Winter Warming

Winter can be an unpredictable season in Iowa. From blue skies to blizzards and everything in between, it can be tough to know just what to wear some days to keep warm.  People can easily change their clothes, though, to match the weather.


The farm animals at the museum can’t put on a winter jacket and a stocking hat when it’s especially cold or a light sweater when it’s mild, and they certainly can’t come inside the house when it’s just too cold. So, what do they do instead to deal with Iowa’s unpredictable winter weather?


The horses and cows grow long, thick, shaggy winter hair when it starts to cool down in the fall. This hair growth doesn’t actually have anything to do with temperature, though.  It has to do with how many hours of sunlight there are each day, known as a photoperiod.  As the photoperiod shortens, the horses and cows start growing their hair to get ready for cooler temperatures.


Horses and cows use this thick winter fur to trap a layer of air against their skin, which is slowly warmed by their body heat. The hair also scatters light, which may help insulate the animals. As long as they have shelter from north winds, they are comfortable outside, and they enjoy sunning themselves whenever possible.

We cut the wool off our sheep (a process called shearing) at the start of each summer. They spend the whole summer and fall growing new wool, instead of waiting for days to get shorter like the horses and cows. By the time they need it in the winter, they have their thick wool coats back to keep them warm until spring.

All of the animals also have to use more energy to keep warm, just like how shivering takes more work than standing still. They all have to eat more food to make up for the extra energy they spend staying warm.

Since the pigs don’t have a thick outer layer of fur, wool, or feathers like the other animals, they have to create a thick inner layer of fat to help insulate their bodies. To create this layer of fat, they have to eat even more food than the other animals.


The pigs also enjoy being given a few extra whole bales of straw, which they rip up and rearrange to create their own nests inside the hog house. They cuddle up tight against each other in these nests to share body heat. Pigs also enjoy sunning themselves, even on cold sunny days.


For the Birds!

pump waterPeople visit Living History Farms to talk with our museum guides, see the historic buildings and farm animals, and to help with our hands-on activities. Maybe you have come out to help churn butter or pump water or milk a cow? What is your favorite job to help with at the farm?

autumn at Living History FarmsMany people also come to the museum just to be outside! Fall in Iowa is a great time to be outside. The air is cooler. The leaves start to turn colors and crunch under your feet. Our museum has a trail to walk on between our farms. Along this trail, you can see prairie grass, wildflowers and trees, a creek and a pond. There are benches along the trail and it’s a great place to sit and hang out outside! And it is a great place to watch for wild birds and animals.

Do you like to watch wild birds? Scientists who study birds are called ornithologists. People who like to watch birds are sometimes called “birders.” Birders like to see how many different kinds of birds they see when they go out. They even keep lists of the birds, where they see them and what the birds were doing.

Living History Farms trailThe next time you come to the Farms, walk slow along the trail and look for birds. You can even keep your own list by drawing pictures of the birds you see or writing down what they were doing. Even if you don’t know what species (that’s the name of that type of bird), there are lots of things to notice about them. What colors are the birds? What sound are they making? Where are they—on the ground, in a tree, on swimming in the pond? Were they eating something? If you want, you can bring a pair of binoculars to see the birds better, but just looking hard with your eyes will show you a lot!

Here are some of the birds you might see on a visit to Living History Farms! As you walk along our trails, keep your eyes open and look carefully through the trees and along the ground. You might see very colorful birds in the trees. Bright reds, blues, yellows and oranges are easy to spot.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Maybe you will see birds like the Eastern Bluebird, or the Goldfinch. These are both small birds that love to sing. The Goldfinches like the seeds of many of the flowers which grow in our prairie grass area.


You might also see a Blue Jay or a Cardinal. These birds are a little bigger but still have bright colors. The Cardinals also like to sing!



If you are very lucky, you might even see an Oriole. We don’t see these birds very often, but are always excited when we do!  oriole

Now, if you want a challenge, look for the birds that have just little bits of bright colors, or that are brown and black and white. Some of our favorites are the gray catbirds.


You might hear the catbird before you see him. He calls to other birds with a scratchy mewing sound.

Crawling along the trees, sometimes even upside down, you might see a nuthatch.


In spring and fall, the male nuthatches chatter at each other so listen when you see them!

