Crop Science programme welcomed at UCD

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The School of Agriculture & Food Science will offer a new Crop Science degree programme in 2021. Speaking to Noel Bardon, Programme Director Prof Kevin McDonnell gave an insight into his expectations for the course.

The UCD School of Agriculture & Food Science will offer a Crop Science degree programme to prospective undergraduates from 2021. The programme will expect a class size of between ten and fifteen students from the DN250 agricultural science degree cohort, although there is scope to increase the size, depending on uptake. The places are expected to be filled mainly with students who have undifferentiated their study in stage one, opting for the omnibus preference on their CAO application. The course will cover the principles of agronomy, crop production and technological advancements in the agri-food sector, with a period of professional work placement included in the third year of study. The education capabilities of existing faculty, coupled with routine staff reconfiguration, should allow for the provision of course materials without major changes to the panel of teaching staff.

Interest in a tillage focused UCD degree programme, analogous to current offerings for the animal sciences, has been growing in recent years. The appetite existing for such study opportunities in the UCD School of Agriculture & Food Science has also become apparent through the favourable reaction of stakeholders in the sector to the announcement of the course.  Industry professionals, researchers and primary producers have all indicated a need for graduates with a greater understanding of crops with many hopeful that this new course will allow for the realisation of such education through an applied scientific approach to crop production systems.

We are looking to give the students more of a training in the tools they are likely to encounter, be they [the tools] of precision agriculture, input management or in adding value to the manipulation of data

Plant disease, crop husbandry and plant breeding modules will be taught at high educational standards to ensure students understand “the science, production and management of crops, from genes and cells through to fields” as stated in the UCD Prospectus 2021. It is intended that these technical modules will “parallel some of the advanced animal production modules on offer to students currently”, according to programme head Professor Kevin McDonnell. The tillage research underway in Lyon’s Research Farm will also play an integral role in teaching, informing much of the practical content of modules within the course.

Speaking to the University Observer, Prof McDonnell recognised the programme will likely undergo minor changes in structure as students begin to pass through the system. Feedback from staff and students will inform “subsequent development” as improvements or additions to the course are made. The “evolving space” of the programme will have room to grow should demand warrant an expansion with faculty conscious of the need to “reach students expectations”. The upper limit on capacity is anticipated to be the number of relevant industry placements available to students in their stage three Professional Work Experience segment of the programme. However, the School of Agriculture & Food Science is clear in efforts to remind CAO applicants of the guarantee that all common entry stage one students will have the opportunity to specialise in any of the programme differentiation options.

We are beginning to see the Irish tillage sector really come into its own now, with more of an interest in plant-based products, be they for human diet, animal feed or the emerging area of green chemicals entering industry

One invaluable strength of the programme will be the infusion of findings from recent industry research projects into the course material. Access to the research of the UCD-Origin Enterprise collaborative project is seen as an asset to the course in this regard. Origin Enterprise is an agri-services group providing “specialist on-farm agronomy services, digital agricultural services and the supply of crop technologies and inputs”. Many of the recent technological and data-driven innovations made accessible through UCD’s academic relationship with such organisations will likely prove invaluable to students in developing their skillset.

Prof McDonnell made clear his view on the need for skilled crop science graduates to enable the tillage sector to overcome challenges modern agriculture. Graduates of the new programme will not only have proficiency in areas strictly relating to crop production, but also have a complement of analytical skills and a wider knowledge of the primary sciences to join the next generation of innovators.