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Conservation tillage is used on a majority of U.S. corn, soybean, and wheat acres

Friday, September 28, 2018

Conservation tillage helps protect soil by reducing soil disturbance and keeping the soil covered. These actions conserve soil moisture, reduce soil erosion, and, when used in conjunction with other practices, can help promote soil health. Healthy soils can improve environmental outcomes and benefit farmers. For example, greater rainfall infiltration and soil water-holding capacity can reduce runoff of sediment and nutrients while increasing drought resilience. Based on the most recent surveys, conservation tillage was used on a majority of wheat (67 percent), corn (65 percent), and soybeans (70 percent). However, conservation tillage was used on just 40 percent of cotton acres. No-till production, a type of conservation tillage where farmers plant directly into remaining crop residue without tilling, accounted for the majority of conservation tillage acres on wheat (45 percent of total acres) and soybeans (40 percent). Almost 50 percent of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acreage was in no-till or strip-till—a mulch till method where tillage occurs in a narrow strip where seeds are planted—at some time over a 4-year period (the survey year and 3 previous years). However, only about 20 percent of these acres were in no-till or strip-till all 4 years. This chart appears in the ERS report, Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States, released September 2018.

Reducing nutrient loadings to the Gulf of Mexico most cost effectively would concentrate efforts in the Lower Mississippi sub-basin

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Every summer, a large area forms in the Gulf of Mexico where dissolved oxygen is too low for many aquatic species to survive. This “hypoxic zone” is fueled by nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB), a region containing about 70 percent of U.S. cropland. Recent ERS research estimated that the least-cost strategy for reducing nutrient deliveries to the Gulf from cropland in the MARB would focus a large share of the nutrient-reducing practices and cropping changes in the Lower Mississippi sub-basin. Almost half of nitrogen (44 percent) and phosphorus (46 percent) reductions under the least-cost scenario would come from the Lower Mississippi. Although the baseline analysis estimates that agriculture in the Upper Mississippi sub-basin delivers the most nitrogen to the Gulf relative to other sub-basins (over 32 percent), the Lower Mississippi sub-basin’s proximity to the Gulf means that a higher percentage of nutrient losses there reaches the Gulf than from fields farther upstream. The Lower Mississippi was estimated to have relatively high per-acre nutrient losses and deliveries to the Gulf, as well as the lowest per-pound costs of reducing nitrogen deliveries for almost all conservation practices analyzed. This chart appears in the ERS report Reducing Nutrient Losses From Cropland in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin: Cost Efficiency and Regional Distribution, released September 2018.

Prevalence of USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program contracts for conservation tillage varies by region

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Conservation tillage practices—including no-till, strip-till row crop planting, and mulch till—can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Strip tillage disturbs only the soil within the planting row, while mulch tillage minimizes soil disturbance and distributes crop residue. Between 2011 and 2016, the prevalence of EQIP contracts that included conservation tillage practices (as defined in the note) varied regionally. For example, the share was relatively high in North Dakota and northern Iowa, but much lower in neighboring counties in South Dakota. These variations may be due to underlying differences in regional adoption patterns, as well as differences in State and local funding priorities through EQIP. This chart updates data found in the April 2013 ERS report, “The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation.”

Oil and gas payments accounted for about 30 percent of net cash farm income in Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania

Friday, July 27, 2018

From 2005 to 2014, high energy prices and innovation in extraction methods enabled U.S. production of oil and gas to grow by 69 percent, with almost 67 percent of overall production occurring on farmland. The growth generated tens of billions of dollars of additional revenue for owners of oil and gas rights and increased the value of those rights. In 2014, farm operators owned $19.1 billion in oil and gas rights that generated $3.8 billion in payments through leases with energy firms. These payments accounted for about 4 percent of net cash farm income nationally in 2014, but made up a more substantial portion of farm income (11 percent) in oil and gas production regions. The share attributable to royalty income was particularly noteworthy in Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, where oil and gas payments amounted to about 30 percent of net cash farm income. These States are host to productive shale plays, including the Marcellus, Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Woodford plays. This chart appears in the June 2018 ERS report, Ownership of Oil and Gas Rights: Implications for U.S. Farm Income and Wealth.

Most U.S. corn and cotton acreage in 2018 used genetically engineered seeds with stacked traits

Friday, July 20, 2018

Currently, over 90 percent of corn, cotton, and soybean acreage in the United States is planted with genetically engineered (GE) seeds. Most of these GE seeds are either herbicide tolerant (HT) or insect resistant (Bt). Seeds that have both HT and Bt traits are referred to as “stacked.” A decade ago, 40 percent of U.S. corn acres and 45 percent of U.S. cotton acres were planted with stacked seeds. As of 2018, 80 percent of corn acres and 82 percent of cotton acres were planted with these varieties. Soybean seeds with stacked traits are currently not commercially available in the United States. Adoption rates for stacked seeds have slowed in recent years. Adoption rates for stacked corn seeds increased by 3 percentage points from 2017 to 2018, while rates for stacked cotton increased by only 2 percentage points. The slow growth rates for stacked seeds may be due to relatively low corn prices, or because the majority of GE seeds are already stacked. This chart is drawn from the ERS data product Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S., updated July 2018.

