ERS Charts of Note
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Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Nitrogen fertilizers are a key component in the production of field crops. Fertilizer constitutes an average of 36 percent of a farmer’s operating costs for corn, 35 percent for wheat, and 30 percent for sorghum, according to estimates in USDA, Economic Research Service’s (ERS) 2020 Commodity Costs and Returns data product, published in October 2021. Given the importance of applying fertilizer to meet yield goals for most field crops, a rapid escalation in fertilizer prices affects a wide variety of farming activities and decisions. Data for Iowa production costs—used as a proxy for U.S. expenses because of Iowa’s central location and its importance in field crop production—indicate a steady decline in fertilizer prices from 2013 through 2017 before gradually rising through 2019. In late 2021, fertilizer prices began to spike alongside rising prices of natural gas—a primary input in nitrogen fertilizer production. By December 2021, average monthly spot prices of natural gas at the Henry Hub distribution hub in Louisiana, as published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, were 45 percent higher than in December 2020. U.S. farmers use three primary forms of nitrogen fertilizer: anhydrous ammonia, urea, and liquid nitrogen. ERS estimates an annual price increase of 235 percent for anhydrous ammonia, 149 percent for urea, and 192 percent for liquid nitrogen (32 percent) using data provided by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) as of December 2021. Researchers expect the spike in fertilizer prices to affect producer decisions going into the 2022/23 marketing year. This chart is drawn from ERS’ January 2022 Feed Grains Outlook.
Monday, September 27, 2021
Dicamba is a common herbicide used to control annual and perennial broadleaf weeds. Federal and State restrictions for the use of dicamba can influence a farmer’s decision to adopt genetically engineered dicamba-tolerant (DT) seeds. In 2019, for example, Federal restrictions limited the application of dicamba on cotton fields from one hour after sunrise to two hours before sunset, limited applications to 60 days after planting cotton, and required that fields in areas with endangered plant species maintain buffers on all sides of the field. Different States imposed additional restrictions or extensions for dicamba application. For example, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas were among states that expanded the dicamba spraying window further into the growing season from the allowed 60 days after planting by granting Special Local Need registrations to their farmers, which were allowed at the time. Data from USDA’s 2019 Agricultural Resource Management Survey show that, in States with earlier dicamba cut-off dates, less dicamba was applied after planting during the growing season. In Arkansas and Louisiana, where cut-off dates occur early in the growing season, 16 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of DT cotton acres were sprayed with dicamba after planting in 2019. By contrast, Georgia allows dicamba spraying until one week before harvest, which can occur as late as December. About 57 percent of DT cotton acres received after-planting applications of dicamba in Georgia in 2019. In 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instituted a single nationwide cut-off date of July 30. This chart appears in the July 2021 Amber Waves data feature, “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Dicamba-Tolerant Cotton Seeds is Prevalent Throughout the United States.”
Monday, April 12, 2021
USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) reports production costs for corn and other major commodities in Commodity Costs and Returns, which includes estimated fertilizer costs for corn at the national level. From 2010 to 2019, fertilizer was a major expense in U.S. corn production, accounting for 33 to 44 percent of operating costs—a category that includes other variable expenses like seed, chemicals, fuel, and repairs. Fertilizer also comprised 16 to 24 percent of the average corn producer’s total costs, which include overhead charges like land costs, machinery depreciation, and farm taxes. Most U.S. corn acres are planted in April and May, and growers often purchase their inputs months in advance. Prices for fertilizer have risen since August 2020, with an even more pronounced surge starting in January 2021. Farmers who made fertilizer purchases for the 2021 corn crop before this uptick may incur similar fertilizer costs to the 2019 and 2020 crops, while those who have waited may pay significantly higher costs. This chart is drawn from ERS’s Commodity Costs and Returns data product.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Fertilizers provide nutrients (such as nitrogen) essential in the production of crops. The amount of fertilizer farmers use can be affected by changes in the price of the fertilizer, variation in production practice (such as the type of tillage employed and crop mix), and the price received for the crops. From 1960 through 2002, both fertilizer prices paid and crop prices received by farmers increased in tandem at a fairly modest rate. Between 2002 and 2008, annual fertilizer prices paid by farmers increased rapidly (generally much faster than increases in crop prices received by farmers) and became more volatile. Fertilizer price increases through 2008 were largely driven by high energy prices and the record costs of natural gas (a basic input to produce nitrogen). In response to record fertilizer prices in 2008, farmers reduced their use of fertilizers, contributing to a decline of 18 percent in fertilizer prices through 2010. Fertilizer prices recovered somewhat through 2012—driven by strong domestic demand for plant nutrients due to high crop prices, and limited domestic production capacity—before declining again. Since June 2017, fertilizer prices have trended upwards, along with crop prices received. Using an index that sets 2011 price levels to 100, farmers paid 66.7 for fertilizer and received 86.8 for their crops in 2018. In other words, farmers paid less for fertilizer and received less money for their crops in 2018 than they did in 2011. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service data product, Fertilizer Use and Price, updated October 2019.
