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.


Twitter: betsyfreese

June 9, 2015

Inside a Modern Dairy Farm

Last week I toured Blood Dairy, a third-generation farm in central Iowa. Kevin and Holly Blood, along with their son, Alex, and his wife, Melissa, own and operate the business.

I was especially interested to tour this farm because my husband grew up just down the road.

Kevin Blood took over the family farm from his dad in 1990 when they were milking 100 cows. Today, the farm milks 2,200 cows with another 600 being added this year. There are 22 full-time employees in addition to family members.

A new 900-foot free stall barn, just like the one I photographed below, is under construction now. A new milking parlor with a flash chiller is also being built. Cows are milked three times a day. "We never stop milking," says Kevin. He says cows produce 10% more when milked three times vs two times a day. "They want to be milked every eight hours," he says.

He beds the barns with 12 inches of sand and the barns are cleaned each time the cows are milked. Fans and sprinklers keep the cows cool in hot weather.

Most of the milk goes to Des Moines the day it comes from the cow and is on store shelves the next morning. All milk is tested on the farm and again at the Anderson Erickson Dairy processing plant.

Holly Blood is in charge of the calves. Six to 10 are born every day on the farm. They are fed 1 gallon of colostrum and the females are moved in a special van to a neighboring farm owned by Cory and Shannon Eldridge. New calf barns were built there two years ago (a photo of one room is below). Local farmers Todd and Sharon Kline buy all the bull calves at birth and raise them for steers.

The average cow on the Blood farm stays for six years, although some are 10 or 12 years old. "As long as they continue to produce they are welcome to stay," says Kevin. 

All manure from the cows is injected into the soil as natural fertilizer on 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa grown by the family.


June 5, 2015

Chris Soules, Bachelor Farmer and Pork Industry Spokesperson

On Thursday morning, June 4, a line of women snaked out of the National Pork Board tent on the Iowa State Fairgrounds concourse in Des Moines. Inside was Chris Soules, star of three reality television shows -- The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Dancing with the Stars -- and now a bachelor farmer growing corn and soybeans and raising hogs in Iowa.

I sat down with Soules to talk about the America’s Pig Farmer of the Year award he helped the Pork Board promote this year.

First -- about Whitney Bischoff, his ex-fiancé from The Bachelor -- Soules said the decision to break off the engagement last month had nothing to do with his farm or whether she wanted to be a farmer's wife. The relationship just ran its course and fizzled out. "We are still friends," he said. There were enough attractive young farm women standing in line for a selfie with Soules, his prospects didn't seem dire.

Now, on to pork production. Soules and his family feed 20,000 pigs a year on contract to TriOak Foods. Last winter he met with the Pork Board about being a spokesperson for the new pig farmer award. "I am somewhat famous," he said, "and that gives me a great platform to connect to consumers."

He says his time in the celebrity spotlight showed him "how little understanding people had of what we did in farming." He wants to help change that. "We have a great story to tell and farmers are not always willing to tell it."

All types of hog farms were welcome to enter the new award (applications are now closed), and Soules said he hopes all producers feel they are an important part of the pork industry. He pointed out that his sister raises grass-fed beef. "It takes every kind of farmer to feed hungry people," said Soules.

During our interview, a man interrupted Soules for an autograph. He said his friend worked at a packing plant in Columbus Junction and "she saw your pigs come in one day and freaked out." She couldn't attend Pork Expo because she had to work. Soules asked her name and then spent a few minutes composing a lengthy note to this woman, who is probably freaking out again today after receiving his note.

You may catch Soules later on another reality TV series. Stay tuned. No matter where he goes, he will have agriculture and food production in mind.

June 2, 2015

1st Cutting of Alfalfa, finally

Bob cut the alfalfa on the last day of May. It was way past full bloom and weedy, but a wet spring left him no choice in timing. In fact, the weather forcast is now calling for storms tomorrow, so it will probably get rained on before he can bale. This morning he said he "didn't care," but I didn't believe him.

One change this year -- he ran the tedder through the hay right after he cut it. Usually he waits a day or two.

The wet May also led to leaf curl on my peach tree, a disease caused by a fungus. Below are two leaves I removed. You can read more about peach leaf curl management here:

My potatoes loved the wet spring. They are blooming! Fresh, new red potatoes soon.

To help monarch butterflies, I'm letting milkweed grow in the asparagus patch.


May 26, 2015

Clover Mowers

We let the ewes into the clover. Not even a snake in the grass (me) could spook them from munching. "Split Ear," a former bottle lamb, was watching the lambs climb the compost pile.

Rip and chew, rip and chew. So good.


