On the Doorstep of the Information Age: Recent Adoption of Precision Agriculture
by David Schimmelpfennig
and Robert Ebel
Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-80) 31 pp, August 2011
What Is the Issue?
Efficient input use in agriculture is increasingly a priority of
producers, the public, and policymakers. One way to increase
efficiency in agriculture is through the adoption of precision
technologies, which use information gathered during field
operations, from planting to harvest, to calibrate the application
of inputs and economize on fuel use. While it holds promise for
improving the efficiency of input use, adoption of precision
agriculture-encompassing a suite of farm-level information
technologies to better target the application of inputs and
practices-has not been as rapid as previously envisioned. This
report examines the prevalence and effectiveness of these
technologies based on survey response data collected over the last
What Did the Study Find?
Adoption of the main precision information technologies-yield
monitors, variable-rate applicators, and GPS maps-has been mixed
among U.S. farmers. Recent data from the Agricultural Resource
Management Survey (ARMS) show that use of yield monitors, often a
first step in using precision technology for grain crop producers,
has grown most rapidly, and was used on 40-45 percent of corn and
soybean acres in 2005-06. However, farmers have mostly chosen not
to complement this yield information with the use of detailed GPS
maps or variable-rate input applicators that capitalize on the
detailed yield information. Some of the possible factors behind
this adoption lag include farm operator education, technical
sophistication, and farm management acumen. The
report is not testing the impacts of precision agriculture on
other farm practices like conservation tillage, but some
associations between the various factors are noted. Among the
- Corn and soybean yields were significantly higher for yield
monitor adopters than for nonadopters nationally. This yield
differential for corn grew from 2001 to 2005. Yield monitors are
being adopted more quickly by farmers who practice conservation
- Corn and soybean farmers using yield monitors had lower
per-acre fuel expenses. Average peracre fertilizer expenses were
slightly higher for corn farmers that adopted yield monitors, but
were lower for soybean farmers.
- In the Corn Belt, GPS maps and variable-rate technologies were
used on 24 and 16 percent respectively of corn in 2005, and 17 and
12 percent of soybean acres in 2006, but nationally the adoption
rates for variable-rate technologies were only 12 percent for corn
and 8 percent for soybeans.
- Average fuel expenses were lower, per acre, for farmers using
variable-rate technologies for corn and soybean fertilizer
application, as were soybean fuel expenses for guidance systems
- Adopters of GPS mapping and variable-rate fertilizer equipment
had higher yields for both corn and soybeans.
- Adoption of guidance systems, which notify farm equipment
operators as to their exact field position, is showing a strong
upward trend, with 35 percent of wheat producers using it by
How Was the Study Conducted?
The Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) provides data
on technology choices, input costs, and yields for a nationally
representative sample of U.S. farms growing selected commodities.
Phase II of the ARMS is conducted on a rotating set of commodities,
and this study relies primarily on the 2001 and 2005 surveys of
corn, 2002 and 2006 surveys of soybeans, and 2004 and 2009 surveys
of winter wheat, with secondary emphasis on other crops and years.
Descriptive statistics are presented at the national level and by
production region as defined by USDA's National Agricultural
Statistics Service. Simple statistical difference-of-means tests
are conducted to examine differences in input costs and yields
between precision technology adopters and non-adopters.