FVTC’s new precision ag program brings ‘cool factor’ back to the farm

August 1, 2013

From agriview.com: “FVTC’s new precision ag program brings ‘cool factor’ back to the farm” — By Peggy Coffeen, Dairy Editor –

Soil sampling, crop scouting, yield estimating … there’s an app for that.

Technology is redefining careers in agriculture, appealing to savvy students intrigued by the integration of touch screens, tablets and templates. Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) is poised to be a leader in the field of precision agriculture with new course offerings and a major building addition and renovation project targeted toward training graduates for the growing demands of 21st century farming.

Associate Dean of Manufacturing and Agriculture Technologies Mike Cattelino believes that the application of technology in agriculture has an appeal to young people. “This is an opportunity to bring a little more cool factor back to the farm,” he says.

But, technology in agriculture isn’t just for looks. Beyond the blinking lights and flashing screens, there is a real demand for graduates with knowledge and experience. The skill set for the agriculture workforce is much more than driving a tractor and whirling a wrench; computer skills – from data analysis to mapping – are right up there, too.

“The way you manage a farm is going to be different when you get into precision ag,” says Jason Fischer, agronomy instructor. “It’s all about redistributing resources to the areas that really need it.” He explains the difference as a focus on maximizing profits based on potential yield and input costs.

Precision technology takes the guess work out of farming and replaces it with real-time data which, in turn, can be used to make management decisions. For example, in the past, a 40-acre field was uniformly treated, despite differences in soil type and fertility. Now, grids and maps can be layered to identifying each section of a field so that seed, spray and fertilizer can be applied according to the best potential for productivity and profitability.

“We are able to adjust rates in real-time,” says Fischer. “Precision ag allows us to look at areas of the field and determine where we can get more production and the reasons why.”

According to Cattelino, the new program is a direct response to feedback from the dealerships, cooperatives, custom operators and farms that employ FVTC graduates in the five-county area of northeast Wisconsin. Former students also provided input based on their work experiences. From these conversations, it was clear that there is a demand for employees with a basic understanding of technology who could be further trained in the field.

This demand is driven by the production trends of farms, particularly in northeast Wisconsin, where there is a challenge to produce more crops without adding more acres.

“What I am hearing from farmers is that they cannot afford to add more land, so they have to make sure that they are getting more production out of every acre of land,” says Fischer. “Instead of saying 20 ton corn silage is enough, they say 25 ton because they need 30 percent more crop and can’t find any more acreage.” He adds that precision ag plays a critical part in this effort.

Beginning this fall, FVTC will offer a technical diploma in precision ag, the first of its kind in the state. Molded to fit industry needs, the goal of the precision ag program is to give students experience with technology in the form of a stand-alone degree or dual major with FVTC’s farm operations, ag business, ag power and agronomy programs. With the addition of new courses like precision equipment systems, GIS applications, advanced precision ag, precision ag field training and customer relations, Cattelino explains how the classes will provide a basic foundation for the many applications of precision ag.

“Precision ag is everything from installing technology on equipment, to selling it, to consulting on how to utilize and manage data, to operating equipment,” he says. “There are several paths you can go down.”

Once graduates take a position, on-the-job training may be required; however, their hands-on experience from FVTC will lay the ground work for further employer-specific training. “We hope to give our graduates a good start, not just in a job, but in a career,” he adds.

Unique in its student offerings, FVTC partners with local dealerships that provide around 30 pieces of equipment for student learning purposes – from combines to tractors to lawn mowers. The college also leases 100 acres of tillable land, giving students the opportunity to truly experience technology in use. A 5,000-square-foot expansion and 6,000-square-foot renovation project currently underway will provide more classroom, lab and office space for all of the agriculture programs.

The additional space means that more students will be able to experience hands-on learning in precision ag and related fields. “This is an opportunity to bring in more students,” says Fischer. “We are finding that the industry is saying they need 30 more graduates than we are putting out each year. More space, more seats … adding space gives us room for more students, graduates and growth.”

Cattelino agrees. “There is a thirst out there for technology, and if we find the right fit for each and every kid, that is pretty exciting.”

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