, but this gives you an idea of what is in store with the new world of DNA. It's scary and exciting. Knowlege is power.




October 17, 2013

What a fall display!

The headquarters of our parent company, Meredith, in Des Moines, Iowa, features a four-story banner each season to great visitors. This summer, the image was a stack of colorful flipflops. The new banner features an autumn display from the Fall issue of Living the Country Life. It looks beautiful!

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October 15, 2013

See our cover crop grow

We planted our first cover crop, a field of radishes and turnips, on August 20. It didn't rain for the next three weeks. The crop emerged slowly and unevenly. I took the first photo on September 21. Two nice rains after that made a huge difference. The second photo was taken on October 8. We are almost ready to turn the sheep in to graze.

Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, says 1,000 farmers in Iowa have planted 100,000 acres to cover crops since August as part of the state's cost share program. That farmer number doesn't count people like my husband, who planted the crop on his own.

Stay tuned as our experiment continues...

September 21

October 8

October 11, 2013

Fall on the farm

September and October are my favorite months in the country. I wanted to share a few photos from my trip to Mom and Dad's farm in Maryland. I've never seen Dad's fields looking better. I couldn't find one weed in the strawberries. The red raspberries were making their fall crop. A weird, new crop was adding nitrogen to the soil. Take a look.

Dad is planting rye as a cover crop.

These strawberry plants will be at full production next spring.

Red raspberries have a small fall crop, but not enough to open to the public for picking.

These are sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) roots, a new cover crop Dad tried this year. The nodules on the roots are full of nitrogen. Dad plows it under as green manure.

Mom and Dad at a local crab house.


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October 9, 2013

Cats -- hello and goodbye

First we lost our old cat Marvin, who died of natural causes at age 18 in July. Our other cat, Mario, 7, seemed depressed after his buddy Marvin left, wandering around aimlessly, but still eating well.

In August, our oldest son, Nowlan, brought us his young cat, Rin, to care for while he and his wife live in Europe the next few years. Rin hid under furniture and hissed at us for a week or two and then settled in.

Mario was patient with Rin, never reacted to her hissing, and was mainly just interested in what food she had left in her bowl. There were no cat fights.

Three days ago, Mario stopped eating. Bob treated him with antibiotics, but he didn't improve. Yesterday, a scan at the vet clinic showed an enlarged heart with fluid in the heart area. Mario was struggling to breathe and had to be put to sleep. It was a shock, because he seemed fine on Saturday. Bob buried him in the garden.

Our son Warren says Mario never acted the same after Marvin died. I don't know what to think. He was a big cat -- big head, big paws, big appetite, big heart. We will miss him. I'm not getting any more pets after Rin leaves. It's too hard.

Here is a photo I took of Mario a week before he died. At the bottom is a photo of Rin.



October 7, 2013

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Every fall I write an exclusive report on the swine industry for Successful Farming magazine called Pork Powerhouses. This is the 19th year I have collected data on the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. There is always a new issue confronting these producers, and this year it is a deadly disease. I have dropped in the table below, but you can download it here:

Pork Powerhouses 2013

Disease Hits as Growth Continues

By Betsy Freese, Executive Editor, Successful Farming


The biggest issue for the nation’s largest pork producers at this moment isn’t an international merger, but an international virus.

In May, a deadly viral disease never before seen in the U.S. broke in farrowing barns in Colorado, causing up to 100% mortality in newborn pigs. “I went in the barns and saw healthy pigs being born and 24 hours they were dead,” says Terry Holton, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods. “We hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The disease was identified as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), caused by a virus earlier reported in Europe and Asia. By summer, it had spread across the Midwest and into North Carolina.

The disease hit the Oklahoma operations of Prestage Farms in June. “For four weeks we lost 100% of baby pigs,” says Zack McCullen, vice president of swine production. “I’m scared to death of that virus. I’m worried about what happens when it cools off and winter comes.”

In August, Garland Farm Supply was hit hard by PED on the company’s sow farm near Plains, Kansas. “We are out in the middle of nowhere, but that didn’t matter,” says owner Alfred Smith. “We lost four weeks worth of pigs. It’s similar to TGE [transmissible gastroenteritis], but worse.”

