While the job market remains bullish for students pursuing agricultural majors, federal and state budgets are full of bears. Those budget shortfalls spell gloom for many ag schools that rely on government support to partially fund programs. As college leaders look at upcoming budgets, they face some difficult decisions.

Since the land grant system was established, most schools have focused on a full spectrum of agricultural and life sciences course work. That served our nation well when our landscape was dotted with diversified livestock and crop operations. Over the years, regions, and even smaller clusters within states, have become highly specialized. For example, the Top 10 dairy states accounted for over 70 percent of the nation's milk last year. Similar stories exist in other commodities. That begs the question, can schools continue to support a complete set of ag-related majors, or is it time to partner with neighboring states to pool precious resources?

While some partnering is in place, the need for cooperation eventually will have to be more fully addressed throughout the country. At many institutions, maintaining livestock research and instruction units is being deemed a luxury, not a necessity, as college budgets get reviewed and money is shifted or eliminated.

As schools grapple with these issues, it may be time to investigate partnerships that allow ag colleges to specialize in majors where they excel and in other cases to partner with others that do things better. Such arrangements likely need action by state legislators so students can benefit from tuition reciprocity to keep education affordable in these new alliances.

We realize eliminating a degree program is not a matter to be taken lightly. Agriculture relies on tailored courses to educate the next generation. However, collaborative efforts such as the Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium that involves 11 universities which pool resources to teach dairy students meets shareholder needs and uses precious resources wisely.

Whatever route is chosen, business as usual will no longer be an option. In the end, it might be better to be proactive than to wait for a forced decision that not only eliminates degree programs, but the opportunity for partnerships.

This Editorial article appears in the February 10, 2011 issue of Hoard's Dairyman, page 92