The woods at Living History Farms are also filled with wood-peckers.

red bellied woodpecker

Red bellied Woodpecker

There are the smaller Downy Woodpeckers, but we also have Red-bellied Woodpeckers too. You can usually hear these birds too—by the hammering sound they make on trees!


In the more open areas along the trail, you might see birds that like to soar or fly in the breeze. Look up and you might see a turkey vulture. Vultures eat dead animals and like to fly high in the sky on warm winds called thermals.


You will see them fly in slow circles. Sometimes you may also see hawks at the farm. We see both Red tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks. The farmers keep an eye out for these birds in the spring—they will chase our young chickens.

red tailed hawk coopers-hawk-128

On a cool morning visit, you might see pheasants or wild turkeys. These birds are shy and you will probably only see them in the distance–like this turkey we were able to photograph here last fall! wild turkey at LHF

In the mornings, you may even see a heron on our farm pond! And especially in the fall, you can see all sorts of ducks and Canadian Geese on the farm pond near the exhibit center.

What is your favorite bird? Do you like small birds that sing or bigger birds that honk? Start your own bird list for the birds you see at home and at the park, and hopefully on a visit to Living History Farms!

Caregivers: Birding is a great way to get your kids outside! Start with the birds in your back yard and the birds along our museum trail. Don’t worry about knowing the name of every bird you see. Focus on just noticing what birds are doing. What sounds are they making? What colors and sizes do the kids see? Birding can be simple—a walk along the trail using just your eyes to look for things. Or you can bring a notebook and pencils to draw/write down what you see and a pair of kids’ or adult binoculars to look for birds. If your kids are bringing new binoculars to watch birds, make sure they practice using them a bit so they aren’t frustrated with the tools during their tour. Also, let them explore whatever they notice during their birding walk—even if the ground squirrels seem to be more interesting than the birds. Teaching kids to love the outdoors keeps them active and involved in the world around them! Remember these birds are wild, so children should not try to catch, feed, or chase them.


twin lambs and other sheepHey, remember these little guys? Back in April, we talked about all the lambs born at Living History Farms this spring. You should see them now! They have grown a lot and all the sheep are a lot less shaggy. In May, all of our sheep got their hair cut. Sheep have special hair called wool. During the winter, the sheep’s wool grows very thick to keep the sheep warm. The sheep’s wool is also full of greasy oil called lanolin. It helps the wool shed water and keeps the sheep dry.

winter sheep

In the spring, farmers cut the wool off of the sheep to keep them cool in the summer. Cutting the wool off is called shearing. A shearer, the person doing the cutting, can sometimes get the wool off the sheep in one whole piece. That piece of wool is called a fleece.

In the 1850s, the wool was cut off with a sharp scissor-like tool called shears. Later, mechanical clippers—a lot like the ones you might see at a hairdresser now—were used to get the fleece off. These clippers did not run on electricity. Instead, someone had to crank a wheel to make the clippers move. Shearing was a two person job!

clippersThis photo is of a famous pair of clippers given to a champion sheep shearer in 1892 in Australia (photo: Southeby’s Australia.)

The video below shows Sheep Shearer Ray shearing the fleece off of a Living History Farms ewe. See his helper? Turning that crank can be a tiring job! Ray thought the whole fleece might weigh 6 or 7 pounds. This was a small ewe. It is pretty common to get 8 or 10 pounds of wool from a large ewe.

A long time ago, Pioneer farmers might sell the fleece to a woolen mill. The woolen mill factory would make thread and weave clothing from the wool. In 1850, farmers could sell one pound of wool for 50 cents. How much money would 6 lbs. of wool make for the farmer? A Pioneer farmer might also keep part of the fleece and spin the wool fibers into yarn to make hats and socks and mittens.

pioneer with woolen mittens and hat

What is a Mule?

draft horses

If you’ve visited Living History Farms before, you have probably seen the horses that live and work at the 1900 Farm. Sam, Judah, and Ben are a special kind of horse called a “Percheron” horse. They are big and built to pull wagons and farm machines. Working animals like this are called draft animals.

mulesExciting news! Our Percherons have two new friends, named Buddy and Brandy, who will be joining them on the 1900 Farm soon! Buddy and Brandy aren’t Percherons like Sam, Judah, and Ben. They’re not even horses! They are mules, which means their parents were a horse and a donkey, like the one in this painting.


