new additions to ag education prepare students for jobs of the future
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New additions to ag education prepare students for jobs of the future

  • January 15, 2020
  • 10 min read

One look at some of the newest additions to South Dakota State University make it clear: Ag-related education is changing.

“We’re doing things that are really relevant to all the real, major grand challenges that face society today,” said John Killefer, the South Dakota Corn-Endowed Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

There are 2,000 undergraduates and 300 graduate students in the college, spread across 23 majors. Many of them are working and learning in facilities unlike any other in the country – preparing them for a huge range of in-demand jobs.

“There’s probably never been a more exciting time to be in this type of college for a student in the future than it is today,” Killefer said.

Animal disease, research

The newly expanded Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory is likely “the most high-tech, modern facility of its kind between Minneapolis and Denver,” Killefer said.

The lab has served the state with veterinary diagnostic services since 1887, and the staff is nationally recognized for their skill in diagnosing key diseases of cattle, pigs and other livestock as well as supporting veterinarians statewide, identifying zoonotic diseases such as rabies and keeping the food supply safe by testing for bacteria that cause food-borne illness.

It runs about 500,000 tests annually and employs 60 full-time staff.

The building recently added 80,000 square feet, allowing more room for testing as well as a biosafety level three lab.

“It’s a higher level of biosecurity. A lot of our research has to do with infectious diseases … diseases that can be passed between animals and people and vice versa,” said Jane Hennings, the lab’s director and head of the department of veterinary and medical sciences.

“If we have to deal with things such as highly pathogenic avian influenza, which we did in the 2015 outbreak, we’ll be able to test in that specific area and it allows for better biocontainment and worker safety, similar to a quarantine room in a hospital.”

Recent research has focused on influenza D, a virus first isolated at SDSU in a diseased pig in 2011 and later found in cattle.

Students are highly involved in the research work throughout the building.

They get to work with our researchers, developing new technologies, new diagnostic tests, and these students are getting a lot of job opportunities in the biotech industry,” Killefer said.

The building also serves as classroom space, where faculty teach small and large animal medicine and surgery, epidemiology and other science-related courses needed for veterinary medicine.

“I love my program,” said Elle Moon, a Wall High School graduate who is pursuing veterinary medicine. “We’re one of the programs that has the most hands-on opportunity.”

She also is one of many students who works in the lab, helping perform animal autopsies.

“It’s just a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “You actually get to sit there and watch the pathologists do their autopsy.”

Next up: A Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine that will allow doctor of veterinary medicine students to take their first two years of courses at SDSU and their second two years at the University of Minnesota. The first class of 20 students is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2021.

“We hope to attract students who really want to get into the food animal area of veterinary medicine, because there are less and less students going into that area,” Hennings said. “There are only four or five ‘two plus two’ programs in the country. And we believe we’ll be able to offer a lot more hands-on experience with a class of 20, as most veterinary schools have 100 to 140 in a given class. We’ll be able to take more field trips, talk to veterinarians in the state and give more individual attention.”

Nationally recognized swine center

When Wisconsin native Katelyn Zeamer was looking for a graduate school, SDSU easily stood out thanks to its Swine Education and Research Facility, which opened in 2016.

“The technology is out of this world. There’s nothing else like it,” said Zeamer, who is studying swine nutrition.

The building is unique in a number of ways – including that it is an actual working unit, farrowing two dozen sows a month, and it allows for public viewing of its operations.

“Our classroom design is so that we can bring a pig into the classroom,” said Joe Cassady, animal science department head.

“But we also take the students into the barn itself where they literally have a chance to get their hands on a pig and be part of all the processing steps.”

There’s a lot of research that takes place here, too, including around nutrition and physiology.

The program has grown from 400 to 450 undergraduates in animal science in the last five years.

“The availability of this facility has been critical to that,” Cassady said. “Students from all over the upper Midwest come to South Dakota because they’re interested in the pig industry and we can provide them a hands-on opportunity that is much different than anywhere else they would go.”

For Zeamer, it’s been an invaluable experience. Along with serving as a lab instructor for younger students, she is working with Operation Main Street – a partnership with the National Pork Board – to give virtual tours of the swine facility from her smart phone.

She recently toured a group of executives from Aldi.

“We’re bringing people into the barn via my cell phone,” she said. “People from cooks to dieticians, nurses, a lot of people who aren’t connected with agriculture to open their eyes to see what’s happening inside our barn and give them a better picture of where their food comes from and how it’s produced.”

Job prospects for students such as Zeamer are very strong, Cassady added.

And those students are typically going out with higher than average salaries because the demand for human capital in the swine industry exceeds the supply,” he said. “That was another reason we built this facility – to be a major supplier of that human capital that the industry really needs.

Precision ag center under construction

SDSU was the first university in the country to offer a four-year degree in precision agriculture, and soon there will be a first-of-its-kind building to support the program.

The Raven Precision Agriculture Center is a $46 million, 130,000-square-foot building that is designed with the goal of creating an “innovation ecosystem,” Killefer said.

“We are going to integrate disciplines together,” he said.

Envision a building where a faculty member who specializes in agronomy has an office between someone who specializes in ag engineering and someone who specializes in data analytics.

“That should create an enriched environment where faculty can address complex problems and challenges associated with agriculture,” Killefer said.

Building namesake Raven Industries already has a strong partnership with SDSU, which provides a pipeline of workers for its precision agriculture division. The company provided $5 million toward the new center and also plans to do research there.

“The students that are going to come from it are definitely important to us, but that’s not the only reason that compelled us to make the investment,” Raven CEO Dan Rykhus said.

“In addition to making sure we have taken in the state, as ag changes and uses technology different, universities and academia need to develop different practices like they did with biotech. Industry can do a lot to develop products and services and applications, but universities play a role in doing research on ag practices and validating that.”

Raven also was impressed by SDSU’s multidisciplinary approach, Rykhus said.

“We need engineers, we need agronomists, we need people who understand biology, we need all those talents at Raven. and SDSU built a precision ag program that isn’t just built on agriculture. It draws on engineering and data analysis and lots of elements that are part of SDSU and drawn into it.”

POET also invested recently in the building, with a $2 million contribution that will support construction. The Sioux Falls-based company also will have dedicated office space in Brookings at the SDSU Research Park as it pursues enhanced research partnerships and will be working with SDSU to develop academic programs in bioprocessing.

The goal is to help graduates gain “a robust understanding of how biofuels and agriculture can drive change across the globe,” POET said in announcing the gift.

“If we want to return to a healthy planet, we will once again need to lean on agriculture, in combination with biofuels and bioproducts, to replace fossil fuels and their derivatives. This gift supports South Dakota’s future farmers, who will need to cultivate even more sustainable ag practices for future generations.“ POET founder and CEO Jeff Broin said.

The skills learned in the precision agriculture program – including elements of data analytics, engineering and agribusiness – translate well at POET, recruiting business partner Katie Wiseman said.

“Plus the students tend to have roots in the area, and we like to be able to provide an exciting career opportunity right here in South Dakota,” she said. “We have plenty of SDSU alumni who are super excited to join us at career fairs at SDSU, so we have a lot of interest and support from POET toward that school.”