Instructor: Dr. Mark Licht
Office: 2104M Agronomy Hall
Phone: (515) 294-0877




Course Overview

Agronomy 591 will help you further develop your agronomic analysis, critical thinking, and communication skills. You will be analyzing real cropping systems in the form of case studies.

This is a good place to point out that these case studies were developed, where noted, by Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft several years ago. I've updated portions of the case studies but they are very much how they were originally developed.

In the first case study, Hank, a farmer in north-central Iowa, is concerned about his corn stands. "Why do some plants look pale and stunted?", he asks. The second case study investigates a question that was posed by Alan and Suzanne Hunter, farmers in New York. The Hunters have transitioned from dairy farming to a farming system that produces harvested hay and sweet corn. As a consultant, how will you help them increase profitability?

The third case study will help you understand partial budgeting and sensitivity analysis. Many farmers make decisions after reviewing the agronomics and the economics. The fourth case study will allow you to analyze the effect of delaying irrigation on profitability. This case study, which takes place in central Nebraska, requires you to create a partial budget to determine profitability. The fifth and final case study centers on a farmer from central Iowa who, now, hog confinement buildings with the explicit goal of obtaining manure to offset synthetic fertilizers. You will help him by developing a manure management plan and determine how well his decision has been to overall farm profitability.

Background on decision case studies:

Problem–based learning or scenario–based learning requires students to use their knowledge or gain new knowledge to analyze, make decisions and complete an activity in a real–life context. This learning is founded on a constructivist’s view of learning, i.e., humans do not learn primarily by receiving and copying information from a teacher, but rather by constructing and/or reconstructing their own mental conceptions. Instead of transmitting knowledge through a lecture, the instructor provides opportunities for students to become actively engaged in discovery and construction of their knowledge.

People learn best by doing. Because everyone cannot learn everything from their own experience, we rely on the experience of others, adding their experiences to our experiences. It is critical to have a balance between learning done with experience (experimental) and learning from transmitting knowledge (lectures, books, articles). It is important to have learning environments that are real, with real constraints, and many variables that cannot be controlled as in a research experiment. The problem, dilemma or decision must be real with many possible options, each having positive and negative consequences. The scenario and options are complex, containing uncertainty and ambiguity, with no simple solution.

The problems of life are “messy”. In some scenarios enough technical information is available, but it is the socio–economic factors that influence the problem. Sometimes the decision maker does not have all the information he/she needs, but needs to make a decision. The decision maker is not making a decision in a vacuum, rather in the context of his/her values and personal experiences.

Should decision case studies be real or "designed”? Some educators believe that decision cases are most effective when they are real; others are less concerned that the “players” are not actual people. Real can be “messy” and it is important that readers/learners work with real situations.

In literature about using decision case studies as a learning tool, educators wrestle with the question of open-ended cases versus a more conventional, fixed-answer decision cases. The goal of open-ended cases is for participants to envision a wide range of potential solutions to complex real-world challenges, whereas the goal of fixed-answer decision cases is for participants to uncover known solutions in a clearly defined setting. Students involved in open-ended cases use a discovery process to devise alternative responses to complex problems. Because no 'right' answer to the dilemma exists, students need to evaluate several possible courses of action and consider the impact of each. The decision case studies used in this class, were designed to be more open-ended cases.

The course is organized as follows:


1. What Happened?

2. Is Bt Sweet Corn a Really Sweet Deal?

3. Is Sulfur a Good Investment?

4. Can Delayed Furrow Irrigation Maintain Farming Profitability?

5. Obtaining Information

6. Collecting Information During a Farm Visit

7. Recommendations for Dave Keninger

8. Manure Allocations to Dave's Fields

Prerequisites for Agron 591

Agron 531, Agron 532, and Agron 533

Student Outcomes

At the end of the semester a student will have:

  • developed a holistic perspective of an agroecosystem, recognizing that an agroecosystem is influenced by biological, economic and social factors
  • further developed skills in acquiring information that is oral and written and assessing the relevance of the information
  • critically evaluated the agronomic and financial aspects of a farming system in order to identify components that can be changed and to understand the consequences of the changes in a farming system
  • further develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving in agronomic situations in order to develop recommendations with justification
  • further develop written and oral communications skills in order to persuade and inform an audience, using technically appropriate terminology