Advancing agriculture: SDSU precision ag program evolves, expands

Farm Forum

This article was first published in the Summer edition of Growing South Dakota, a publication of the South Dakota State University College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences.

Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there,” said Will Rogers. In the fast-paced, ever-changing world of precision agriculture, that sentiment is especially true.

Addressing the Western Corn Belt Precision Ag Conference in Sioux Falls this spring, SDSU Dean of Agriculture and Biological Sciences Barry Dunn pointed out, “If the last five years hasn’t seen the fastest rate of change in technology and information in the history of agriculture, I can’t imagine when it was faster. The only thing I can say is ‘watch out’ because the rate of change will be even greater in the next 10 years.”

Additionally, Dunn noted that society is looking to all of agriculture for “sustainable practices.” In anticipation of these evolving changes and needs, SDSU professors, instructors, researchers and Extension staff in plant science and ag engineering are striving to strengthen their precision agriculture curriculum and knowledge.

Nicholas Uilk teaches precision ag classes in SDSU’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department. He emphasizes that at SDSU the precision ag effort is a collaborative one. “It’s no longer two separate systems, the machinery ties into the agronomic side. So by collaborating across departments and with teachers, researchers and Extension, the goal is to improve the productivity and efficiency of South Dakota’s cropland while minimizing the producer’s inputs and optimizing outputs.”

As well, SDSU is working to ensure its graduates are prepared for the future of precision ag. “Technology has really advanced within the agricultural industry and manufacturers are really looking for these graduates – and students with agricultural backgrounds are showing interest in this line of study,” Uilk said.

Within the Ag Systems Technology (AST) program, curriculum additions in 2013 allowed students to elect for a “precision ag emphasis.” With this coursework, they take more electronics and computer classes to prepare them for careers in equipment manufacturing or with a dealership.

The fall 2014 semester marks the first time students can declare a precision ag minor.

A sampling of some of the courses related to precision ag include testing simulation models within the lab; trouble shooting ag electronics, and precision mapping. Courses specific to wheat, corn and soybean production and the use of precision ag have also been added in the last couple years.

Students gain hands-on experience at the SDSU Opportunities Farm near Beresford – from driving tractors with real precision systems in them to developing prescription maps. Uilk explains that mapping programs are a big part of precision ag to aid in developing optimal seeding and fertilizer rates.

Additionally, data is collected on stand counts, seed populations, population strips, as well as developing yield-response curves for different hybrids on specific soils.

Both Uilk and Dunn credit a successful partnership with Raven Industries for bolstering SDSU’s precision ag projects – from supplying the students and farm with equipment and lab space to support for development of a new multi-hybrid planter.

Dunn anticipates there is much more that can be done in cooperation with industry in the precision ag field. He said, “This state’s future is dependent on what’s happening in precision ag.”

Uilk adds, “The technology in ag has really expanded; As we strive to keep up, our goal is to better prepare SDSU students for a career in agriculture.”

What’s next? Uilk reports the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department is working to secure funds for a state-of-the-art precision ag computer lab. It would include 30 to 35 computer stations with cutting- edge programs to enhance the current curriculum. The goal is to have the new lab in place for the 2015 spring semester.