Conference helps ag agents hone skills

For Cooperative Extension agricultural agents, keeping skills current and being informed about the industry issues of the day are key to doing the job well. This summer, 64 agricultural agents from around the state came to Raleigh for N.C. Cooperative Extension’s seventh Livestock/Forage/Field Crop Agent Training Conference.

Animal science faculty at N.C. State University began the late-summer workshop to help agricultural Extension agents fill in some gaps in their skills related to livestock and forage management. For the first time this year, crop science faculty participated in the three-day conference as well. Altogether, 49 campus faculty and administrators served as trainers or panelists during the conference.

Last spring, six faculty members were recognized for by the N.C. Association of Cooperative Extension Specialists for developing the training conference. They are Dr. Matt Poore, April Shaeffer, Dale Miller, Dr. Mike Yoder, Dr. Steve Washburn, all of animal science, and Dr. Mark Alley, Extension cattle veterinarian from N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Poore, animal science agent training coordinator and department Extension leader, said the conferences were started at a when time training opportunities were shifting in Extension, with fewer opportunities for subject-matter workshops.

“So we sort of recognized, first, that we had new agents who didn’t have all the expertise they needed, and secondly, we were losing the camaraderie among agents,” Poore said.

In addition to the subject matter training on crop and livestock production, the conference also included a half day for new agents to meet campus specialists, learn about programming and to discuss how agents and specialists can work more closely together.

This year, general sessions focused on soil testing, disaster preparedness and the state’s Biofuels Initiative. Livestock sessions included topics like outdoor and backyard rabbit and poultry production, selecting herd bulls and replacement heifers, outdoor swine production and beef calf weaning.

Crops sessions included precision agriculture in field crop production, developments in cotton production and fertility management in field crops.

John Cothren, Wilkes County livestock agent, had been on the job only two months when he attended the training. For him, the conference provided both valuable knowledge and a chance to build career relationships.

heifer evaluation
Agents say the summer conference helps them hone their skills in different areas.

“The livestock agents training provided me with many resources to help answer questions with research-based information,” Cothren said. “I feel that the most important part of the training for me were the contacts that I was able to make, including the specialists, professors, farm supervisors, industry leaders, Extension agents and other leaders in our North Carolina agriculture community.”

“This conference is really important because it keeps us informed on all the updates for the coming year,” said Tiffanee Conrad-Acuña, Richmond County livestock agent, who has attended the conference every year it has been offered.

“Many times, when farmers will ask me questions about something I am not familiar with, I can look back through my notes from the training and find what I need to help them,” she said.

Another benefit is learning which campus specialist to call for specific questions, Conrad-Acuña. This year, she has already used information from the fencing hands-on demonstration and the biofuels presentation.

“The livestock agent in-service training is a great opportunity to network with other agents and with specialists. Both of my elective sessions — electric fencing and backyard poultry and rabbit production — were helpful, as these are areas that both experienced and new producers may need help,” said Kim Woods, associate agriculture agent in Person County. “I always learn a lot from the training and greatly appreciate the work and time that goes into planning this event.”

Sam Groce, agriculture agent and Chatham County Extension director, has always attended the conference and says he values the chance to get to know newer agents in the state. He also appreciates the heifer and bull evaluation session to help validate his skills in that area.

“Evaluating bulls and heifers is such a subjective art that I often doubt myself. However, it is reassuring when you can do a subjective evaluation and have it critiqued by the campus experts and find that your opinions are right in line with theirs,” Groce said. “So it is not only an event designed to teach new information, but to reinforce those skills that we already have.”

The conference started this year with an administrative panel that addressed the question, “How will field crop, forage crop and livestock Extension programs and agent responsibilities evolve in the future?”

agents panel
Bryant Spivey, left, makes a point during the conference administrative panel. With him are Jeff Bradley, Sheri Schwab, Joe Zublena and Tom Melton.

Panelists included Dr. Joe Zublena, director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service; Dr. Tom Melton, associate director of agriculture, natural resources and community development programs; Sheri Schwab, director of county operations, Jeff Bradley, Rutherford County Extension director; and Bryant Spivey, Johnston County Extension director.

The administrators said they were committed to supporting agents by making training a priority, updating specialist publications and expanding agriculture-related information portals, like those developed by the Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis.

Agents asked panelists questions about working across county lines, serving as area-specialized agents and improving relationships between agents and campus specialists.

-N. Hampton

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