Monday, July 16, 2018
Fertilizers provide nutrients (such as nitrogen, potash, and phosphate) essential in the production of crops. The total consumption of fertilizers grew rapidly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as U.S. farmers devoted more acreage to crop varieties and hybrids (such as corn and wheat hybrids) that respond well to more intensive use of commercial fertilizer, especially nitrogen. In 1960, farmers used about 7.5 million short tons of fertilizer—and use peaked at nearly 23.7 million short tons in 1981. After 1981, total fertilizer use fluctuated from year to year but displayed no trend, as modest growth in nitrogen use was offset by modest declines in potash and phosphate. Annual fluctuations in fertilizer use since 1981 reflected several factors, including changes in fertilizer and crop prices and changes in the mix of crops (e.g., corn uses more fertilizer than soybeans or wheat). Higher fertilizer prices limited use to some extent, while higher crop prices encouraged greater fertilizer use. Finally, macroeconomic events can affect use: for example, fertilizer use dropped in 2009, concurrent with the Great Recession. This chart appears in the ERS data product Fertilizer Use and Price, updated February 2018.
Monday, May 2, 2016
For weed control, U.S. corn and soybean farmers rely on chemical herbicides which were applied to more than 95 percent of U.S. corn acres in 2010 and soybean acres in 2012. Over the course of the last two decades, U.S. corn and soybean farmers have increased their use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in herbicide products such as Roundup) and decreased their use of herbicide products containing other active ingredients. This shift contributed to the development of over 14 glyphosate-resistant weed species in U.S. crop production areas. Glyphosate resistance management practices (RMPs) include herbicide rotation, tillage, scouting for weeds, and other forms of weed control. In some cases, ERS found that usage rates for RMPs increased from 1996 to 2012. In other cases, RMP use dropped from 1996 to 2005/06 but increased as information about glyphosate-resistant weeds spread. For example, herbicides other than glyphosate were applied on 93 percent of planted soybean acres in 1996, 29 percent in 2006, and then 56 percent in 2012. This chart is found in the April 2016 Amber Waves finding, “U.S. Corn and Soybean Farmers Apply a Wide Variety of Glyphosate Resistance Management Practices.”
