The fields of farm learning are calling in Brookings, S.D. The first four-year precision agriculture degree program in the United States is set to kick off at South Dakota State University (SDSU) in September 2016. SDSU’s Bachelor of Science in Precision Agriculture fills a void for the farming industry. Other universities and institutions offer concentrations and classes, but no comprehensive four-year major.
South Dakota sits on the edge of the Corn Belt with tremendous soil variability. Growers must make extra effort to hit high yields. Precision agriculture plays a vital role in crop management and farming success. “People often say we’re on the cutting edge of precision ag in South Dakota. We have to be to keep up the ‘I’ states,” says Nicholas Uilk, Ag Systems Technology instructor at SDSU. “However, we’re focused on reaching kids across the country with our new four-year program. Our goal is to expose students to the latest and greatest in agriculture every year.”
Over the past 15 years, precision has become part and parcel of agriculture. Specialization has expanded at a phenomenal rate across all facets of farming, making it increasingly difficult to learn all the fast paced changes in both dirt and iron. “We heard voices across agriculture talking about the need for students to fill multiple voids in the precision ag industry. No major covers everything, until now,” Uilk says.
The SDSU program has a triple focus on agronomics, analytics and machinery. “We’re offering students a solid agronomic background. They learn to manage soils, moisture, insects, weeds, disease, and all other variables that impact crop production. The SDSU Mathematics and Statistics Department is developing new, upper level statistics classes for Precision Ag students to help them analyze and better understand the complexity in agronomic production systems,” says Van Kelley, department head of the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department at SDSU. Students will also take machinery classes covering everything from hydraulics, electronics and sensors to everyday skills involved in planting, harvesting and spraying.
Actual learning time is divided between classroom, laboratory, and field to enhance the interplay between machines, agronomy, and data. The curriculum continually will evolve to adapt to industry needs and technological advances. The catalog is available online.
Industry support has been strong with assistance from equipment manufacturers across the U.S., according to Uilk. “Raven, Kinze and AGCO have really stepped up and we’re looking for more industry partners. We’re not restricted to one student with a tractor and planter, while 15 students watch from a distance,” he says. “Instead, every student will be able to perform hands-on lab exercises with the same equipment used in the field by today’s farmers and ag cooperatives.
The program is kicking off with eight Kubota RTV 1100 side-by-sides loaded with Raven auto-steering, in-cab terminals and GPS receivers. In addition, the Kubotas are being outfitted with multiple brands of custom-built, small scale planters and sprayers which demonstrate the latest related technologies and electronics. Students also get to experience how equipment from various manufacturers compares and performs in different field conditions.
SDSU’s relatively small campus in Brookings is ideal for a collaboration of the agriculture and engineering colleges. “We’re in a little town, and you can see corn growing from campus,” Kelley says. “It’s easy for students to get to the fields fast.”
The four-year degree is the result of an SDSU cross-campus collaboration dating back several years. The deans of the colleges of engineering and agriculture appointed a task force to look at how SDSU could capitalize on strengths in satellite imagery calibration, electrical engineering, computer science, machine design, statistical analysis, agronomics, and farm machinery. As a result of the study, the SDSU administration made the investment in additional faculty positions to offer the new major in Precision Agriculture.
“We’re trying to educate the next generation of innovators in precision ag,” Kelley adds. “Our graduates will be equipped with agronomic knowledge coupled with technical expertise, along with the data analysis skills to improve production efficiency and environmental quality. They’ll be ready for great careers.”