US farmers continue to adopt precision agriculture in an effort to not only increase production and lower input costs, but also combat myriad other challenges such as labor shortages and climate change. While digital agriculture (DA) technologies have been available for several years, adoption rates vary widely by crop and farm size. The biggest uptake of precision ag tech is among row crop farmers in the Corn Belt (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota) with well over half of farm and ranch acreage using auto-steer and guidance systems.
The report from USDA, titled “Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms” covers the most recent commodity-specific surveys, ranging from 2013 to 2019. While some of the data is a bit outdated, it does highlight useful trends as well as key variables related to the benefits of precision ag adoption. DA technologies include things like soil maps, yield monitors, yield maps, variable rate technologies (VRT), auto-steer and guidance systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones). The full report is HERE. Below are some of the key findings:
Adoption rates vary by farm size: At least half of relatively large row crop farms (those at or above the third quintile of acreage, i.e., with at least 60 percent of fields on farms with lower acreage) rely on yield maps, soil maps, VRT, and/or guidance systems. Meanwhile (except for cotton), less than 25% of smaller farms (those with acreage in the first quintile) use any of these four technologies. This use could be due to scale benefits (i.e., the returns to technology adoption could be greater on larger farms than on smaller farms).
Digital Agriculture technology adopters use data, acquire crop management recommendations, and employ technical/consultant services at higher rates than DA technology nonadopters.DA technology adopters are more likely than nonadopters to download public data for use in decision-making, though overall adoption remains uncommon. By contrast, farmers more frequently obtain crop management recommendations based on technologies that collect data in their fields. And while technical/consultant services are hired on a small fraction of surveyed acres, such services tend to be sought somewhat more by DA technology adopters.
Auto-steer and guidance systems: Auto-steer guidance systems were used on only 5.3% of planted corn acres in 2001, growing to 58% in 2016. Estimates for 2019 suggested 72.9% and 64.5% adoption rates for sorghum and cotton (planted acreage). In the same year, GPS applications were used on 40% of all U.S. farm and ranchland acreage for on-farm production.
Yield maps used on over 40% of soybean and corn acreage: Yield maps have been available since the early 1990s and are primarily used by agricultural producers to quantify and characterize within-field production variability. Adoption rates increased from 5.3% in 1996 to 43.8% in 2018 across soybean-planted acres; adoption rates across corn-planted acres stood at 43.7% in 2016, up from 7.7% in 1997.
Yield monitors track moisture levels, help determine input use: Across U.S. planted acreage, farmers have relied on yield monitors for various reasons. Data indicate that these technologies were used to monitor crop moisture content on 61.6% of corn-planted acres in 2016 and 80.5% of winter wheat acres in 2017. Meanwhile, nearly 95% of cotton and almost 69% of soybean farms adopting yield monitors used them to help determine chemical input use. Farmers can also use information generated by yield monitors to add or improve tile drainage and/or other water-related technologies (e.g., irrigation equipment), among several other uses.
UAV adoption remains limited: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are a newer feature of digital agriculture that—when equipped with satellite tracking or GNSS technology—can help to optimize farmland management. Across the various row crops surveyed, adoption rates ranged from 7.0% for corn in 2016 to 9.8% for soybeans in 2018. Meanwhile, the adoption rate on winter wheat-planted acreage in 2017 was 3.5%, with comparable adoption in 2019 on cotton acres (2.8%) and sorghum (4.6%).