Friday, April 22, 2016
Efficient nitrogen fertilizer applications closely coincide with plant needs to reduce the likelihood that nutrients are lost to the environment before they can be taken up by the crop. Fall nitrogen application occurs during the fall months before the crop is planted, spring application occurs in the spring months (before planting for spring-planted crops), and after-planting application occurs while the crop is growing. The most appropriate timing of nitrogen applications depends on the nutrient needs of the crop being grown. In general, applying nitrogen in the fall for a spring-planted crop leaves nitrogen vulnerable to runoff over a long period of time. Applying nitrogen after the crop is already growing, when nitrogen needs are highest, generally minimizes vulnerability to runoff and leaching. Cotton farmers applied a majority of nitrogen—59 percent—after planting. Winter wheat producers applied 45 percent of nitrogen after planting. Corn farmers applied 22 percent of nitrogen after planting, while spring wheat farmers applied 5 percent after planting. Farmers applied a significant share of nitrogen in the fall for corn (20 percent) and spring wheat (21 percent). Fall nitrogen application is high for winter wheat because it is planted in the fall. This chart is found in the ERS report, Conservation-Practice Adoption Rates Vary Widely by Crop and Region, December 2015.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Glyphosate, also known by the trade name Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. Widespread and exclusive use of glyphosate, without other weed control strategies, can induce resistance to the herbicide by controlling susceptible weeds while allowing more resistant weeds to survive, propagate, and spread. Resistant weed seeds can disperse across fields—carried by animals, equipment, people, wind, and water. Consequently, controlling weed resistance depends on the joint actions of farmers and their neighbors. ERS analyses evaluated the long-term financial returns to growers who adopt weed control practices that aim to slow resistance to glyphosate, and compared those returns when neighboring farmers also manage to slow resistance. Projected net returns (annualized over 20 years) for growers who manage resistance generally exceed returns for growers who ignore resistance; they are even higher when neighbors also manage resistance. Projected net returns for growers with neighbors who also manage resistance range 18-20 percent higher than those of growers/neighbors who ignore resistance. This chart visualizes data found in the Amber Waves feature, “Managing Glyphosate Resistance May Sustain Its Efficacy and Increase Long-Term Returns to Corn and Soybean Production,” May 2015.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Glyphosate—known by many trade names, including Roundup—has been the most widely used herbicide in the United States since 2001. Crop producers can spray entire fields planted with genetically engineered, glyphosate-tolerant (GT) seed varieties, killing the weeds but not the crops. However, widespread use of glyphosate in isolation can select for glyphosate resistance by controlling susceptible weeds while allowing more resistant weeds to survive, which can then propagate and spread. ERS analyses show that weed control strategies (over 20 years) that manage glyphosate resistance differ from those that ignore glyphosate resistance by using glyphosate during fewer years, by often combining glyphosate with one or more alternative herbicides, and by not applying glyphosate during consecutive growing seasons. Initiating resistance management reduces returns compared to ignoring resistance in the first year, but increases them in subsequent years, as the value of crop yield gains outweighs increases in weed management cost. After two consecutive years of resistance management, the cumulative impact of growers’ returns from continuous corn cultivation, corn-soybean rotation, or continuous soybean cultivation exceeds that received when resistance is ignored. This chart is found in the Amber Waves feature, “Managing Glyphosate Resistance May Sustain Its Efficacy and Increase Long-Term Returns to Corn and Soybean Production,” May 2015.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Precision agriculture is a set of practices used to manage fields by assessing variations in nutrient needs, soil qualities, and pest pressures. In 2013-14, USDA conducted the latest Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) of U.S. peanut growers, interviewing farmers about production practices, resource use, and finances. Some technologies have been rapidly adopted; in particular, 42 percent of peanut farms used auto-steer or guidance systems in 2013, up from 5 percent in 2006. These systems can reduce stress for operators and limit the over-application of inputs on field edges. Yield monitors and yield maps, with essentially no usage in 2006, were used on 8 and 6 percent of farms, respectively, in 2013. With these technologies, monitors can identify within-field yield variations so farmers can adjust inputs and practices accordingly. The use of variable rate application, which has increased from 3 to 22 percent of farms, allows for the adjustment of fertilizer application over a field so that fertilizer can be applied where and when it is needed, thus reducing costs and being more environmentally friendly. This chart is found in the joint ERS/National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) report, 2013 ARMS—Peanut Industry Highlights, based on ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices data.