By Dale Hildebrandt, Farm and Ranch Guide

DEVILS LAKE, N.D., March 25, 2013 — Students in the region will have an opportunity to enroll in a unique curriculum this fall at Lake Region State College’s Dakota Precision Ag Center – a two-year precision ag degree.

Graduates from the program, which will be offered for the first time in fall of 2013, will have a variety of career paths to follow – including production agriculture, service technicians at an implement dealership, an applicator at a local ag service dealer or even go on to a four-year program at another educational institution.

Initial work on the program was started by Dr. Paul Gunderson, who was coaxed out of retirement in Wisconsin in 2004 to help establish a precision ag curriculum and work on obtaining grants to fund the endeavor. He was recently joined by another Wisconsin transplant, Brad Mathson, to put the finishing touches on the program.

The Dakota Precision Ag Center will be run out of a separate building, which housed an implement dealership that is now being totally refurbished into classroom, office and lab space.

“We wanted to have enough space (for this program) so we can actually put the new technology and the older technology in a heated space and we can teach our students how to bridge between them,” Gunderson said.

“There are not many places that have a facility where you can bring in equipment and instead of just talking about it, they are going to have to install the precision ag equipment,” Mathson added.

The federal grant awarded to Gunderson to help launch this program totals $3 million, which is more than all of the Big 10 universities have received in total for precision ag research this coming year, according to Gunderson.

Gunderson claims there is a definite need for such a program in the state. Based on a survey that was conducted a short time ago that encompassed the center region of the United States from the Mississippi River on the east to the Rocky Mountains on the west, it became apparent that precision ag methods have been most widely adopted by farmers in North and South Dakota. But that widespread use of precision ag methods hasn’t always produced positive results, since Gunderson knows of many instances where a farmer’s production actually decreased once precision ag methods were incorporated into the enterprise.

And he places the blame for a negative response to precision agriculture on the fact that basic agronomy was often overlooked and instead they thought the precision ag equipment itself was going to give a positive result.

“This should never occur, and part of the reason it shouldn’t occur is that for the most part what we are suggesting is don’t put the whole farm in on this, but rather start with what you can manage, even if it’s only a quarter section,” he said.

“If you start with the question, ‘What do I need to do in order to maximize my yield objectives in my fields?,’ that’s where you start with agronomy.”

And that is why agronomy is going to be one of the foundations this new curriculum.

While having a booth at the various farm shows around the state this winter, Gunderson has received many inquiries from parents regarding the precision ag program and the return they would see if their son or daughter enrolled in the program.

“You can take the two-year investment you make in your son or daughter up here and you can recapture that if you are farming 5,000 acres or more in the first year that your son or daughter returns to the enterprise,” he tells them. “Here’s how you do it. You give that son or daughter the authority to create the prescription maps and do the majority of the crop scouting and some of the agronomy work, as much as you feel comfortable handing off. At the end of the year you can pay your son or daughter a very nice salary, and you haven’t created a new enterprise. Rather what you have done is bring new skill sets into your enterprise and you will cash flow the whole works in the first year.”

Students graduating from the precision ag program will be able to take the data points that have been collected by the precision ag equipment and then generate prescription maps for their fields.

“They can hire someone to do that, but it doesn’t generate the same level of managerial knowledge,” Gunderson said. “It allows you to become intimately involved with your field.”

Training will also be provided on how to use some of the suites of precision ag software that is now coming on the market that will allow a farmer to make better use of the data harvested from their precision ag equipment in analyzing their particular operation. This statistical analysis should provide clues on what needs to be done in certain areas that will make that operation more profitable in the future.

But, it isn’t only production agriculture that will benefit from this course work. Both implement dealerships and ag service dealers are doing a fairly good job of training individuals in the aspects of precision agriculture that are needed for their job, but many are missing training in another critical area.

“They come back with the technical knowledge, but not with these soft skills such as customer relations,” Gunderson said, “and this program will offer course work in this area.”

Plans are also being made to set up a mobile classroom that would be able to offer some limited training on site, which would be an ideal situation for short course training at a remote location.

Initially, class size will be limited to 24 students each year in the two-year program. And even though enrollments aren’t being accepted until mid-April, two individuals have already made firm enrollment plans, and Gunderson expects there will soon be others after the series of winter meetings he has attended explaining the new program.

Additional information and enrollment details are available by calling Gunderson at 701-662-1652. Info on the Dakota Precision Ag Center can be found at the following website: and clicking on the link at the bottom of the homepage.