Illinois agriculture remains rooted in tradition, but emerging technologies are continually advancing the industry. For students in Illinois State’s Agriculture Department, hands-on learning opportunities are essential for merging the past and present with classroom theory and current best practices.

Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB), a 100-year veteran of supporting farm families throughout Illinois, became a natural partner in providing these experiential learning opportunities. Over the past two years, gifts from IFB totaling $75,000 have enabled Illinois State to purchase an ultrasound, precision planter, and feed mixer. This equipment is providing agriculture students expanded access to an evolving field.

The Illinois State University Farm, located north of Normal near Lexington, serves as a welcoming landmark for travelers on southbound I-55. The farm is home to 100 calves, 70 to 90 lambs, and between 2,000 to 3,000 piglets each year.

The new ultrasound is an important tool in caring for and teaching about livestock. Assistant Professor Dr. Drew Lugar uses it to teach ultrasonography and early pregnancy detection, an important skill for producers making management, feeding, and breeding decisions.

“Pregnant animals have higher nutrient requirements, so they are often fed differently than non-pregnant females, which is more expensive,” said Lugar. “Early detection gives producers the ability to quickly determine which animals should receive what diet. Additionally, it allows producers to try to breed that animal again in a short time period.” 

Lugar said that prior to receiving the ultrasound, he was unable to teach ultrasonography. “The new ultrasound connects to an external monitor, making it easier to teach a group of students at once,” he said.

In addition to pregnancy detection and monitoring, the ultrasound is enhancing the department’s ability to teach animal physiology. Lugar utilizes the technology to determine back fat in livestock and to show students blood vessels and artery pulses.

The new ultrasound has already been used to teach more than 100 undergraduates and 80 youth at extension events such as the Illinois Pork Producers Association’s Youth Pork and Swine Day. The department plans to continue using the ultrasound in teaching, research, youth outreach, and at the ISU farm.

A new precision planter purchased with Illinois Farm Bureau funds also encourages scholarship within the Agriculture Department. Prior to receiving IFB’s gift, ISU’s farm utilized a 1990 John Deere 7200 to plant rows 30 inches apart. The farm’s new Kinze 6/11 planter, which can plant six rows 30 inches apart or 11 rows 15 inches apart, connects students to modern machinery currently in use by utilizing a Seed Sense planting monitor and Climate FieldView. Students are learning about the technology currently used in agriculture in preparation for the job market and for student competitions.

A precision planter used at the Illinois State University Farm.

Farming processes have evolved with the new equipment. Assistant Professor Dr. Nicholas Heller, who frequently breeds seeds, said the more precise machinery restricts cross-contamination, making it easier to vary crops produced. The planter also enables the farm to continue to embrace environmentally responsible practices, such as no-till planting.

ISU’s new feed mixer, purchased through IFB’s gifts, is strengthening research practices on the farm. Researchers have used feedlot cattle from the ISU farm to learn the best ways to utilize co-products in finishing cattle diets. The new feed mixer enables researchers to mix more precise ratios, which are crucial to collecting accurate and robust data.

The new equipment is also enhancing students’ awareness of proper nutrition and feeding methods, said Associate Professor of Animal Science Dr. Justin Rickard. “The new mixer expands our opportunity to teach cattle nutrition laboratory courses using the most modern equipment possible,” he said.

The three tools are already helping to bridge students’ abstract and practical knowledge. “For many years, our students have graduated with a degree in agriculture from Illinois State University with only a theoretical knowledge of the technology used in the agricultural industry today,” said Heller. “While students’ theoretical knowledge is substantial, they can now engage with their education in a more meaningful way.”

Dr. Fanson Kidwaro, Agriculture Department chair, echoes the sentiment. “Though not all students will go on to raise livestock or own farms, hands-on experience is critical to their education, as well as to careers in the production sector of agriculture. We’re grateful for Illinois Farm Bureau’s investment and the opportunities it will continue to provide our students.”

For Illinois Farm Bureau, a company dedicated to enriching farm life and serving farm families, the partnership is welcomed. “Illinois Farm Bureau is pleased to be able to provide funding support for these projects,” said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. “We view our financial contribution as an investment to improve Illinois agriculture.”

Corporate investment propels faculty research and student scholarship. More than 1,500 corporate partners have invested in Illinois State within the last seven years, providing more than $27.9 million in support. To learn more about investing in excellence at Illinois State, visit