Science is employed every day on the farm

October 25, 2011|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Have you ever had an "aha" moment? I mean one that really takes you by surprise. I write in this very paper 40 to 50 times a year with the intent of informing the public about agriculture. Well the other day my "aha" moment occurred in my office and centered on just how serious an image problem agriculture has.

I mean I expect the uninitiated not to know much about agriculture and I have gotten used to my employer, the University of Maryland, forgetting their charge as a Land Grant University.

I even realize that 4-H has suffered from image issues because people think of 4-H as cows and plows, and not about all the science involved or the life skills one learns through the process.

But I never thought my co-workers didn't know or would fail to acknowledge agriculture's foundation in science.

We were talking about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and not once was agriculture mentioned. It might have even been dismissed, but that might be me being oversensitive. There is nothing but science in agriculture. For instance, in one inch of topsoil there is nothing but biology, chemistry and biochemistry happening every second.

Next, take a look in an agricultural college catalog; some of the offerings you will find are bacteriology, reproductive physiology, growth and lactation physiology, ruminant nutrition and pathology. Foundational offerings these students would need to take prior to these specialized courses are calculus, biology, chemistry, physics and biochemistry. So that takes care of science and math.

What about technology? We can start with biotechnology, which is imbedded in agriculture. Food production has more than doubled in the last 50 years on a shrinking land base. So I think we have technology covered, but I will expand on it as we look at engineering.

Engineering in agriculture is as simple as a grain auger and as complex as a robotic milking machine. The breadth of engineering is immense. We have reduced the human labor in production agriculture to less than 2 percent of the population. We have tractors that have replaced thousands of horses. No-till planting, now the industry standard, employs biology to facture soil and adds nutrients with decomposition.

Animal science has contributed immeasurably to human medicine. In-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination are just two of the treatments for human infertility that have been in practice in cattle since the 1950s.

While I have emphasized the academic side of agriculture, science is employed every day on the farm and few people think about it. A farmer reads a soil test report and from that plots planting and fertilizing strategies. Field layouts are filled with geometry, as are hay barns full of bales.

Everybody employs algebra in their lives. Yes, you do, too; you solve for "x" all the time. Agriculture does the same.

For example, you have a trench silo that is 20 feet wide, 10 feet high and 100 feet long. You have corn silage in this trench with a density of 3.5 tons per linear foot. What is the capacity of your silo?

The answer: the entire silo contains 350 tons of corn silage.

My space limits don't allow me to expand into meat science or food science, but from now on, I hope you will look at agriculture in a scientific light.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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