ERS Charts of Note

Subscribe to get highlights from our current and past research, Monday through Friday, or see our privacy policy.
See also: Editor’s Pick 2017: Best of Charts of Note gallery.


Share of electricity expenses vary by farm size and principal commodity

Friday, October 14, 2016

Farms rely on electricity to power many essential systems, including irrigation, ventilation, and heating and cooling. Sometimes, due to seasonal demand, farms pay high prices for electricity. How much farms spend on electricity as a percentage of total expenses in a given year varies with farm size and principal commodity. In 2014, the highest share of electricity expenses by commodity were on farms concentrating on the production of peanuts (5.5 percent). By farm size, small poultry producers had the highest share of electricity expenses, 12.8 percent—about 8 times more than large poultry producers. With the exception of peanut producers, large farms had the lowest shares of electricity expenditure among all farm sizes. Large peanut producers likely had a higher share of electricity expenses compared to small producers because irrigation and on-farm drying of harvested peanuts were more economical on large farms. This chart appears in the August 2016 ERS report Trends in U.S. Agriculture’s Consumption and Production of Energy: Renewable Power, Shale Energy, and Cellulosic Biomass.

Some manure nutrients produced in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can be captured for later use

Friday, September 30, 2016

In 2010, to help meet water quality goals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted a limit on the amount of pollutants that the Chesapeake Bay can receive. Nitrogen and phosphorus, in particular, can lead to adverse effects on public health, recreation, and ecosystems when present in excess amounts. The EPA estimates that applications of manure contribute 15 percent of nitrogen and 37 percent of phosphorus loadings to the Bay. Furthermore, ERS estimates that animal feeding operations (AFOs), which raise animals in confinement, account for 88 percent of manure nitrogen and 84 percent of manure phosphorus generation in that watershed. ERS also estimates that about a third of nitrogen and half of phosphorus produced at AFOs can be recovered for later use. That adds to about 234 million pounds of nitrogen and 106 million pounds of phosphorus recovered. These nutrients can then be redistributed regionally to fertilize agricultural land, thereby lessening nutrient run-off problems in the Bay. The remaining nutrients cannot be recovered. Both nitrogen and phosphorus may be lost during collection, storage, and transportation; nitrogen may also volatize into the atmosphere. This chart is based on the ERS report Comparing Participation in Nutrient Trading by Livestock Operations to Crop Producers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, released in September 2016.

Emergency haying and grazing on land in the CRP peaked in 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2016

USDA?s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) engages farmers in long-term (10- to 15-year) contracts to establish conservation covers on environmentally sensitive land. As of June 2013, about 27 million acres of farmland were enrolled in the program. An important provision within CRP is that under certain circumstances, farmers can utilize their CRP lands for managed or emergency haying and grazing.?The haying and grazing of CRP land can provide important benefits to farmers, particularly during major droughts when other sources of livestock feed are scarce, and, if done correctly, can also improve the environmental value of the conservation covers. During the 2012 drought, farmers conducted emergency haying and grazing on almost 2.8 million acres and managed haying and grazing on another 700,000 acres. This chart is found in the Amber Waves article, ?The Role of Conservation Program Design in Drought-Risk Adaptation,? July 2013.

Adoption of insect-resistant GE corn varies by region

Thursday, September 1, 2016

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.

U.S. broiler production has leveled off after decades of rapid growth

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Between 1960 and 1995, annual broiler slaughter in the United States grew from 1.5 to 7.4 billion birds?4.6 percent per year, on average. With birds also getting larger?from an average of 3.35 pounds to 4.66?total live-weight production grew at an average rate of 5.6 percent per year. While average weights continued to grow steadily after 1995, growth in annual slaughter slowed sharply and then fell in 2009 and again in 2012. Total live-weight production reached 49.8 billion pounds in 2008, but did not exceed that figure until 2013. In all, live-weight production grew by just 1.3 percent per year between 2003 and 2013, one-fourth of the 1960-1995 growth rate. High produc?tion growth in earlier decades?and slowing growth later?reflected movements in demand for chicken meat. The cessation of broiler industry growth, due to slowing growth in population, per capita consumption of chicken, and exports, places new financial pressures on broiler producers and new stresses on industry organization. This chart is found in Technology, Organization, and Financial Performance in U.S. Broiler Production, EIB-126, June 2014.

