While some farmers think new precision ag equipment is too expensive, others in their 50s and 60s aren’t “computer whizzes” and simply don’t want to deal with all the new technology. Students in a fast-changing precision technology specialist course at Mitchell (S.D.) Technical Institute have a response for both of those dilemmas.

Seth Horstman, who already has a job with a local dealership in what little spare time he has, said he has to revert to what his dad told him: “You have to spend money to make money.”

Another student, Skyler Stahl of rural Mitchell, said the equipment eventually pays for itself. He said precision ag can help cut costs for seed and fertilizer, among other inputs, and it also can help maximize yields and profits. The students are also well aware of their parents and others saying they simply don’t want or don’t have the training to utilize the equipment, which boils down to about 50 percent hardware but also requires the key part – the software.

Students in the course at MTI are studying both sides of the situation, with the help of the main instructor, Evan Eidem, and with help also from other staff, including Darin Maltsberger, who was a service manager for a dealership for 16 years before joining the ag staff at the school in 2008. While other states in the farm belt are just starting to develop the precision ag programs, MTI is in its third year after starting with a pilot program.

With a new $18.5 million, 154,000-square-foot Trades Center building nearing completion that will bring the campus together in one place for the first time in its 45-year history, the entire MTI?team is excited about the facilities they will move into this summer and see it as another big boost to the program.

The new campus addition is said to be the largest structure in Mitchell with floor space equal to that of the nearby Walmart store. It will house eight MTI programs and be the new home to an SDSU?Extension regional center. In the new building, besides precision ag, MTI will house its newest program, called “farm power technology” with courses on the ag mechanics side of agriculture, and the “agricultural technology” or production ag program, which has been the backbone of the school’s ag program since 1968.

The call to start the precision ag and farm power programs came from agribusinesses in South Dakota from Rapid City to Mitchell, who not only are helping pay tuition for students and providing equipment but also have been telling MTI staff what type of training they are seeking from students and, through an advisory board, are helping develop and tweak the curriculum. Maltsberger said the financial and advisory support from the implement dealer network is invaluable.

With his many years as a service manager, he has gotten to know a lot of the South Dakotans involved in the businesses who are helping develop and improve the courses offered. “I used to hire a lot of young people in my shop and thought, ‘Wow, there are so many things I wish they knew when they would start.’ I thought, ‘Well, here’s my opportunity to do that,’ ” Maltsberger said.

So that’s just what officials are trying to accomplish in the school’s ag courses. Growing enrollment Enrollment is growing. The precision ag program started with eight students, and there are 18 in the two-year course this year. All students are required to complete an internship during the summer between their first and second years.

The farm power course started last August with 12 students and will grow to at least the 17 who already are signed up for next year. The agricultural technology program had 50 students this year and is expected to grow to about 60 next fall.

Brady Jacobsen of Howard is one of the first students in the farm power program. He said his family didn’t do a lot of its own repairs on its equipment and thought this would be a way to help cut those expenses. Although he plans to spend most of his time working off the family farm, he is learning a lot, he said, in a new course that is far different than those from years back. Now, the ag mechanics course deals with electronic controls, GPS, hydraulics, air conditioning systems and diagnostic and troubleshooting skills that are crucial to the ag industry.

“A lot of the repairs now are related to electronics or emission control, changing out a valve or sensors or control modules. And we spend time on how to diagnose problems,” Maltsberger said. The farm power students also will delve into the precision ag equipment area in their two-year course.

In precision ag, Horstman said it’s becoming a year-round field – and a fast-changing and fast-growing one. “Once you get the book and learn how to do it, it’ll change tomorrow,” Horstman, whose family farms near Dimock, said. He said the field is definitely needing people, “no doubt about it.”

Computer mavens Horstman and Stahl said they are both fascinated with computers, so the precision ag field is right up their alley. Yield monitors are the staple of the industry so far, but it’s rapidly expanding into hardware and software to help with planting, rate control on sprayers, silage moisture sensors, forage meters and equipment that can help even with tiling and ditch work. Maltsberger said that, with the National Corn Growers Association setting a goal of 300 bushels an acre, the precision ag equipment is a key to improving yield performance.

Eidem, who grew up on a family farm near Hendricks, Minn., worked for six years with the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association in the precision ag department before joining the MTI staff. He’s in his first year of teaching and has a lot of experience on the software side of the field.

A lot of time is spent in the classroom as students prepare to move into jobs such as custom applicators, precision technicians, GPS technicians, GIS specialists or GIS coordinators. Besides the classroom and internships, the students are building a precision-ag equipped, four-row planter from scratch this year.

“It’s like a spaceship,” Maltsberger said. “It has the latest stuff from companies we are working with to put on there. I think that’s pretty cool that they can build a technologically advanced planter.” MTI has partnered with Poet and will use the new planter starting this summer on a 37-acre plot near one of its ethanol plants for precision and technology based training. “The planter will have the capability to map where every seed goes. Now that’s real time right there,” Maltsberger said.