Fertilizer use has fluctuated over time and varied by primary nutrient

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.

Ownership of oil and gas rights among farm operators varies across States

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The ability of landowners to profit from oil and gas development on their land depends on whether they own the oil and gas rights associated with their property. Nationally, 5.4 percent of farm operators reported owning oil and gas rights in 2014. In counties with oil and gas production, the share was higher at 11.4 percent. The share of operators who reported owning oil and gas rights exceeded the national average in States where oil and gas counties were abundant—including Oklahoma and Pennsylvania (about 14 percent each) and Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, and North Dakota (about 10 percent each). Separate ownership of the surface and subsurface rights is more common in the Western United States, particularly when shale formations lie above or below conventional oil and gas fields with a history of drilling, because oil and gas rights may have been sold previously. By comparison, the Marcellus shale play extends into areas of Pennsylvania with little history of drilling. Unified ownership is likely much higher there, increasing that State’s share. This chart appears in the June 2018 ERS report, Ownership of Oil and Gas Rights: Implications for U.S. Farm Income and Wealth.

USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program continues expansion of financial assistance for cover crops

Monday, April 23, 2018

USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP). Two of the most popular EQIP practices for addressing soil-related resource concerns are no-till (or strip-till row crop planting) and cover crops. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Cover crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) are typically grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. Planting a cover crop can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Between 2005 and 2016, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased from about $5 million to more than $90 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till declined, in part due to increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment. The larger total annual obligations for cover crops in more recent years partly reflects the higher per-acre costs of implementing cover crops. This may include seed costs and the cost of removing the cover crop. This chart updates data found in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

The price of fertilizer and the prices received for crops have both trended downward in recent years

Monday, March 26, 2018

Fertilizers provide nutrients (such as nitrogen) essential in crop production. The amount of fertilizer farmers apply can be affected by changes in fertilizer prices paid, variation in production practice, crop mix, and the prices received from crop sales. Fertilizer prices paid and the prices received for crops increased in tandem at a fairly modest rate from 1960 through 2002. Between 2002 and 2008, annual fertilizer prices paid 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 large decline (18 percent) in fertilizer prices through 2010. Fertilizer prices recovered somewhat—driven by strong domestic demand for plant nutrients due to high crop prices and limited domestic production capacity—but are currently trending downward, along with crop prices received. This chart appears in the ERS data product Fertilizer Use and Price, updated February 2018.

Energy consumption in agriculture increased in 2016, driven mainly by diesel and fertilizer use

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In 2016, the agricultural sector consumed 1,872 trillion Btu of energy, accounting for about 1.9 percent of total U.S. primary energy consumption. Farms consume energy in many forms, mainly diesel (44 percent of direct energy consumption), electricity (24 percent), natural gas (13 percent), gasoline (11 percent), and liquefied petroleum gas (7 percent). Diesel and, to a lesser extent, gasoline are used to power farm machinery. Electricity is used mainly for irrigation, cooling, and lighting. Natural gas and LP gas are used in heating and grain drying. Large amounts of natural gas are required in the manufacturing of fertilizer and pesticide, so these amounts are categorized as indirect energy consumption on farms. Overall, about three-fifths of energy in 2016 used in the agricultural sector was consumed directly on-farm, while two-fifths were consumed indirectly in the form of fertilizer and pesticides. Recent increases in diesel and fertilizer consumption come in response to declining oil and natural gas prices. From 2012 to 2015, agriculture became more energy intensive, as energy consumption grew over 10 percent compared with about 6 percent growth in agricultural output. This chart updates data found in the ERS report, Trends in U.S. Agriculture's Consumption and Production of Energy: Renewable Power, Shale Energy, and Cellulosic Biomass, released August 2016.

Cropland harvested declined by 3 million acres, largely due to uptick in crop failure

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The ERS Major Land Uses (MLU) series defines cropland used for crops as being comprised of three components: cropland harvested, crop failure, and cultivated summer fallow. Collectively, these components represent the land devoted to crop production in a given year. In 2017, cropland harvested declined to 314 million acres, 3 million acres less than the previous year’s area—the lowest recorded harvested cropland area since 2013 (311 million acres). A crop failure increase of 2 million acres largely contributed to this decline. The area that was double cropped, land from which two or more crops were harvested, held constant over the previous year at 6 million acres. Similarly, land used for cultivated summer fallow, which primarily occurs as part of wheat rotations in the semi-arid West, maintained its 2016 level of 12 million acres—the lowest recorded estimate since the start of the MLU series. The larger historical fluctuations in cropland used for crops are primarily attributable to Federal cropland acreage reduction programs, which affect the amount of idled cropland (cropland not directly involved in crop production in a given year). This chart uses historical data from the ERS Major Land Uses series, recently updated to include new 2017 estimates and revised 2016 estimates.

