SDSU considers new precision ag degree

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News

Quick facts:

SDSU –12,500 students

SDSU College of Agricultural & Biological Sciences – 2,500 students

Most popular Ag Bio majors – biology, animal science, agriculture business, and agronomy.

Tuition for the 2015-16 – variable based on area of focus, but on average, it costs $14,000 annually to attend SDSU.

South Dakota State University (SDSU) may soon offer the first-of-its kind agricultural major – Precision Agriculture. The South Dakota Board of Regents recently gave approval to SDSU to develop plans for an undergraduate degree in this field of study. SDSU anticipates the Bachelors of Science degree will be available in the fall of 2016.

If approved, the program would combine areas of study from the departments of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Plant Science, Mathematics and Statistics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“We just received approval from the Board of Regents for our intent to plan,” said Don Marshall, SDSU Associate Dean and Director of Academic programs. “This is the first step in the process. We will now have to develop curriculum and create a program that will teach students not only about how plants grow and how to tend to crops, but to also use GPS and GIS technology. The students will study the equipment and will integrate lessons from agronomy to engineering courses.”

Currently, SDSU offers a Precision Agriculture minor, and 40 students are already working on that. With the growing demand for learning more about emerging technologies in modern agriculture, Marshall says the Precision Agriculture degree is a great step forward for the university.

“This field is a rapidly developing area,” said Marshall. “There are a lot of great opportunities out there in this area. Our agronomy and ag systems technology students are in excellent demand with ample career opportunities available, but this degree will gives students expertise in both areas.”

“We are very proud to be leading the nation in this endeavor,” added Barry Dunn, SDSU Dean of the college of Agriculture & Biological Sciences. “We received a $675,000 grant to help the entire land grant system go down this dtrack. It’s critically important to meet the challenges of the future that the next generation of farmers and ranchers will face. We want to offer students the best information possible to be able to use the right technology and right genetics to optimize inputs for sustainable agriculture, which is the new wave of the future.”

SDSU has worked closely with Raven Technologies to develop split variety planting technology. In order to do that, data management – particularly harvest data – is critical in mapping out the best possible plan for each field, says Nick Uilk, SDSU Ag & Biosystems Engineering instructor.

“Farmers will need to collect harvest data, soil data and layer after layer of the field to develop the best mapping plan for getting the best yields,” said Uilk. “Although commodity prices aren’t as high as they once were, it’s more important now than ever before to maximize yields. Using precision agriculture technologies is the best way to achieve that.”

Uilk says the university has existing curriculum that will fit great with the Precision Agriculture degree; however, the department is busy developing new core classes to create the best degree possible to offer to the students.

“We are using the same tools in the classroom that are currently being used in the industry,” said Aaron Franzen, Ag Systems Technology and Engineering instructor. “We are getting the students exposed to new things that haven’t been done in the past and aren’t currently being taught at other universities. Our curriculum changes each year to continue to cover new and emerging technologies. For example, a new emphasis this fall will be the use of sensors in field work in agriculture.”

If the new curriculum has been presented and approved by the Board of Regents, the university estimates it will graduate about a dozen students a year in the new major, after full implementation.

“This degree is going to focus on managing data, so we can extract really succinct information from farmers’ fields,” said Dunn. “If we thought we were in a data information overload age now, it’s going to become so much more. With the enormous amount of data we will be able to collect — from drones and other technologies, we want to help our students manage that data and use strategical and tactical planning to get the most out of each field.”

Dunn added that this degree will be a true capstone experience for the students.

“This is the degree that will tie everything together, from crop production, to data management, to economic analysis and more,” he said. “There are currently degrees from technical schools that set students up for careers in precision agricultural service jobs, and that’s great. The difference in our precision agricultural degree is that it will create job opportunities in diagnostics, data mining, and consulting.”

“Earning your degree costs less than a new car,” said Dunn. “We are always concerned with student debt, but we believe SDSU is an extremely affordable option to obtain a four-year degree. A college degree is a wise investment that students will have for life.”