New precision ag. degree shapes future of farming


South Dakota State added a new precision agriculture degree to better prepare students for the future of agriculture.

The degree is in response to an increasing demand for sensor-based farming and is the first of its kind across the nation. The South Dakota Board of Regents approved the major two months ago.

“(SDSU is) developing an expertise in this that’s been demanded by this new market, and the academic expertise that goes along with developing this program as well,” said Jay Perry, assistant SDBOR vice president of academic affairs. “This program plays to the strengths of what SDSU does well with the disciplines it pins together. It’s really right at the heart of what SDSU has to offer.”

The precision agriculture major is a joint degree between the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and the Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science.

Sensor-based farming can be “the difference between financial success or financial disaster for an individual farmer,” according to the SDBOR.

The difference between traditional farming and sensor-based farming is not just the technology, but knowing how to use this technology and interpret the data that it presents, said David Wright, department head for the Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science.

These increasingly common sensor-based systems are able to statistically break down a field of crops to the square foot, rather than analyzing the entire field, and give vast amounts of raw data to the end user.

“These tools are being put in farmers’ hands but to use those tools properly, there’s not a lot of training in the workforce,” Wright said. “What that means is how do you take that vast amount of data and information that is collected by the technology and make decisions that will increase the profitability of the farmer, as well as the ag retailer?”

Students majoring in precision agriculture should be equipped to use these new tools in the agriculture industry.

“It’s limited to those who know how to use it and interpret the information. Not everybody knows how to use it to its greatest efficiency, so that’s where the industry is looking to create a workforce to take the technology and under-stand it,” Wright said.

SDSU has been ahead of this demand curve for years now, according to Wright.

This could make SDSU the go-to university for precision agriculture and also make the school better known for this type of degree since it is the first university to offer a bachelor’s in precision agriculture.

“There are many universities that are just thinking about a precision ag. curriculum, and we started our curriculum years ago. We’re several years ahead of other land grant universities in the Midwest,” Wright said. “Ag. businesses have been telling us for years that they need bachelor’s graduates and master’s level graduates with higher levels of agronomic and technical skills.”

Understanding precision agriculture is not just important to modern farming and crop production, but it is also a key piece to the future of feeding the world, said Nicholas Uilk, instructor in agriculture and biosystems engineering.

“It’s improving the production of agriculture—they’re always saying we’re going to need to feed nine billion by 2050, so we need to continue our production, and precision is the tool to do that,” Uilk said. “Precision ag. enables the next step in higher production.”

This curriculum is different from a normal agriculture degree in a number of ways, including a higher level of mathematics as well as four new courses developed specifically for this ma-jor. Undergraduates with this major will also be expected to use programs like Microsoft Excel as a key tool in presenting sensor data.

Another benefit to this major, according to Uilk, is that more students can now engage in labs and hands-on experiences to better understand the field they will be working in down the road.

“Instead of 16 students watching one instructor, we have 16 students out do-ing the lab,” Uilk said. “That’s a staple to the program.”

As SDSU sits on the verge of a first-of-its-kind degree, precision agriculture courses will start this fall and may have a projected beginning class size of 17.

“It’s very exciting to know that you’re on the cutting edge of education. It’s very exciting to hear feedback from industry that says ‘congratulations, it’s ab-solutely the right thing to do, we need your graduates,’” Wright said. “There will be no shortage of jobs, that’s for sure.”