Share of land used for agricultural purposes has decreased 11 percentage points since 1949

Friday, December 8, 2017

The U.S. land area totals just under 2.3 billion acres. Land used in agriculture has become less common over time, declining from 63 percent in 1949 to 52 percent in 2012 (the latest data available). Gradual declines have occurred in cropland, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly. In 2012, 392 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (18 percent less than in 1949), 655 million acres were in pasture and range (4 percent more), 130 million acres were in grazed forestland (59 percent less), and 8 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (45 percent less). In contrast, land used for rural parks and wilderness (included in nonagricultural special uses) has increased by 226 million acres since 1949, contributing to the relative growth in nonagricultural land use over time. Urban land, which represents a relatively small share of the U.S. land base, has nearly tripled in area since 1949 to accommodate economic and population growth. This chart appears in the December 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "A Primer on Land Use in the United States."

Large-scale farms had the biggest share of irrigated acres and water use in 2013

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

In 2013, large-scale U.S. irrigated farms, those with $1 million or more in annual farm sales, accounted for most (about 79 percent) of the value of irrigated farm production. Large-scale farms also accounted for over half of the irrigated acres in the open (AIO) and about 60 percent of applied water. These farms dominate these characteristics largely because their size allows them to spread costs over many more acres. For example, in the West, irrigation pumping costs per acre for large-scale farms generally average about half that for low-sales farms, those with under $150,000 in farm sales. In total, U.S. farms irrigated about 55.4 million acres, which required the application of more than 88.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water—equivalent to about 28.8 trillion gallons. The irrigation of AIO accounted for nearly all the water use (98 percent). Crops irrigated on AIO include corn, wheat, and soybeans as well as vegetables, berries, and nut trees. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Rented U.S. farmland was concentrated in the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and Delta States

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Of the 914 million acres of land in U.S. farms in 2012 (the latest data), 61 percent were owner-operated. The remaining land was rented, either from another farm operator or from a non-operator (an owner not actively engaged in farming). Farmland tenure arrangements vary across the country, with higher shares of renting and non-operator ownership in the Midwest and Plains regions. This geographic pattern is due to commodity specialization: the majority of land used to grow cotton and cash grains (such as rice, corn, soybeans, and wheat) is rented. According to data from the 2014 TOTAL Survey, cropland (54 percent) is more likely to be rented than pastureland (28 percent). This pattern is attributable to several factors, including the relatively low cost of purchasing pastureland compared to cropland. This chart appears in the August 2017 ERS report Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012.

Technological innovations have increased corn yields

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

With less labor and land being used in production over time, U.S. agriculture depends on raising the productivity of these resources for growth. Average national corn yield (a productivity measure) rose from around 30 bushels per acre in the 1930s (where it stood since USDA began measuring them in the 1860s) to nearly 180 bushels per acre in the present decade. This sustained growth in productivity was driven by the development and rapid adoption of a series of successive biological, chemical, and mechanical innovations. Every few years farmers adopt the latest hybrid seed variety, for example. These seeds are likely to have multiple genetically modified (GM) traits designed to protect the crop against pests and diseases or infer other valuable qualities—such as resistance to the corn borer, a major insect pest of the crop. Recently, the rapid adoption of tractor guidance systems has greatly improved the speed and efficiency of tillage and planting operations and the precision of seed, fertilizer, and pesticide applications. By 2010, such systems were used on 45 percent of corn planted acres. This chart updates data found in the ERS report, The Seed Industry in U.S. Agriculture: An Exploration of Data and Information on Crop Seed Markets, Regulation, Industry Structure, and Research and Development, released February 2004.

