Saturday, September 6, 2014

Monarchs, milkweed, and more

What started with the excitement of finding a monarch caterpillar on some milkweed buds  (below) turned into a summer-long learning project for our entire family.

At Bruce the Bug Guy's bug show, Bruce said that rearing monarch caterpillars was pretty easy to do. So when we found this one, we brought it back to the house with us, along with a couple milkweed leaves.

While trying to figure out how best to take care of this caterpillar, I read that rearing can increase a caterpillar’s chances of making it to adulthood by nearly 90%. So we brought a few more caterpillars in and then a few more. I accidentally brought a monarch egg in on a milkweed leaf, so we raised that caterpillar after it hatched, too.

Rearing the monarchs gave us a chance to observe the caterpillars up close and provided an opportunity to learn about the monarch life cycle.

It was also inspiring to think that maybe we were helping the monarch population increase, just a little. I've since learned that the best thing we can do to increase the monarch population is provide more milkweed and other flowering plants for monarchs to feed on.

Monarch caterpillars, chrysalides and butterflies

We hatched out several monarch eggs after I brought that first one in. It's almost unbelievable that such tiny eggs are where monarchs get their start.

We watched as the newly hatched caterpillars ate their eggshells (called chorions) and then the tiny hairs on the bottom sides of the milkweed leaves. Then they graduated to eating actual leaves. They molted and grew like crazy. Then they repeated the process – molt and grow – three more times. We got to watch the caterpillars shimmy out of their old skin and emerge all wrinkly and ready to grow.

After the last molt, the caterpillars' appetite and rate of growth would really increase. They filled out their velvety, wrinkly skin to become the plump caterpillars everyone thinks of when they think of monarch caterpillars.

One thing we learned is that monarch caterpillars' color patterns vary. Most have more black, but some have more white.

When it seemed like they possibly couldn't eat anymore, the really cool part started. The caterpillars left the milkweed and started climbing. Most selected a spot on the covers of the containers we kept them in. The caterpillar below chose a branch. Some would crawl around for hours, I assume trying to pick the perfect spot; others climbed up, picked a spot within minutes and started building their silk buttons.

Once their silk buttons were formed, the caterpillars inched forward until they could grab the button with their back feet. Hanging on tight, they would slowly let go with the rest of their feet and dangle down into a J shape.

After 12-24 hours hanging in J, the caterpillars transformed into chyrsalides. This is the part that prompted lots of questions from Dan and Monika, like, "How do they know when to make their chrysalis?"

Ten days later, the chrysalides darkened and the wing patterns of the butterfly inside became visible.

Like the forming of the chrysalis, the butterflies' emergence from the chrysalides happens very quickly. We still haven't watched a butterfly emerge from the very start.

Dan and Monika were really surprised that the shell of the chrysalis was clear. They thought it was tinted green, because for most of the pupal phase, the chrysalis looked green.

When the butterflies emerge, their wings are soft, small, and wrinkled from being tucked inside the chrysalides. Their abdomens are full of fluid. The butterflies contract their abdomens, pumping the fluid into their wings to expand them.

Once their wings reach full size, the butterflies hang with their wings pointing down for hours to let their wings harden.

The first time we watched a caterpillar pupate, I didn't take any pictures or videos. I just wanted to watch without watching through a lens. Dan, Monika, and I sat together and just watched. Before the transformation started, I had the kids hypothesize about how they thought the caterpillar would form its chrysalis. (I had seen pictures of the process, but never watched it happen in real life.) Neither child guessed that it would happen the way it did.

This caterpillar was only the second of the dozens we reared that I happened to witness pupating from start to finish. The container interfered with the pictures a little, but it also made it possible to see the pupa inserting its cremaster into the silk button, which was incredibly cool. (The cremaster is the black stem the holds the pupa to the white silk button.)

Once the pupa has emerged, its soft body contracts and then its skin hardens into a protective shell. A couple hours later, the gold markings appear. The word chrysalis comes from the Greek word for gold.

After emerging, it is imperative that the butterfly hangs onto its pupal case or something else, so that its wings can expand. If it falls before that and fails to crawl back up, its wings will harden with permanent wrinkles or bends.

We released all of the monarchs we reared in our yard. As summer progressed, it seemed like we saw more and more monarch butterflies flitting around. I even saw them resting near manure in the cow yard; at first I was concerned, but I learned later that they meet their mineral needs by drinking from puddles in mud and manure.

