Yesterday was the 110th birthday of the greatest agriculturalist of all time, Norman Borlaug. The Cresco, Iowa, native’s ground-breaking work to prevent hunger is said to have “saved more lives than any other person who ever lived.” That would be more than one billion lives, according to estimates. He did so by not accepting the science of the time. Covering more of the earth than any other crop, wheat has been a critical food source since early civilization. In the mid 1900s, drought and disease had reduced wheat yields to unsustainable levels, leading to famine in many impoverished areas. While working in Mexico, Dr. Borlaug created the revolutionary high-volume “shuttle breeding” technique. He bred wheat using two latitudes and two growing seasons in the same year to fast-track genetic progress. At the time, the common agronomic belief was that harvested seeds needed time to “rest” once they were harvested, to ensure proper germination and growth. Not only did he disprove this science, but he also used shuttle breeding to produce wheat with broad disease resistance, adaptation to growing conditions across wide geographies, and with exceedingly high yield potential. But he was too successful. His new wheat varieties grew tall, aided by fertilizers, and became too weak to support the enlarged grain heads, which caused the plants to lodge and the grain heads to prematurely break off. This led to his crowning achievement: cross breeding these high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties with shorter plants to produce his now famous semi-dwarf varieties. Semi-dwarf wheat is a shorter plant with thicker stems and a stronger stalk, which will not fall over in the wind or if the grain head gets too heavy. This allows it to handle large amounts of fertilizer for even higher yields. In just 5 years, Mexico’s wheat production quadrupled. But Dr. Borlaug didn’t stop there. Driven by his undying passion that “food is the moral right of all who are born in this world” he soon introduced these semi-dwarf varieties across the globe, and in the process, dispelled the popular idea that India and Pakistan could never become self-sufficient in feeding their booming populations. In just five years, these impoverished, drought-stricken nations were feeding themselves and to this day food production has increased faster than population growth. For his efforts, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, the first time in history the prize was given to an agricultural scientist. He is further immortalized with a statue in the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, which recognizes the two greatest Americans from each US state.

March Madness carries a whole different meaning across pastures and ranch lands. It marks the critical time for beef producers: calving season. Spring is when about ¾ of all calves are born. Why is that? Because it allows producers to wean and market calves prior to winter and avoid higher feeding costs. A mamma cow’s nutritional requirements are lowest at mid-gestation, and highest during peak lactation, making March births optimal as pastures begin to green up and less hay is required. Producers must frequently check their herds during calving season, as newborn calves are highly susceptible to chills and hypothermia, particularly right after birth when they are still wet and can be born in cold, wet, or windy conditions. Sometimes, calves are lodged inside their mother’s birth canal, and will literally need to be pulled from its mother (not a fun job, I can assure you!). A newborn calf needs the colostrum – mother’s milk – for essential antibodies, and a young calf best absorbs those antibodies if it nurses within the first 2-4 hours of its life. If a newborn calf is not nursing on its own, substitute colostrum from another cow or a dried source can be used as a supplement. In these situations, or in the rare occasion when a cow rejects her calf, the calf must be bottle-fed. As the name implies, this involves using a giant baby bottle and feeding the calf 2-3 times per day. This may initially involve forcing it in the calf’s mouth. Speaking from lots of personal experience, this process requires much patience, but in a few days, the calves become very receptive.

The centerpiece of many Easter dinner tables – along with chocolate eggs and bunnies, of course – is a cured ham. Nearly $200 million worth of hams will don American tables come Sunday. The tradition of an Easter ham dates to early century Europe and carried over to American settlers. Historically, pigs were butchered late in the year. Since there was no refrigeration, the fresh pork not consumed was cured for spring. And some faiths did not consume meat during Lent. So the first hams were typically enjoyed on Easter Sunday.

Our nation’s top agricultural universities are also really good at basketball. Purdue, Illinois and Iowa State all advanced to the  Sweet Sixteen this past weekend.

About the Author

Fred Nichols

Fred Nichols, Chief Marketing Officer at Huma, is a life-long farmer and ag enthusiast. He operated his family farm in Illinois, runs a research farm in Tennessee, serves on the Board of Directors at Agricenter International and has spent 35 years in global agricultural business.

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