Mules get some features from each parent. For instance, they have long ears like a donkey, and they have long tails like a horse. In fact, they get the best traits of both of their parents.

A draft mule has the size and power of a draft horse, combined with a donkey’s ability to work in the heat and eat less feed. They are sure-footed and patient like a donkey, yet strong and bold like a horse. Getting the best traits from parents of two different species is called hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor in mules makes them generally healthier and able to live and work longer than either a donkey or a horse – up to 40 or 50 years! single mule

Many people think donkeys and mules are stubborn. They are actually very smart animals with lots of common sense. Mules and donkeys like being around people. They work best when they are treated with kindness, patience, and understanding, just like people.

Buddy and Brandy are learning to call Living History Farms their new home. They will be pastured away from lots of people for another month to “settle in”. You can look for them moving to the 1900 Farm later in the summer! We’ll keep you updated when they move to the barnyard!

New Arrivals!

Hello Everyone! Farmer Mike here! Winter is finally over and I am happy to say we have some new additions to the barnyards at Living History Farms this spring.

Hank as a babyLilly the 1900 Farm milk cow had her calf on March 5. We had hoped she would wait for warmer weather.  It was the coldest night of the month with the overnight low of 2 degrees! Luckily, the day was sunny and the temperature warmed up. Mother and baby are doing fine. Lilly can produce over 4 gallons of milk a day, far more than the calf needs, so we have begun milking her for some of our programs.


Lilly and her calf are a breed, or type of cattle, called Shorthorn. Shorthorn cattle can be just red or just white but most often they are red and white spotted. Most shorthorns have horns—both boys and girls. Lily is special though; she is a polled cow. Animals who naturally do not grow horns are “polled”. She has passed that trait to her calf.

cattle 1900

When you visit the museum you will see shorthorn cattle at the 1850 Pioneer Farm and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm. The 1850 Farm cattle have horns, but the 1900 Farm cattle happen to be polled.shorthorn

In the 1800s, farmers wanted to make more money from their livestock and they began to raise specific breeds that were good at giving milk or had good meat. Angus and Herefords are special breeds that give good meat, but these breeds don’t make good milk cows. Jerseys and Guernsey’s give lots of milk but they aren’t the best beef producers. The Shorthorn was the most common breed in Iowa in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The Shorthorn was popular because it was very good at all the jobs cattle had on a farm. They were good milk producers, good beef producers, and in pioneer times they made good oxen. Martin Flynn, the man who built the mansion at our museum, raised famous Shorthorns. Men came from all over the country to buy cattle at the Walnut Hill Farm.

1891 Sale Ad

Other additions are lots of lambs! Sheep usually have twins, sometimes single lambs, and rarely triplets. This year our sheep have had a single lamb, two sets of twins, and one set of triplets so far! The first lamb came way back in December. Here’s the winter lamb with Farmer Kelly.lamb with Kelly

The first twins arrived March 11, with a set of triplets not long after. We had another set of twins this past week.  twin lambs and other sheep

Our adult sheep are pretty round and shaggy right now. Their wool is thick from keeping them warm all winter. Sheep are sheared, or get a haircut, once a year in the spring.

lambs and momWe are hoping to shear our sheep in May. Each of our adult sheep will give 8 to 10 pounds of wool. How much is ten pounds? Three 2-liter bottles of soda weigh ten pounds. A bowling ball often weighs about ten pounds. That’s heavy wool! After the wool is washed and the dirt and oils come out, the wool will weigh less than half that amount. The fibers (or individual hairs) of the wool are 2 inches long or more depending on the sheep. Sheep were usually kept for their wool and sometimes for meat. Our sheep are mixed breeds as was common in Pioneer Iowa. lamb and mom feeding

Training New Oxen

oxen and wagonIf you’ve visited our 1850 Farm at the museum, you’ve likely encountered our oxen – Beau and Luke. But, what is an ox? Is it a special breed or species? Nope! An ox is just a cow – one that has been trained to work as a draft animal.

So what makes an ox an ox?