One day in late August, I went out to check for calves in our dry cow pen. I saw a butterfly zip around the corner of our windbreak. I thought it was the Tiger Swallowtail I had watched in that same spot a few days earlier. I followed, hoping to get a better picture of it. It wasn't the swallowtail; it was a monarch. As I followed it a bit further, I saw that there were too many monarchs to count resting in the trees and flying out over our alfalfa field (which was once again blooming due to a rain-related harvest delay).

It was so cool to see so many monarchs. I've heard others say, too, that they've seen lots of monarch caterpillars and butterflies this summer.

Hopefully that means the monarchs have had a good summer and maybe we'll see population numbers rebound. We won't know until they complete their migration to Mexico and the monarch watchers there can determine how many made it.


We spent so much time watching milkweed this summer that Dan and Monika can now spot a milkweed plant, like these ones in our fenceline, from an acre away. Even Glen started noticing the milkweed around the farm and checking it for caterpillars.

Did you know that the many species of milkweed are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat? That's just one of the facts Dan and Monika learned about milkweed.

One of the reasons monarch numbers are declining is due to a decline in the amount of milkweed across the nation.

Milkweed blossoms are both beautiful and very fragrant. I think they smell even better than lilac blossoms. The blossoms also provide food (nectar) for monarch butterflies.

Milkweed gets its name from its sticky, white sap. Milkweed plants and sap are toxic to species which are not adapted to consume them. Our cows will occasionally take a bite of a milkweed plant, but you can always see where they spit the leaves back out.

Milkweed's large seedpods are one of the traits I remember vividly from my childhood. Like the area where I live now, milkweed grew abundantly along the roadsides. At that point in my life, I didn't know that milkweed and monarchs went together. I just thought sticky, white sap and the seedpods were cool.

We have a number of small stands of milkweed, like the one pictured below, growing in our roadside ditches. We have even more growing in the fenceline between the pasture and cropland. We found eggs and caterpillars on milkweed in both locations this summer, but there were many more caterpillars and eggs on the fenceline milkweed.

I also found some Swamp Milkweed growing by one of the ponds in the pasture. There are a couple dozen different species of milkweed. I can't tell most of them apart, but I can differentiate Swamp Milkweed. First, because it grows in wet soils. Second, because it has long narrow leaves and brighter pink flowers. It smells just as good as upland milkweed species. Third, Swamp Milkweed has long, slender seedpods.

One thing I decided during our monarch project this summer is that, next summer, I will rear fewer caterpillars and make more of an effort to increase monarch habitat around our farm. There are several areas near the pond and in the grassed waterways that I'm planning to convert to milkweed and the other native flowers butterflies need for feeding and reproducing.

Other milkweed critters

While we were busy looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars, we discovered that milkweed provides food and habitat for several other critters, like these Red Milkweed Beetles.

And this bug, which looks a lot like a Large Milkweed Bug, but not enough for me to make a positive identification. It might just be some other sort of beetle/bug who stopped for a rest.

We found lots of other pollinators, namely bees and butterflies, like this bee collecting nectar from milkweed blossoms.

And this Pink-Edged Sulphur butterfly, who appeared to be resting there for the night.

Lots of more commonly known insects inhabited the milkweed stands – grasshoppers, aphids, ants, and ladybugs. I presume the ants and ladybugs were there to feast on the aphids.

Monarch caterpillars weren't the only caterpillars, either. We saw several tussock moth caterpillars, like this newly hatched cluster.

And these older tussock moth caterpillars, which will eat milkweed leaves right down to the ribs.

This caterpillar looks like a leopard or tiger moth caterpillar, but I'm not sure which. It was pretty cool, but I was even more excited to spot the treefrog next to him. I absolutely love frogs – after cows, they're my next favorite creature.

That treefrog wasn't the only one. We saw treefrogs almost daily, hanging out on milkweed leaves, I assume waiting for their next meal. With all the insects that milkweed attracts, the eating must have been good.

The treefrogs made our monarch project extra special for me.

We did most of our milkweed watching while we were getting the cows in from pasture, so I got to watch cows, frogs and monarchs all within minutes of each other. And I got to do all that while hanging out with my kids and helping them understand more about the natural world around us.

I'm definitely adding monarchs to the list of my favorite creatures.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Whole Grain Oatmeal Cake with Broiled Icing

A quick, easy cake with a coconut-pecan topping. 100% whole grain.

One of my college roommates, Rachel, was as fond of cooking as I was. And she had this great cookbook – The Joy of Cooking – that I fell in love with. My first favorite recipe from the cookbook's pages was Spinach with Currants and Pine Nuts. Rachel made it once and I was hooked.

