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Undergraduates to explore precision livestock production

Professor Anand and grad student Shivali Jindal
Dairy science professor Sanjeev Anand, left, and graduate student Shivali Jindal examine two specially coated specimens. They are evaluating their ability to prevent microbe buildup and biofilm formation in food processing equipment. Anand is one of the researchers who will mentor undergraduate students this summer.

College freshmen and sophomores interested in agriculture can learn about precision livestock production through a new training program, according to associate professor Michael Gonda of the South Dakota State University animal science department.

Gonda leads the summer undergraduate research project, which is funded through a four-year $280,000 U. S. Department of Agriculture grant, and assistant animal science professor Crystal Levesque is co-principal investigator. The project is supported by the Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates Fellowship program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant No. 2016-06415. 

 “Precision agriculture is not just about growing crops,” Gonda pointed out. “Precision means optimizing input to get an ideal output in an environmentally sustainable manner. This same principle can be applied to livestock production.”

The project targets minority and economically disadvantaged students to encourage these students to choose a career in precision livestock production. To recruit participants nationwide, Gonda collaborates with facilitators at the University of Arizona and Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. Native Americans are among the minority students the researchers want to reach.

“It’s a two-year program,” said Gonda, who seeks to enroll 22 students in the next three years. The first seven students will begin their training next summer.

Students initially spend 10 weeks at SDSU exploring careers in agriculture and identifying their research interests. “They learn how to do research and communicate scientifically,” he explained. The participants receive free on-campus housing, a monthly stipend for living expenses and reimbursement for travel to Brookings.

Each student is paired with two faculty mentors and an industry partner in a specific research area. For instance, a range science project with Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre focuses on self-propelled grazing pens, which can automatically move confined cattle along with their water and supplemental feeds to optimize pasture usage.

In addition to Gonda, 17 researchers from animal science, veterinary science and dairy science as well as SDSU Extension will mentor students. Other projects address swine nutrition, gut microbiology, food safety, animal physiology and genomics research.

The following summer, students do a 10-week internship with their industry partners, which are located in South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. During the internship, each student receives $5,500 to pay for housing and living expenses through the USDA grant.

“Optimally, we want to build on what they did the first summer,” Gonda explained. “Giving students a meaningful experience is critical to the success of the project.