Farm Progress

At Southeast Community College's Beatrice campus, students experience precision-ag by working on a farm.

Tyler Harris, Editor

November 29, 2016

4 Min Read

Precision agriculture has changed since Annie Erichsen studied at Southeast Community College. "When I went here, we flew kites with cameras mounted on them. That's how they got started with precision agriculture," says Erichsen, who is now an instructor in SCC's Agriculture Business and Management Technology program at the college's Beatrice campus. Now, they're flying unmanned aerial systems (UASs).

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Three years ago, SCC received a the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant through the U.S. Department, which they've used to help take their Precision Agriculture Certificate courses to new heights. For SCC, precision agriculture doesn’t just include row crop production, but also livestock and turf grass management.

SCC's Beatrice campus is a working farm — 900 acres, about half of which are tillable. This gives students a chance to experience new technology first-hand and get their feet wet making management decisions.

"Sixty to 70% of what we do is hands-on. Students are in the combine seat, tractor seat, breeding our cows," Erichsen says. "Students are actually putting together the chemical, fertilizer and seed program for the next year. Through their second year, they're saying, ‘Here's a crop, and I helped plant it in the ground and helped manage it through harvest.’"

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Precision-ag courses range from an "Intro into Precision Agriculture" to GPS and autosteer, variable-rate irrigation, variable-rate fertilizer, yield mapping, UASs and remote sensing, as well as the hardware and software components of precision ag. While the certificate is part of SCC's Ag Business and Management Technology program, Erichsen says the precision certificate will have a major of its own soon.

The grant has also helped the college buy UASs in 2015. In 2016, students were able to fly them. Now, they have a "drone room" filled with trainer planes, nano-drones, and fixed-wing and rotor-wing UASs, including those mounted with regular visible spectrum cameras and cameras that can capture normalized vegetation index (NDVI). Students start out with a computer simulation before going on to nano-drones, trainer planes, and finally, the real thing — several of which are autonomous.

The same thing applies to machinery, such as tractors and combines. Students start off with simulations on computers, laptops and tablets to get a feel for how a monitor works when planting or combining before hitting the field. After they get acclimated to using the equipment and technology, those 900 acres are almost entirely managed by students.

Using the grant money, SCC purchased a John Deere Gator UTV equipped with autosteer. This Gator is also equipped with a Big John hydraulic soil sampler. After collecting samples, students can send them off to a lab — either the college's own lab, Midwest Laboratories in Omaha or Ward Laboratories in Kearney. Students enrolled in advanced courses can use this information to make a management decision for the upcoming cropping season.

When it comes to turf grass management, students use a Toro sprayer equipped with variable-rate and automatic shutoffs on landscapes and golf courses.

Students use a GrowSafe system and electronic identification tags to monitor feed efficiency among different cattle in the college's feedlot. Students also use the soil probe to monitor pasture soil conditions.

SCC also has a precision-ag mobile classroom — a trailer the college uses to haul the Gator, UASs and other precision ag tools around the state for educational purposes. "You can realistically have a mini classroom in there," Erichsen says. "It's a 24-foot enclosed trailer we'll be able to take to high schools, trade shows and our six satellite locations, where we'll be able to share different technology in agriculture."

All of these technologies are used for multiple classes with the goal of giving students a hands-on experience and for them to take that knowledge back to the farm, to help further a career in precision agriculture or continue their education at the university level, he says.

"About 20% of our students are returning home to the family farm. We've seen that number dwindle over the last 20 years. Of the remaining 80%, 20% continue their education, and the remaining 60% are going to work in the industry somewhere," Erichsen says. "I was a product of this program, and I wanted to come back. I didn't go back to the farm, but I felt I was a step ahead when I went on to the university level because of the hands-on experience I had here."

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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