I think the real reason I fell in love with Joy, though, was because it provided such a wealth of information on basic cooking techniques and ingredients. At that time, I was still pretty new to cooking – most of my childhood had been spent in the barn, not the kitchen.

After college, I lived without Joy until Glen bought me a copy for my birthday. For years, Joy and a spiral-bound collection of church recipes were my only cookbooks. My copy of Joy is now filled with bookmarks – including sticky notes, scraps of paper, a Dove chocolate wrapper, and junk mail envelopes. Many of the recipes are marked with the date I first tried them and the changes I made.

I still appreciate Joy's how-to advice. Even when I'm following a recipe from another cookbook or blog, I'll pull Joy out to reference a technique. Or when I'm trying to concoct a recipe of my own, I'll use a similar recipe from Joy to estimate quantities of ingredients or cooking times.

The date marked alongside the recipe for Oatmeal Sheet Cake is 4/10/2008. I can't remember what prompted me to try it that first time, but my notes say that it was "Excellent!"

I do remember that I made it another time that spring. And then I forgot about it. I really shouldn't have, because it's a super yummy cake that's really easy to make. I think my forgetfulness might have had something to do with the fact that we soon found out we had another baby on the way. That was the beginning of a period of time during which I did very little baking of any kind. Sadly, that period lasted so long that Dan asked me once, "Mom, why don't you bake cookies like Grandma does?"

Happily, that period in my life is over. Now, I bake quite a bit, usually as a form of stress relief and a way to procrastinate. And I am so glad that I remembered this cake a couple weeks ago. I will be baking it a lot more often.

Whole Grain Oatmeal Cake

Makes a 9x13 pan – about 12 - 16 servings


1 cup oatmeal (quick cook or old-fashioned)
1 ½ cups water

1 ⅓ cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose white flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) butter (salted or unsalted), softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla


Heat water to boiling and combine with oatmeal. Cover and let stand for at least 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F and butter a 9 x 13 inch pan.

In small bowl, mix flour, soda, spices and salt together with fork.

In medium bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Mixture will be crumbly. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Then beat in oatmeal. Stir flour mixture into batter with large spatula. Pour batter into pan. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

While cake is baking, prepare icing, below. Allow cake to cool slightly before icing.

Broiled Icing


1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
6 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted)
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans (or walnuts)
1 cup shredded sweetened dried coconut


Melt butter in medium bowl. Add sugar, cream, vanilla and salt and mix until smooth. Stir in pecans and coconut.

After cake has cooled slightly, preheat broiler and spread icing evenly over cake. Place cake 4 inches below the broiler. Broil until icing is bubbly all over, about 1 to 3 minutes. Rotate pan after one minute so that icing broils evenly. Watch constantly so that icing does not burn.

Cake recipe adapted from Oatmeal Sheet Cake in The Joy of Cooking.
Icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking

Saturday, August 16, 2014

County Fair recap

Our summer wouldn't be complete without spending some time at the Stearns County Fair. Riding the rides, visiting with friends, checking out all of the exhibits, noshing on corn dogs, and showing our cattle – we love it all.

Now that the calves and heifers are all back in their pens and the show halters are back in the show box, I thought I'd share a few photos from the shows. Looking back at the photos from our first year of showing, I can't believe how much our little exhibitors have grown. I'm sure I'll look back at this post one day and think the same thing again.

We didn't show at the Central Minnesota Youth Dairy Days Show this year, so our only show this summer was the Stearns County Fair Open Show. Dan showed Lego and Monika showed Sparkle. Lego is an April crossbred calf out of Lucy, Dan's favorite cow. Sparkle is a March Jersey calf out of Star, one of Monika's favorite cows. Dan and Monika knew from the moments Lego and Sparkle were born that they would be their fair calves.

Even though we didn't spend as much time walking the calves as I thought we should have, the show went well. Dan and Monika did a great job telling the judge about their calves. They practiced watching the judge and walking slowly, too.

Photo by Tammy Frericks
Monika was excited to get a ribbon from Stearns County Dairy Princess, Sabrina Ley.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Lego and Sparkle weren't the only calves from our farm that went to the fair. Our nieces and nephew showed several of our calves and heifers, too, in both the 4-H Dairy Show and the Open Show.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Hailey showed Java, a crossbred spring junior yearling (above), and Gael, a Holstein spring calf.

Kallie showed Penny, a Holstein fall calf (above), and Honey, a crossbred spring calf.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Bryce showed Wiggle, a Holstein spring calf.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

Hailey, Kallie, and Bryce all did a great job showing this year, too. Bryce had a lot of fun in the Cloverbud show. Hailey and Kallie did very well in 4-H showmanship.