Oxen are usually male cattle. They go through extensive training starting when they are very young to teach them how to pull heavy loads and listen to their human handlers – called drovers or teamsters. They don’t actually earn the title of “ox” until they have been through four years of this training! Until then, the calves are often called “working steers”.

calves in halterTraining starts when they are only a few weeks old, as they learn to be comfortable around people. The first step in an ox’s training doesn’t involve any work at all, but there is still a lot for the young calves to learn. They are taught to wear a halter and how to walk calmly on a lead rope. They learn that humans bring yummy food and soothing brushes and petting. Soon they look forward to seeing their teamsters because of the good things those people bring and do for them. calves and kelly

When they are a few months old, the calves are taught to wear their first yoke. The yoke is the piece of wood that goes across their necks and is traditionally held on with bent pieces of wood called bows. The first yoke is very small, and a team may go through a dozen or more incrementally larger yokes until they are full grown.


Besides walking alongside their teamster and wearing a yoke, the calves must learn some commands. The calves are taught words that tell them to go forward, turn left and right, stop, and back up. Here are those words, and their meanings:

oxen“Step Up” – go forward

“Gee” – turn right

“Haw” – turn left

“Whoa” – stop

“Back” – back up

Take a look at our youngest “working steers” learning the ropes! These young steers were born at the 1850 Pioneer Farm during the summer of 2014 and are just beginning their ox training!


Wet and Wiggly!

Drug StoreMany people visit Living History Farms to see our farm animals. We have sheep and pigs and chickens and cows and horses and…leeches. That’s right! The Schafer Drug Store in our 1875 town of Walnut Hill displays a bowl of leeches every summer.


What’s a leech? Well, have you have ever gone swimming in a lake or a pond and noticed you had a worm like creature attached to you when you got out of the water? EEEK! That was probably a leech. In fact, it was probably the North American Freshwater Medicinal Leech. Leeches are a type of worm; they don’t have bones the way you do and can stretch their bodies to be thin or squish themselves up really fat. They are usually brown or greenish with dark spots. Leeches can grow to be up to 2 inches long and have suckers on both ends of their body. Leeches are really wiggly! They can swim very quickly or crawl like an earthworm along the bottom of a lake using their suckers. Leeches do have eyes, but also use vibrations in the water to sense what is going on around them.

leechesLeeches are parasitic. Parasitic means they need to feed on another living thing to survive. In the case of the Freshwater Leech, they survive on blood. These types of leeches are sometimes called bloodsuckers! The mouth sucker is filled with very sharp tiny teeth. It bites onto a living thing and sucks blood from them. When a leech bites onto something, it gives off a chemical in its saliva (its spit) that helps to keep blood flowing and also that keeps the victim from feeling any pain. Usually, leeches in the wild like to attach to fish, frogs, and turtles.

leeches sign
So why are there leeches in the Schafer Drug Store? Before people really understood the things that could make them sick (like germs!), people thought bad blood inside you made you sick. They thought you might have a poison in your blood or even that your body had too much blood! They thought a good way to make you well was to remove bad blood with…you guessed it, a leech! A long time ago, doctors would attach one, or even a bunch at a time, to the patient’s skin to suck out their bad blood.Leeching
What do you think? Do you think it would help make a sick person feel better? Now, we have a much better idea of why people get sick. Instead of bad blood, we know we might have bacteria or germs in our bodies that make us sick. We take special medicines to help get rid of the germs instead. Do you think it hurt to be bitten by a leech? Well, remember that chemical in the leech’s spit? It helps to keep people from feeling any pain. Most people do not feel it at all if a leech bites them.

Try this at home:
A single leech can eat up to ½ ounce of blood at a time. That is about 1 tablespoon. An adult human has around 160 ounces of blood in their body, so taking a half ounce out isn’t much.

measuring spoons

What does a tablespoon look like? Ask your parents if you can measure out some water with a tablespoon sized measuring spoon. You can place water in a bowl and try measuring a tablespoon at a time into a second bowl. One tablespoon of water is how much blood one leech might eat. Sometimes, a long time ago, a doctor would use many leeches to remove “bad” or “poisoned” blood. One leech therapy called for TWO DOZEN leeches! That’s 24 leeches at a time! Measure out 24 tablespoons of water. Does that look like a lot?

DON’T FORGET: Visit the Schafer’s Drug Store at Living History Farms…the leeches have arrived! You can see what a leech looks like in real life and hear more about their story. Ask the interpreter in the Drug Store about ways doctors use leeches in 2014!leeches

Tip for Caregivers: Leeches like cool weather. The leeches in our bowl are usually much more active in the mornings before it gets hot. When you visit the Drug Store, check out the leeches early in the day!