WILLMAR — A unique poultry education program created by the University of Minnesota, Ridgewater College in Willmar and industry leaders will be launched this fall.

The multi-tiered program includes a series of courses at Ridgewater and the U of M that are designed to provide training to undergraduates and graduate students as well as those already working in the poultry industry.

It’s hoped the program will help create a better-educated workforce, ranging from on-the-farm employees to those who conduct research on poultry health and food safety.

Despite the state’s “rich history” in raising and researching poultry, there was no formal poultry training program in the state, said Tim Johnson, professor at the University of Minnesota in the College of Veterinary Medicine and director of research and development at the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center in Willmar.

The devastating avian influenza that wiped out millions of commercial turkeys and chickens in 2015 emphasized the need for training for positions ranging from entry-level jobs to highly skilled researchers.

It took five years of extensive discussion and planning between educators, economic development leaders and “champions” in the poultry industry to develop the collaborative training program that could help meet the needs of the poultry industry, Johnson said.

The multi-faceted program features a flexible format that includes an undergraduate poultry certificate at Ridgewater that could be completed in one semester.

The University of Minnesota is offering three advanced poultry classes this fall, and starting in 2021 will offer an undergraduate poultry minor, a graduate poultry health certificate for higher-level training in poultry health and a master's in applied poultry science.

It’s a “stackable” model that can allow students or working professionals to advance from one degree to the next and “work their way up the ladder,” Johnson said.

The “a la carte” program with classes delivered online is an attempt to provide accessible and affordable training to meet the wide-ranging needs of Minnesota’s poultry industry and the people who work in the field, Johnson said.

Classes delivered online include video lectures and interactive classroom chats, for example.

“We’re thinking big about how the community can benefit from these training programs,” he said.

Individual classes can also be taken without necessarily obtaining a certificate or degree, which could fit the needs of people who work in commercial poultry and want some additional training, or even those who have their own backyard poultry flocks, said Lindsay Ampe, ag business instructor at Ridgewater College.

The classes being offered this fall at Ridgewater are part of a 20-credit certificate program that includes topics like poultry nutrition, environmental management and identifying poultry diseases.

Currently, most people working directly with poultry are trained by their employers and learn on the job. Johnson said what’s needed are employees who know “why” an animal is not growing, gaining weight or laying eggs and can solve the problem.

The new training will help provide “core concepts” of poultry care that will give employees the ability to “hit the ground running” in the poultry barns, he said.

The more advanced classes offered through the University this fall include microbiology, poultry biosecurity and food safety that will help meet a “laundry list” of industry needs — like genomic technology and ways to address salmonella or other food safety concerns. That type of study and research could play vital roles in poultry production and food safety that could impact the entire industry and public health, Johnson said.

All the classes this fall are delivered online, either through Ridgewater or the University, which includes the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center. Located on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, the center has labs specifically for poultry research.

Additional information about the poultry certificate is available at the Ridgewater College website at www.ridgewater.edu and additional information about the University of Minnesota courses are available at poultrytraining.umn.edu.