Photo by Tammy Frericks

I wasn't organized enough to get a picture of our kids together after the show, but I love this picture my sister-in-law, Tammy, took of Hailey, Kallie, and Bryce.

Dan and Monika will join 4-H this fall, so next year's fair will be a whole new adventure for us, with both 4-H and Open shows and stalling our calves at the fair for the whole week, instead of just bringing them in the day of the show.

Dan wants to take two calves to the fair next year – and chickens – so we're already thinking about which cows will have possible fair calves next spring and which of this year's calves will go on to show next year.

Did you go to your County Fair? What's your favorite part of the fair?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Apple Cinnamon Toaster Pancakes

Hearty, wholegrain, portable pancakes. Perfect for busy school day mornings.

Summer is winding down and the new school year will soon start. There will be new teachers, new classrooms, and new school supplies. It’s an exciting time of year for Dan and Monika.

We’ll also be starting a new morning routine. Monika will go to Kindergarten this year, which means our mornings will have to start extra early. Our kids get on the bus at 7:20 a.m. When it was just Dan getting on the bus, I could rush in from the barn, wake him up at 7:00 and get him to the bus with matching socks, some breakfast in his tummy, and clean teeth.

There is no way I can get Monika ready for school in 20 minutes. She takes longer to get dressed. She takes her time eating. And then there’s her hair. Monika’s curls can’t just be brushed quick on the way out the door.

Our new morning routine will also include my new recipe for Apple Cinnamon Toaster Pancakes. These wholegrain pancakes are perfect for school day mornings. Just take a couple of pancakes out of the freezer, pop them in the toaster or microwave, pour a glass of milk, and breakfast is served. Plus, they’re super portable for eating on the go.

The idea for these pancakes started when Grandma brought over a package of frozen toaster waffles from the store. The kids loved them and I liked their convenience, but I wasn’t about to put them on the grocery list. I figured I should be able to come up with a healthier, homemade version. As it turned out, the kids think these toaster pancakes are even better than the toaster waffles from the store.

I included applesauce in the recipe, both for its flavor and because we have an abundance of applesauce, thanks to Grandpa’s apple trees and Grandma’s kitchen. Combined with cinnamon, whole wheat flour and oats, these pancakes taste as good as the aroma that wafts out of the toaster.

The brown sugar in the recipe provides just enough sweetness to make these pancakes tasty without syrup. And, they’re sturdy enough to hold up to freezing, reheating and eating with your hands, if necessary. I make a double batch on the weekends and stash the extra pancakes in the freezer.

For a special breakfast treat, when there’s time for sticky fingers, top these pancakes with LAND O’LAKES Cinnamon Sugar Butter Spread.

Apple Cinnamon Toaster Pancakes

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes (depending upon griddle size)
Yield: Makes 18-20 4-inch pancakes


1 cup uncooked rolled oats (quick-cooking or old fashioned)
1 ½ cups white whole wheat flour (or regular whole wheat flour)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt

1 LAND O’LAKES Half Stick Butter (1/4 cup)
1 cup unsweetened applesauce*
2 eggs
½ cup packed brown sugar*
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups milk

*You can use sweetened applesauce, too. Just reduce brown sugar to ¼ cup.


Grind rolled oats in food processor until fine. Combine ground oats, flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in small bowl.

In large microwave safe bowl, melt butter in microwave. Stir in applesauce, eggs and sugar. Then mix in vanilla and milk.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir until just combined.

Heat griddle to 350°F (or skillet to medium – the pan is hot enough when a few drops of water bubble right away but don’t instantly evaporate).

Using a ¼ cup measure, pour batter onto hot griddle and nudge into 4-inch circles. Cook until bubbles in pancakes just start to pop. Flip and cook until dark golden brown.

To freeze: Lay cool pancakes on cookie sheet or cooling rack in single layer. Place cookie sheet in freezer until pancakes are frozen (about 20 minutes). Transfer frozen pancakes to airtight container or zip-top freezer bag.

To reheat: Place frozen pancakes in toaster and heat on lowest setting. Use the frozen option, if your toaster has one. You may have to toast twice to heat through. Alternatively, heat frozen pancakes in microwave for about 45 seconds.

I am a Land O'Lakes Cooperative member-owner. I received compensation from Land O'Lakes for this post. All opinions are my own.

