CEDAR RAPIDS — When Rita Urmie wants to learn how to become a more proficient combine operator, she doesn’t have to worry about the weather or time of day.
Urmie, 19, a student entering her second year in the Agricultural Geospatial Technology program at Kirkwood Community College, simply hops into the driver’s seat of a new combine simulator at the school.
“It’s very similar to what it’s like in real life,” said Urmie, who has operated a combine on her family’s farm in Bennett. “It’s also different in that you’re not in an actual combine.
“The only way you can see what’s in your rearview mirrors in the simulator is when you have your auger out. In real life, I always watch the mirrors to see if the trash is coming out the rear end of the combine.”
Kirkwood is the first two-year college in the world to add the $35,000 John Deere S-Series Premium combine simulator to its teaching curriculum, according to the Moline, Illinois-based agricultural equipment manufacturer. The unit was purchased by the college after administrators visited Deere to determine whether the simulator was appropriate for its agricultural sciences program.
James Jordan, Kirkwood instructor in agricultural geospatial technology, said the simulator provides the ability to teach combine operations to more students in a variety of harvest conditions and situations.
“Our goal of getting 20 to 30 students inside a real combine cab each semester can be troublesome from a logistical standpoint,” Jordan said. “Our students are taking classes on a fixed schedule and the weather can make operating a real combine impossible when they are able to find the time.
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“Now we will be able to teach them as their schedule allows. Weather conditions no longer are a factor.”
Jordan said putting an inexperienced operator behind the wheel of a $300,000 to $500,000 machine obviously has its risks.
“To be training them by sitting beside them going across a field can be nerve-racking,” he said. “It’s like drivers ed on steroids.
“Not only are they responsible for operating that piece of equipment, but there are a plethora of settings, configurations and adjustments that need to happen for efficient operation.”
A student learning on the simulator uses the same parts and equipment that are in an actual combine, including a touch screen, sensors and even the command center. In addition, large screens can display images of 10 different training modules that replicate almost everything that could arise in real-world combine operations.
The simulator, which is designed for beginning, intermediate and advanced training, also requires a student to complete a start-up checklist before the combine is ready to “harvest” corn, soybeans or wheat.
Urmie said the emphasis on safe operation extends beyond operating a combine in the field.
“There’s a module that teaches how to drive a combine on a road,” she said. “In real life, a lot of farmers don’t really stop at stop signs. They pull up to it, look both ways, and then keep going.
“On the simulator, it doesn’t like it if you don’t come to a complete stop. It freaks out with buzzers and everything.”
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Students completing the simulator training are able to put that knowledge to use in an actual combine later in their studies. Kirkwood, through a partnership with Titan Machinery in Blairstown, has the use of a new Case IH combine each year.
Urmie is studying to become a global positioning system technician and saleswoman. She is on track to complete her associate’s degree in agricultural geospatial technology next spring and plans to stay another year to pursue her agriculture business degree.
Scott Ermer, dean of agricultural sciences at Kirkwood, said the college plans to acquire a John Deere sprayer simulator to provide training for a six-week certificate program for custom applicators.
“There’s a huge demand for custom applicators in precision farming,” Ermer said. “The time to train them is between November and February. This will allow them to get the hands-on experience they need before they’re out there running the machine and applying chemicals.”