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Recent data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) suggest that glyphosate resistant weeds are more prevalent in soybean than in corn production. Glyphosate, known by many trade names (including Roundup), has been the most widely used pesticide in the United States since 2001. It effectively controls many weed species and generally costs less than the herbicides it replaced. Overall, glyphosate was used on a higher proportion of soybean than corn acres, and it was used alone (not in combination with other herbicides) on a substantially higher proportion of soybean acres. Using glyphosate alone contributes to resistance. Many soybean fields are managed with glyphosate alone, because the next best alternative herbicides are more expensive, less effective, and/or can cause significant injury to soybean plants. This chart is found in the Amber Waves feature, “Managing Glyphosate Resistance May Sustain Its Efficacy and Increase Long-Term Returns to Corn and Soybean Production,” May 2015.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Agricultural businesses, particularly those specializing in crop production, are heavy users of energy and energy-intensive inputs. Ignoring the energy embodied in purchased machinery and services, energy-based purchases accounted for over 25 percent of farm operator expenses in 2012, on average. U.S. farm businesses are classified as industrial users of electricity; poultry production has the highest share of electricity expenses (5 percent) among all types of agricultural producers, while cotton and rice producers have the highest share of electricity expenses (3 percent) among crop producers, primarily for irrigation. While motor fuel accounts for about 6 percent of operator expenses, the farm sector is a heavy indirect consumer of natural gas. For example, up to 80 percent of the manufacturing cost of fertilizer can be for natural gas. Expenditures for fertilizer were over 11 percent of total operator expenses among farm businesses in 2012, with much higher expenditures for most crop farms. Natural gas as a source of electric power has been increasing in recent years, reaching 27 percent of electricity generation in 2013. As a result, the farm sector is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in the price of natural gas. This chart is found in the September 2014 Amber Waves data feature, "Agricultural Energy Use and the Proposed Clean Power Plan."
Thursday, August 21, 2014
The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary, and its watershed covers 64,000 square miles across 6 States (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established limits for nutrient and sediment emissions from point (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint (e.g., agricultural runoff) sources to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of a total maximum daily load (TMDL). Agriculture is the largest single source of nutrient emissions in the watershed. About 19 percent of all cropped acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are critically undertreated, meaning that the management practices in place are inadequate for preventing significant losses of pollutants from these fields. Critically undertreated acres are not distributed among the four sub-basins in the same way as cropland. For example, the Susquehanna watershed contains 69 percent of critically undertreated acres but only 41 percent of cropland. Targeting conservation resources to highly vulnerable regions could improve the economic performance of environmental policies and programs. This chart displays data found in the ERS report, An Economic Assessment of Policy Options To Reduce Agricultural Pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, ERR-166, June 2014.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Corn is the most widely planted crop in the U.S. and the largest user of nitrogen fertilizer. By using this fertilizer, farmers can produce high crop yields profitably; however nitrogen is also a source of environmental degradation when it leaves the field through runoff or leaching or as a gas. When the best nitrogen management practices aren’t applied, the risk that excess nitrogen can move from cornfields to water resources or the atmosphere is increased. Nitrogen management practices that minimize environmental losses of nitrogen include applying only the amount of nitrogen needed for crop growth (agronomic rate), not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring, and injecting or incorporating fertilizer into the soil rather than leaving it on top of the soil. In 2010, about 66 percent of all U.S. corn acres did not meet all three criteria. Nitrogen from the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Lake States (regions that together account for nearly 90 percent of U.S. corn acres) contribute to both the hypoxic (low oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to algae blooms in the Great Lakes. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres, 2001-10, EB-20, November 2012.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Genetically engineered (GE) crops are being developed with various traits; the most widely-adopted GE crops to date are designed to help farmers control insect and weed pests. To control insect damage, Bt corn is genetically engineered to carry the gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a protein that is toxic when ingested by certain insects. Bt corn with traits to control the European corn borer was introduced commercially in 1996, with additional traits to control other types of insects introduced beginning in 2003. Farmers planting Bt crops benefit from decreased dependence on weather conditions affecting the timing and effectiveness of traditional insecticide applications because the Bt toxin remains active in the plant throughout the crop year. By improving pest control, Bt corn produces higher yields when pest infestation is a problem. More than 60 percent of U.S. corn farmers planted Bt corn in 2010 in response to the threat of highly localized insect infestations. This chart is found in the ERS report, Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, ERR-162, February 2014.