May 21, 2015

Cow-Calf Update and Tips

I traveled with Bob to the McNay Research Farm in Clariton, Iowa, yesterday to attend a beef cattle research day for veterinarians. Much of the material could be helpful for anyone with a cow-calf herd. Here are some highlights.

4 Steps to Selecting Bulls Are you buying bulls that really help your herd? Become a better match-maker. Here are tips:

1. Determine the best bull breed for your operation (not just what is popular)

2. Evaluate bull performance using EPDs and other data. Don't forget the Docility EPD. "You better look at it if you have trouble getting over a 5-strand barbed wire fence," says Patrick Wall, Iowa State Extension beef specialist. Small herds, especially those owned by families with kids, do not want aggressive bulls.

3. Visually evaluate bulls and how that fits with your cow herd.

4. Who is your customer? (Define the market strategy for your beef product.)

Foot problems in bulls and cows are becoming more common. Two main issues are shallow heels with long toes and scissor/corkscrew claws. Data is being collected in the cattle industry and EPDs will be provided as soon as sufficient data is submitted. Meanwhile, before you buy a young bull ask about his genetic history as relates to feet problems.

Tall Fescue is a growing problem in pastures. The fescue belt is moving north. Fescue toxicosis is a health disorder, not nutritional, but you must meet cow mineral requirements. Fescue toxicosis causes narrowing of blood vessels, foot problems, low feed intake and rate of gain, birthing problems, poor milk production and more. Seed head and stems are the worst, but alkaloids are in the entire plant. Pasture management is crucial. Please see more information here.

What is the #1 Concern for beef cow herds in Iowa? Availability of grass. In five years, between the last two Census of Agriculture reports, Iowa lost 21% of its pastureland, mainly to row crops. YIKES.

Here is a new Grassroots Grazing Program for young and beginning graziers:

May 12, 2015

Everything is Growing!

Everything changes so rapidly in the spring. The lambs grow quickly, the irises bloom overnight, the garden gets choked with weeds before you turn around. Here is a random assortment of photos from the past week to give you a glimpse of the fun!

No fuss, no work, just fabulous fragrant flowers every year forever.

This bust exploded in the kiln, so Caroline buried it in my garden as a scarecrow. Creepy.

Bob and Warren caught the oldest lambs for vaccinating and worming.

Bob took this photo for Mother's Day.

Once again, our alfalfa field is taken over by wild mustard. Too wet to mow yet.

Bob readies the east lean-to for lamb vaccinations.

Bob cared for this weak little calf two years ago, and yesterday he did a pregnancy check on her (below) -- positive!

Irises in my favorite new weird vase.


May 5, 2015

What's Up, What's Blooming, What's Happening

There are so many wonderful sights to see in May, things to smell, things to do. I traveled on farms in Illinois and Missouri last week, collecting photos and interviews for Living the Country Life. There is nothing better than seeing the countryside and talking to farmers. Unless it's sitting under the blooming lilac bushes with a good book.

Of all the calves to come up to me in this pasture.

This is the east grove at our small farm in Iowa. The smell is out of this world. Bees loves these blossoms!

What's up?

I like to sit under the lilac bush while Bob mows. Score.

I really didn't want this fight to happen in front of me, and luckily it didn't.

Another photo of my flowering crabapple trees. Aaaahhh.

April 27, 2015

Lambs and Lilacs

Storms dropped more than an inch of rain over the weekend, so lots of hay bedding was needed for the youngest lambs.

Watch a video of the lambs behind our barn here.

This is a sweet time of year. My lilacs are blooming in the back yard and the new lambs are jumping for joy behind the barn. Last night we opened pens and let a new batch of babies out of the barn. The sound of baaaaaas could be heard for miles, I'm sure. Moms are trying to gather their offspring around them (not easy with triplets) and lambs are scared because mom is out of sight over at the hay feeder. Everyone settles down by sundown. We added lots of bedding behind the barn because it rained all weekend.

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April 22, 2015

Peek Inside My Barn

Little Speck is growing like crazy. This is one of the twin females I showed you earlier, the first lambs born on our farm this spring. Love the markings. They are racing around outside now, leaping in the sunshine.

Bob had to perform a c-section on a ewe this week. He set up a surgery station in her pen. She and her surviving lamb (another was dead) are doing fine today.

I love the photo below of a ewe sniffing out what Bob is doing.

April 13, 2015

Forsythia Celebrates Spring

I used a painter brush tool in Photoshop to enhance this photo, not that my forsythia needs any encouragement this spring. I forgot to trim it last year, so it's gaily waving spindly yellow arms in the breeze. Once it stops blooming I will chop it down to size.

When my forsythia blooms I know it's time to plant potatoes and onions, so that is what I did on Saturday. I also planted a row of gladiolus. We got an inch of rain last night. Perfect timing.