Ellsworth precision ag, pre-vet studies prepare students for agricultural careers

In her junior year of high school, Nora Ryan participated in the Northeast Iowa Precision Ag Day, where she learned about Ellsworth Community College’s (ECC) up-and-coming precision agricultural program. 

ECC offers students education in everything from collecting data and mapping technologies to global positioning systems (GPS) and geographical information systems (GIS).

In her hometown of Cresco, Ryan grew up on a cattle and crop farm, working a cow/calf operation and cultivating corn and soybeans. The prospect of eventually working at a farm equipment supplier to develop precision ag products intrigued Ryan as she looked to continue her studies after high school.

“I want to work with farmers in developing their operations to fit into the changing world, allowing them to thrive in their operations,” said Ryan, now a freshman precision ag major at ECC. “Five years from now, I see myself working with farmers firsthand to show them how they can improve their operation by using technology …, (and) I want to be working to create the changes in the technology for the agricultural industry.”

Kiley Langley, another freshman, shares a similar passion for agriculture. Raised on her family’s farm with a small cow/calf herd, Langley was active in 4-H, FFA, county council and various sports during high school.    

“My sophomore year of high school I started showing lambs through my FFA chapter,” Langley explained. “Since then, I have been showing lambs through FFA.

“I chose ECC because their credits directly line up with Iowa State University’s requirements for veterinary school. I really enjoy taking chemistry classes and different animal classes.” 

Ryan and Langley found their perfect fit at ECC in Iowa Falls. ECC’s agriculture, animals, food and natural resources department provides career development in agribusiness, agriculture science, animal science, conservation technology, equine management, farm management, mobile service technician, pre-vet, precision agriculture and swine management.

Faculty member Kevin Butt emphasized the impact of students like Ryan and Langley on ECC’s ag programs. The precision agriculture and pre-veterinary programs are among the most popular, with up to 20 and 25 students enrolled each year, respectively.

“One of the main missions of community colleges is to prepare students for either transfer to four-year institutions or immediate labor market opportunities, and that is what our precision ag and pre-vet programs do,” said Butt.

“For precision ag, students spend a lot of time learning about all the various precision ag systems used with planting, harvesting and spraying … and how to process the data using various software systems, and then develop advanced analysis tool and developing prescriptions. 

“Our pre-vet program focuses on the courses required for veterinary college, and most of them can be completed here at Ellsworth.”

Pictured above: With the advancement of precision technology, students are able to track yields utilizing new equipment and maps. PHOTO / CONRAD SCHMIDT

Hands on learning

David VanDyke, who came to ECC with limited ag experience, aims to learn more about farming and the latest innovations in agriculture. He’s studying precision agriculture with plans to eventually transfer to a four-year program. 

VanDyke praised the hands-on opportunities provided by Ellsworth’s ag program.

“I got to work on a planter stand …, a demo unit the college uses for school visits and shows,” VanDyke explained. “This was interesting because I got to take bits and pieces and put them together to create this functioning thing that shows all the advancements that agriculture has made.”

Langley’s recent hands-on experience involved animal dissection. “It was very interesting to look at the different components making up domestic animals,” she said. “This will be beneficial when in vet school.”

Ryan has been working on the Precision Ag Scout to update the spray system. “Updating the Scout is important because we can see how technology has changed over the years,” Ryan said. “We can demonstrate to youth what you can learn at Ellsworth.”

Butt said the precision ag program began in 2011 and still is one of only a few in the nation. 

“Awhile back we were recognized by our peers as being the third-best precision ag program in the nation,” he said.

The pre-vet degree formally started in 2021 in collaboration with ISU. “Right now, there is a huge need for veterinarians, so our program helps address that need by allowing students to get enough of their undergraduate studies in a little sooner and for a lot less money,” Butt said. “Since we have started the degree, we have had several students who are already in veterinary school.”

He points to the “community feel” of Iowa Falls, one-on-one instruction and affordability as keys to ECC’s success in preparing students for entering the workforce or moving on to a four-year university. 

“Our first batch of pre-vet students, we had four students,” Butt said. Two were accepted to vet school immediately, one graduated in animal science pre-vet at ISU and is in their first year of veterinary school, and the fourth has been accepted into veterinary school at Kansas State University.

Likewise, one of ECC’s first precision ag students now works for a large Case-IH dealership in Kansas, and another is the main technician for a large John Deere dealership in Iowa. A current student is preparing to intern in Germany with a New Holland dealership.

A bright future

To say the ECC ag program is significant may be an understatement. There’s a need for quality ag students in the private sector after they graduate.

“Right now, every student we have in the ag program has six to seven people wanting to hire that student, so the career outlook is very promising,” Butt said. “We can pretty much guarantee a job for every student coming through our programs.

“With precision ag, the need for technicians with the right skills and knowledge is going to grow exponentially. The same goes for veterinarians in that there is a high demand for rural veterinarians right now. Our hope is the program can meet that demand and allow students to become a veterinarian without going deep into debt to start with.”

ECC has active partnerships with colleges and ag industry professionals in Europe, offering internships in Germany and study abroad options. Student clubs, including the collegiate version of FFA and the American Pre-Veterinarian Medical Association, are popular and offer networking opportunities.

The students advise others to consider ECC for ag education.

“You don’t have to have a family farm or a farming background,” said VanDyke. “As long as you work hard and are willing to learn, this will be a rewarding career.”

Ryan said ECC’s programs open opportunities maybe not available at another institution. 

“Ellsworth’s ag programs offer a variety of hands-on experiences that will help prepare you for after you graduate,” she said.

Pictured above: Kevin Butt, Ellsworth Community College.