No exact numbers exist for how many pigs have died from PED, but the National Pork Board says there are positive tests for the virus in 17 states, with most of the confirmed cases in Iowa and Oklahoma. There is no cure or vaccine yet. The disease is the top-of-mind topic for the nation’s largest producers this fall.

Sow numbers up; China is in

The annual Pork Powerhouses ranking by Successful Farming magazine, now in its 19th year, shows a growth of 132,600 sows by the largest 25 U.S. hog operations in 2013. This is more than twice the growth as 2012, when producers added 62,000 sows. More telling, 17 operations added sows this year, versus nine in 2012.

The total number of sows owned or managed by the nation’s largest 25 producers, seven of whom are also pork packers, stands today at 3.18 million. That’s about 55% of the total U.S. breeding inventory reported by the USDA in September.

Smithfield Foods, at the top of the Pork Powerhouses list with 868,000 sows, dropped a bombshell on May 29 when it announced plans to sell to Chinese-based Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Smithfield shareholders would receive $34 in cash per share of common stock owned. On September 24, the shareholders approved the $4.7 billion acquisition by Shuanghui, making the transaction the biggest purchase of a U.S. company ever by a Chinese firm.

“We are marrying up with the largest pork customer on the face of the earth,” says Joe Szaloky, vice president of procurement and business development for Smithfield. “This should be really good for U.S. pork.”

Smithfield will continue to operate under its existing brand names as a wholly owned subsidiary of Shuanghui International.

The deal does not mean Chinese pork will enter U.S. markets. “They [Shuanghui] came looking at us as a source of meat for China,” says Szaloky. “There is no opposite flow. They are not experienced with raising pigs.”

Szaloky says for the next few months at least, the new ownership won’t affect Smithfield sow numbers. “We are not interested in adding more sows; we’ve got plenty of sows. Our focus in on being more productive, stable, and reliable.”

One change Smithfield has made is to quit feeding Paylean (ractopamine) on its Eastern farms. The company’s packing plants in Clinton and Tar Heel, North Carolina, are completely Paylean free. The feed additive makes pigs grow lean meat faster, but is banned in China. The export market demanded the change, says Szaloky.

There are no immediate plans to eliminate Paylean on Smithfield farms outside of the East Coast, he says. “It does have an advantage to growing pigs.”

The move from crates

Converting from crates to group housing of pregnant sows is another of Smithfield’s priorities. By the end of the year, more than 50% of the company’s gestating sows will be in pens, a type of housing preferred by animal welfare activists and demanded by some food retailers.

“People think we are making the switch kicking and screaming, but it’s turned into an opportunity to make our business better,” says Szaloky. “We had a lot of 20-year-old facilities. Now they are remodeled into new, born-again assets. We are very pleased with it and happy with the performance we are seeing.”

All Smithfield sows should be in group housing by 2017, says Szaloky. “We are still on target and don’t see an issue. It’s an investment, but sow productivity is strong and consistent.”

Many of the largest producers do not share Smithfield’s enthusiasm about group housing of pregnant sows. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states there are advantages and disadvantages to any sow housing system. “Group housing systems are less restrictive, but allow aggressive and competitive behaviors that could be detrimental to individual sows,” states the AVMA.

The National Pork Board (NPB) does not recommend one type of sow housing over another, stating, “Regardless of the system, what really matters is the individual care given to each pig." Producers should be able to decide for themselves the type of production system that is best for their animals, and for them, given their resources and markets, says the NPB.

Market hog numbers dropping

In September, hog numbers at slaughter were running 3% less than the previous year, something that surprised and concerned many of the largest producers. Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, says he expects pig losses from the PED virus to reduce slaughter numbers by up to 2%, but we won’t see that effect until later in the fall. He suspects the drop is simply because the head counts a year ago were unusually high.

“Last year at this time we were heavy into the drought,” says Hurt. “We had really high corn prices, which caused people to advance marketings. This year they are delaying marketings. Last September head counts were 3-7% above the year before that. There was a rapid movement of hogs to market.”