Friday, August 1, 2014

3KC Salad with Simple Teriyaki Chicken

Kale, Cabbage, and Carrots dressed with an Asian Vinaigrette
and served with Simple Teriyaki Chicken

This salad redefines recipe evolution. It started out as my sister's recipe for ramen noodle cabbage salad – the kind you dress with oil, vinegar, sugar and the ramen seasoning packet. I loved that dressing, but I don't like ramen noodles in my salad. After accumulating a dozen or so packages of ramen noodles without seasoning packets, I decided that I needed to figure out make this dressing without the ramen seasoning packet.

After a few trials, I inked this recipe into my recipe book. It's really just rice vinegar, canola oil, soy sauce, sugar/stevia, onion, garlic, ginger, and pepper. I use a combination of sugar and stevia, but either can be used. Sometimes I use Braggs Liquid Aminos in combination with the soy sauce, but a little less since liquid aminos are saltier than the reduced sodium soy sauce I use. I've also made the dressing with freshly grated ginger, which was wonderful, but more work.

I was perfectly happy with my new cabbage salad just the way it was until I watched this thought-provoking TEDx Talk. The speaker talked a lot about kale. I knew kale was a superfood. (My college nutrition professor ingrained the holiness of cruciferous vegetables into us.) But I had never tried kale. The TED Talk prompted me to find a way to include kale in my life. I figured it would pair well with the cabbage and dressing, so I added it to this salad recipe. I started adding carrots, too. Why not knock three colors off my eat-the-rainbow list?

The resulting kale-cabbage-carrot salad, which got nicknamed 3KC Salad after one of the vaccines we give to the cows, was amazing. The only problem was that the recipe I put together makes a very large batch and I was the only one in our house who ate it. (Daphne eats it with me now.) So after a week of salad for lunch every day, my love for this salad would start to wane a little.

Then, one day while I was looking to add some protein to my lunch, I threw some oven roasted almonds on top. The salad went from fantastic to out-of-this-world. Even after a week in the fridge, this salad has great texture, but the crunch from the almonds takes it to another level.

The final step in the evolution of this recipe happened after I heard that Land O'Lakes was coming out with a teriyaki version of their Sauté Express. I've been cooking with several of the Sauté Express flavors for awhile now, so I was thrilled to see teriyaki added to the lineup. I used to make my own teriyaki sauce, because I didn't like the taste of store-bought sauces. But the flavor of the teriyaki Sauté Express won me over instantly.

I had a pail of 3KC Salad in the fridge when I first made teriyaki chicken with the Sauté Express. I tried the salad and chicken together, sprinkled with almonds, sesame seeds and nori chips. I don't think I can adequately describe how amazing this combination of flavors and textures is. Just know that it's really, really good.

3KC Salad with Simple Teriyaki Chicken

Serves: 8 (one serving being about 2 cups of salad with 4 ounces of chicken)


For the salad

1 bunch kale (about ½ pound or 3-4 large leaves)
1 pound carrots
1 pound shredded cabbage

For the vinaigrette

1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 packets of stevia*
2 tablespoons sugar*
6 tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup rice vinegar

 *To use just sugar and no stevia, increase sugar to 6 tablespoons.

For the chicken

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
1/4 cup corn starch
4 squares teriyaki flavored Sauté Express


For the salad

Tear kale into small pieces, discarding ribs OR discard ribs and shred with sharp knife (check out this pictorial on shredding kale from The Pioneer Woman). Place kale in bottom of 4-5 quart container – one that has a tight fitting lid (I use an ice cream pail). Peel carrots and shred in food processor. Place shredded carrots on top of kale. Place shredded cabbage on top of carrots. If necessary, press vegetables down to fit in container.

Combine all vinaigrette ingredients in glass jar. Screw lid on tight. Shake vigorously until blended.

Pour vinaigrette over salad. Put lid on container and shake to coat salad with dressing. Refrigerate salad overnight, shaking again after a couple hours, to allow vegetables to marinate. Salad volume will reduce. Toss salad with forks after marinating to combine vegetables.

Top salad with teriyaki chicken, oven roasted almonds, sesame seeds, and/or nori chips.

For the chicken

Cut chicken pieces in half and flatten to uniform thickness. Dredge chicken pieces in corn starch.

Melt 2 Sauté Express squares in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once the sauté starter is bubbly, add half of the chicken pieces. Cook until chicken is done in the center, turning pieces at least once. Remove cooked chicken from pan. Melt remaining 2 squares of sauté starter and cook remaining chicken.

Slice chicken into strips.

Note: The salad will keep in a covered container in the fridge for at least two weeks.

I am a Land O'Lakes Cooperative member-owner. I did not receive compensation from Land O'Lakes for writing about Sauté Express or from any other company for mentioning any other product. All opinions are my own.