Use of pressure-sprinkler systems for irrigation has increased in the Western United States

Friday, August 11, 2017

There are two main types of irrigation systems: gravity and pressurized irrigation. Gravity irrigation uses the force of gravity and field borders or furrows to distribute water across a field. Pressurized irrigation, on the other hand, delivers water to the field under pressure in lateral, hand-move, and center-pivot pipe systems with attached sprinklers. In the 17 most Western States—where water use for agriculture was greatest—total irrigated acres and total water use remained relatively stable between 1984 and 2013, the latest data available. However, the share of water applied using gravity systems steadily declined from 71 percent in 1984 to 41 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, the share using pressure-sprinkler systems steadily increased from 28 percent in 1984 to 59 percent in 2013. Irrigated acres followed similar trends, with acreage using gravity systems declining over time and pressure-sprinkler systems increasing. During that period of time, irrigators shifted to using more pressure-sprinkler systems to improve their irrigation efficiency and to reduce irrigation costs. This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Large-scale farms had the biggest share of irrigated acres and water use in 2013

Monday, June 12, 2017

The irrigation of agricultural land varies across farm sizes. Most irrigated farms in 2013 (about two-thirds) were low-sales operations with under $150,000 in annual gross cash farm income (GCFI). Low-sales farms that irrigate average less than 50 irrigated crop acres per farm—compared to 1,200 acres for large-scale irrigated farms with $1 million or more in GCFI. However, large-scale farms accounted for over half of irrigated acres, 60 percent of applied water, and 79 percent of the value of irrigated farm production. Large-scale farms dominate these characteristics because their size allows them to spread costs over many more acres (compared to other farms). For example, irrigation pumping costs for large-scale farms in the West generally average about half that for low-sales farms. In 2013, U.S. farms irrigated about 55.4 million acres and applied more than 88.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water, equivalent to about 28.8 trillion gallons. The irrigation of cropland—which included crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans—accounted for nearly all the water use (98 percent). This chart appears in the June 2017 Amber Waves data feature, "Understanding Irrigated Agriculture."

Herbicide-tolerant sugarbeets accounted for 98 percent of sugarbeet acreage by 2013

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The United States produced about 8 million metric tons of sugar in 2013. Over half of that sugar came from sugarbeets. However, weed infestations can reduce yields, lower forage quality, and increase the severity of insect infestations. Compared to conventional sugarbeets, planting genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant (GE HT) sugarbeets simplifies weed management. Specific herbicide (such as glysophate) applications kill weeds but then leave the GE HT sugarbeets growing. Studies suggest that farmers who plant GE HT sugarbeets can increase yields, while reducing the costs of weed management. Once introduced commercially in 2008, U.S. farmers adopted GE HT sugarbeets quickly. That year, farmers planted GE HT sugarbeets on about 60 percent of all sugarbeet acreage; by 2009, that number had grown to 95 percent. As of 2013, approximately 1.1 million acres of GE HT sugarbeets (98 percent of all sugarbeet acreage), with a production value of over $1.5 billion, were harvested in the United States. Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, and Michigan accounted for over 80 percent of sugarbeet production that year. This chart is based on the ERS report The Adoption of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, Canola, and Sugarbeets in the United States, released November 2016.

Western irrigation has become more efficient over time

Friday, May 5, 2017

Efficient irrigation systems can help maintain farm profitability in an era of increasingly limited and more costly water supplies. More efficient gravity irrigation uses the force of gravity and field borders or furrows to distribute water across a field. It may also use laser-leveling to improve flood irrigation. More efficient pressure-sprinkler irrigation delivers water under lower pressure sprinklers and systems using drip/trickle tubes and micro-spray nozzles. The efficiency of irrigation systems is particularly important in the Western States—such as Nebraska, California, and Texas—where water demand for agriculture is greatest and diminishing water supplies are expected to affect future water availability. Data from USDA’s Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (FRIS) show that irrigated agriculture in the West has become more efficient over time. More efficient irrigation systems (both gravity and pressure-sprinkler) were used on about 36 percent of total irrigated acres in the West in 1994, but increased to nearly half by 2013. More efficient pressure-sprinkler irrigation alone accounted for about 15 percent in 1994, but more than 37 percent in 2013. The share of acres using more efficient gravity systems peaked in the late 1990s, but then declined as farmers increasingly turned to the even more efficient pressure-sprinkler systems. This chart is based on the ERS data product U.S. Irrigated Agriculture in the United States, released April 2017.

Counting secondary operators triples the number of female operators

Friday, April 14, 2017

Females comprised nearly 14 percent of U.S. principal operators—the individual most responsible for the day-to-day decisions on the farm (or ranch)—in 2012. Considering additional, secondary operators as well as principal operators, however, gives a more complete picture of the involvement of females in farming. Including secondary operators more than triples the count of female farmers—from about 288,300 to nearly 970,000—and increases their share of farm operators to almost 31 percent. Including secondary operators has less of an effect on the number of male farmers, increasing their count by 21 percent, from about 1.8 to 2.2 million. Female secondary operators tend to be less involved in farming than female primary operators. About 33 percent of female secondary operators report farming as their major occupation, compared with 43 percent of female primary operators. Roughly 40 percent of secondary female operators work off-farm at least 200 days per year, slightly higher than the corresponding 35-percent estimate for female principal operators. This chart updates data from the ERS report Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms, released April 2013.

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