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Pesticide use in U.S. agriculture grew rapidly between 1960 and 1981 before declining slightly over the last 3 decades. The total quantity of pesticide active ingredients applied to 21 selected crops (that accounted for more than 70 percent of the sector’s total use of pesticides) grew from 196 million pounds in 1960 to 632 million pounds in 1981. Over this period, the share of planted acres treated with herbicides for weed control increased, as did the total planted acreage of corn, wheat, and particularly soybeans, further increasing herbicide use. Since 1980, over 90 percent of corn, cotton, and soybean acres were treated with herbicides, leaving little room for increased use. The application of improved active ingredients, new modes of action having lower per-acre application rates, and recent technological innovations in pest management have also contributed to declining pesticide use. While farmers have used insecticides and fungicides for many decades, the widespread use of herbicides is a more recent phenomenon, as weed control was previously achieved by cultivation and other methods. This chart is found in the ERS report, Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008, EIB-124, May 2014.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Fertilizer prices have increased overall since 2006, reaching historical highs in 2008. Fertilizers are an important input into farming and higher prices have forced farmers to alter their use. Beginning in 2006, USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) asked farm operators how they adjusted their operations in response to higher fertilizer and fuel prices. For most crops (soy, cotton, and wheat) farmers responded to higher prices by reducing their application rate. However, the largest users of fertilizer—corn farmers—responded most often that they managed fertilizer use more closely, for example by using practices such as soil testing, split applications, variable-rate applications, or soil incorporation. This chart is found in the ERS report, Agriculture's Supply and Demand for Energy and Energy Products, EIB-112, May 2012.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Energy is used for agricultural production both directly, in the form of fuels and electricity to run farm machinery, and indirectly, through the use of energy-intensive inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides employed to grow crops. From 2001 to 2011, direct energy use consistently accounted for most of the energy used in farming (63 percent in 2011). Fuel usage is the largest individual component of onfarm energy use, followed by indirect use through the energy embodied in fertilizers and pesticides. Fuel energy use increased slowly through the early 2000s before spiking in 2009 as fuel prices dropped from the previous year’s levels. In 2011, higher prices led to a decline in fuel use. As energy prices rose during the last decade, farm operators adjusted their practices to reduce both direct and indirect energy use where possible. Effective measures taken by farmers to offset higher costs include applying fewer inputs, using more efficient machinery, and reducing field operations. Indeed, during a period in which U.S. agricultural output increased by roughly 10 percent, total onfarm energy use rose only 6 percent. This chart is found in the June 2013 issue of Amber Waves magazine.
Monday, November 5, 2012
All of the leading firms in food manufacturing and agricultural input industries are multinational, offering product sales spread across several continents. One indicator of the degree of globalization of agricultural input markets is the global distribution of agricultural input sales. In 2006, member countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA--United States, Canada, and Mexico) accounted for about 23 percent of the global seed market and 30-36 percent of global sales of agricultural chemicals, farm machinery, animal feed, and animal health pharmaceuticals (including those for nonfood animals). The Europe-Middle East-Africa market (which is mostly Europe) had the largest aggregate seed sales in 2006, whereas Asia-Pacific countries used the most fertilizers and bought the most farm machinery. Together, Asia-Pacific and Latin America are indicative of the developing-country share of global agricultural input markets. They account for 37-51 percent of global sales of crop seed and chemicals, farm machinery, fertilizers, and animal feed. This chart is found in the ERS report, Research Investments and Market Structure in the Food Processing, Agricultural Input, and Biofuel Industries Worldwide, ERR-130, December 2011.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Nitrogen, phosphate, and potash are essential in the production of crops used for food, feed, fiber, and biofuel. Applied annually, most of these nutrients are absorbed by the crops, but when applied in excess, they can be lost to the environment through volatilization into the air, leaching into ground water, emission from soil to air, or runoff into surface water. These losses can be reduced by the adoption of best management practices that match nutrient supply for crop needs, minimize nutrient losses, and enhance plants' capability to uptake nutrients. For corn, the share of planted acres with excess nitrogen applied (above 25 percent of the crop's needs) declined from 59 percent in 1996 to 47 percent in 2010, while the share of acres with excess phosphate declined from 43 percent in 1996 to 31 percent in 2010. Other crops also exhibit either declining or unchanged shares of planted acres with excess use of nitrogen or phosphate. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.