Science of Ag Team Takes Second

South Dakota teens applied research methods to answer real-world questions impacting our state’s number one industry of agriculture through SDSU Extension 4-H Science of Agriculture project.

May 8 teens from across the state, presented the results of nearly nine-months of research to a panel of judges on the campus of South Dakota State University during the inaugural Science of Agriculture Event.

“We developed this project to help teens develop their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM skills. And, as an opportunity for them to gain first-hand experience in applied research,” explained Christine Wood, SDSU Extension 4-H Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Field Specialist.

Piloted in 2017, the Science of Agriculture project is designed to expose teens to the engineering process. The Science of Agriculture project begins with a question developed by a team of teens early in the school year. Then, through hands-on research, data evaluation and working with experts and professionals in the field, the team collaborates to find solutions.

“The hands-on nature of this project allowed students to make connections to how science can be applied to answer real-world questions,” said Wyatt DeJong, Winner High School Agri-Science Instructor/FFA Advisor and 4-H Leader. “The more students are exposed to the how – how science and research is really used – the wiser they become.”

DeJong co-coached a team of Winner High School sophomores, along with Laura Kahler, SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor – Gregory & Tripp Counties.

The Winner High School 4-H Science of Agriculture team asked the question: What are the most profitable range management practices that are good for cattle production, soil/range health, and will build pheasant populations?

The question, 17-year-old Loren Moeller explained, was motivated by the abundance of local cattle operations and pheasant hunting in the area.

“Tripp County has a lot of beef cattle, so we’re trying to find ways cattle producers can manage grazing to benefit pheasants,” Moeller said. “Pheasants are a big thing in our area of South Dakota and we want to find ways to increase their populations because they have been declining rapidly due to recent winter weather.”

During their judged presentation, the team explained that the ability for pheasants to have ideal habitat during the 23-day nesting period is crucial to population density. And, the team explained that as a rural, farm/ranch community, pheasant habitat in the Winner area is primarily found on private land cattle producers use for grazing.

Their hope is to find grazing practices that work well for cattle and pheasants.

To answer their question, the team worked with several experts; Pheasants Forever biologists, SDSU Extension wildlife and range specialists, as well as DeJong and Kahler.
Working with mentors is key to the Science of Agriculture’s success, explained Van Kelley, Department Head of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at SDSU.

“Connecting with university faculty, SDSU Extension personnel – or really, any professional in the field of science or research – early on is beneficial because it alerts students to opportunities,” Kelley said.

He added that the hands-on nature of the Science of Agriculture project may open the door to an interest in STEM careers. “I think back on my own experience, having someone show me how engineering science could help me solve problems in things I was interested in, is the reason I pursued the career I did,” Kelley said.

Unlike more traditional science fairs they had participated in prior to this project, Ryder Mortenson, 16, said he actually enjoyed the Science of Agriculture project. “It was the fact that we got outside the classroom for hands-on experience and we got to get down to earth with what we were doing,” he said.

To collect data for their project, Mortenson, Moeller and their teammates; Colby Kaiser, 16 and Ethan Vesley, 16 worked with cattle producers to review their grazing practices. They made on-site visits to five area ranches and documented vegetation and access to key pheasant habitat resources such as shelters, waterways, foodplots and treelines.

Based on factors essential to pheasant nesting success, the team hypothesized which grazing practices would serve the dual purpose of profitability for cattle producers and increase pheasant populations.

At this point, the team believes: “Overall, the main grazing practice is rotational grazing. It can benefit not only the pheasant population by giving the nests a break so the chicks can grow without being stepped on by a cow, but also helps the cattle industry by not grazing the grass too short to where it will never recover.”

This spring, following nesting, the team is going to do follow-up research to better understanding of whether or not their hypothesis is true.

“We have more questions, but that is OK because now we have more things to work on for next year,” Vesley said.

The team plans to continue their research and compete again next year. Following their judged presentation, Science of Agriculture participants hosted toured SDSU research labs, meeting with faculty and researchers.

The Winner High School 4-H team placed second. The Spink/Hand County 4-H Science of Agriculture team, which included the following team members: Hailie Stuck, Kiarra Stuck, Alana Howard and Maya Howard placed first. Each individual of the first place team received a $1,000 scholarship.

The Science of Agriculture program is sponsored by SDSU Extension 4-H, SD 4-H Leaders Association, and the SD Community Foundation. Judges for the event include: Rocky Forman, South Dakota Farmers Union; Shane Swedlund, Raven Industries and Tabitha Scott, USDA NRCS.

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