Potential for profit

Hurt has a positive outlook. “The pork industry is finally looking at the potential of multiple years of profitability,” he says. “Pork is well positioned to fill the beef demand gap. The beef industry just can’t get numbers up, and pork is in a position to gobble up the demand.”

As for the Smithfield sale to a Chinese firm, Hurt says, “Overall, that is positive for the pork industry. It gives us access to the word’s largest market. The gates are open.”

Alfred Smith, who owns 22,000 sows with Garland Farm Supply, headquartered in Garland, North Carolina, blames high feed costs over the past year for market hog numbers dropping. “Liquidation is more severe than you think, mainly by smaller farms,” says Smith. “This is an unintended consequence of $8 corn. What we’ve seen for the past 12 months are severe losses.”

All of the Pork Powerhouses are concerned about the effect PED will have over the winter. Seaboard has locked down its sow farms, trying to keep them as self-contained as possible. “We are looking at every aspect of our business – trucks, maintenance, people,” says CEO Terry Holton. “We are reducing truck traffic and trying to have as little movement as possible. We are building additional truck washes and extra segregation at the plant.

“There is quite a large reservoir of virus still out there.”


Did you know?

15 years ago, Smithfield Foods had 152,000 sows in the U.S., versus 868,000 today.

Minnesota is home to the largest number of Pork Powerhouses, with nine companies on the list (including two members of Triumph Foods). Next is Iowa with six. In 1994, North Carolina had the most farms on the list, with eight.

10 years ago, the largest 25 pork producers in the U.S. had 2.52 million sows, versus 3.18 million today.


October 3, 2013

American picker

My dad loves to go to auctions. He and Bob went to a few last week while we were visiting. Dad's specialty is tools -- he buys boxes and tubs of tools, sorts through them, and creates sets that he resells. He also buys items for the annual church garage sale. Here he is last Saturday with his finds. Mom is not impressed. Bob had fun.

Dad also restores old farm machinery. Here is a fancy manure spreader he worked on for months.

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October 1, 2013

What we found in the attic

I was visiting Mom and Dad on their Maryland farm last week. Mom and I cleaned the attic. Cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze. We found lots of junk and some really fun stuff. My favorite was a box of old postcards from the early 1900s. More on those in a later blog. (Are you a collector?) Here are a few other items we dug out from under the dust.

Nobody remembers where these came from, so I packed one back to Iowa in my carry-on bag.

I threw this guy in the trash, but Mom dug him out. He's coming back to haunt another New Year's Eve party.

This is one of many old Nancy Drew books in a box. Mom got the books in the 1940s. I read them all in the 1970s.

One of the old postcards reads: Sheep Fold, Druid Hill Park, Baltimore Md. The date is July 18, 1911.





September 19, 2013

Remodeling the Root Cellar

Our home is almost 100 years old and it came with a root cellar or storm cellar, which we've never used. Cracks under the door allowed raccoons and feral cats to go down there, so I stayed out.

This month I decided my potatoes needed a better storage room for winter than the garage. Bob likes to clean and remodel, so he was on it. He swept and washed the floor and walls, sucking out the water with his wet vac and then using a fan to dry the floor for two days.

Next, he patched the brick along the steps. He has a few more fixes to make before we can use the cave, as we call it.

I've decided it's too nice now for potatoes. It's my new wine cellar.

Before shot -- Bob heads in. There was a skull of a raccoon on the floor, but Bob wouldn't let me take a photo.

From the inside -- all clean.

Working on the steps

September 16, 2013

Tomatoes anyone?

My tomatoes were late this year, so that means they are booming now that everyone is tired of them. Fresh garden tomatoes are so yummy in July and August. By September people run when they see you coming with a basket.

I love to make a simple salad with fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella slices, and Kalamata olives. Squeeze half a lemon over it and a dash of balsamic vinegar. This is what I eat about four nights a week.

Below is my favorite tomato of the year. It's a heirloom of some kind (we planted an assortment of seeds and forgot what was what). That's a quarter beside it. Huge! It took up the entire plate. Tomatoes anyone?