Western U.S. irrigated agriculture is shifting to more efficient methods

Thursday, September 1, 2016

About 75 percent of irrigated cropland in the U.S. is located in 17 western States based on the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (the most recent available), conducted by USDA?s National Agricultural Statistics Service. While the amount of irrigated land in the West has increased by over 2 million acres since 1984, the amount of water applied has declined slightly as irrigation systems have shifted toward more efficient methods. In 1984, 71 percent of Western crop irrigation water was applied using gravity irrigation systems that tend to use water inefficiently. By 2008, operators used gravity systems to apply just 48 percent of water for crop production while pressure-sprinkler irrigation systems, which can apply water more efficiently, accounted for 51.5 percent of irrigation water use. In 2008, much of the acreage using pressure irrigation systems included drip, low-pressure sprinkler, or low-energy precision application systems. Improved pressure-sprinkler systems resulted in remarkably stable agricultural water use over the past 25 years, as fewer acre-feet were required to irrigate an increasing number of acres. This chart is found in?Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands, EIB-99, September 2012.

Labor productivity is higher on larger U.S. dairy farms than on smaller farms

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Most labor on small U.S. dairy farms is provided by the operator and the opera?tor?s family, whereas large dairy farms, while usually still family-owned and operated, rely extensively on hired labor. Labor productivity?output of milk per hour of labor?is much higher on larger dairy farms, with the largest (farms with milking herds of at least 2,000 cows) realizing 10 hundredweight (cwt) per hour of labor, compared to 2-4 cwt per hour on farms with herds of 50-500 head. Large farms operate differently than small dairy farms, as their size allows them to apply practices and technologies that result in higher milk yields and labor productivity. For example, farms with at least 500 cows are much more likely to milk three times a day, while smaller farms typically milk twice a day. Thrice-daily milking raises per-cow milk yields, allows farms to offer more work and higher pay to their hired labor, and creates more intensive use of milking equipment. Greater labor productivity is one source of the cost advantages accruing to larger dairy operations. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Changing Structure, Financial Risks, and Government Policy for the U.S. Dairy Industry, March 2016.

Organic producers reported economic losses from unintended presence of genetically engineered crops

Thursday, September 1, 2016

U.S. organic farmers, and conventional farmers who produce crops for non-GE (genetically engineered) markets, must meet the tolerance levels for accidental GE presence set by domestic and foreign buyers. If their crops test over the expected tolerance level, farmers may lose their organic price premiums and incur additional transportation and marketing costs to sell the crop in alternative markets. Although data limitations preclude estimates of the impact just on organic farmers who grow the 9 crops with a GE counterpart, the data do reveal that 1 percent of all U.S. certified organic farmers in 20 States reported that they experienced economic losses (amounting to $6.1 million, excluding expenses for preventative measures and testing) due to GE commingling during 2011-14. The share of all organic farmers who suffered economic losses was highest in Illinois, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, where 6-7 percent of organic farmers reported losses. These States have a high percentage of farmers that produce organic corn, soybeans, and other crops with GE counterparts. While California has more organic farms and acreage than any other State, most of California?s organic production is for fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops that lack a GE counterpart. This map is based on data found in the ERS report, Economic Issues in the Coexistence of Organic, Genetically Engineered (GE), and Non-GE Crops, February 2016.

Stacked GE varieties of corn have become commonplace

Thursday, September 1, 2016

U.S. farmers have embraced genetically engineered (GE) seeds in the 20 years since their commercial introduction. Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops, developed to survive application of specific herbicides that previously would have destroyed the crop along with the targeted weeds, provide farmers with a broader variety of options for effective weed control. Insect-resistant crops contain a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that produces a protein that is toxic to specific insects, protecting the plant over its entire life. Seeds that have both herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits are referred to as ?stacked.? Based on USDA survey data, adoption of stacked GE corn varieties has increased sharply, reaching 77 percent of planted corn acres in 2015. Conversely, use of Bt-only corn dropped from 27 percent of planted corn acreage in 2004 to 4 percent in 2015, while HT-only corn dropped from 24 percent of planted corn acreage in 2007 to 12 percent in 2015. Generally, stacked seeds (seeds with more than one GE trait) tend to have higher yields than conventional seeds or seeds with only one GE trait. This chart is based on the ERS data product,?Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S., updated July 2015.

Double-cropped acreage varies by region

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Over the last decade, growing demand for agricultural commodities?for both food and fuel?has increased the incentives for farm operators to raise production. Double cropping, the harvest of two crops from the same field in a given year, has drawn interest as a method to intensify production without expanding acreage. In the U.S., the prevalence of double cropping varies by region. The variation across regions reflects farmers? response to local conditions such as weather, climate (particularly growing season length), policy differences, and market incentives. The Southeast, Midwest, and Southern Plains regions lead the country in total double-cropped acreage. About one-third of the total double-cropped acreage over 1999-2012 was in the Southeast (2.7 million acres on average), and slightly more than one-fifth was in the Midwest (1.8 million acres on average). However, relative to each region?s total cropland acreage, the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest all have larger shares of cropland used in double cropping than other regions. The Northeast had the largest share of double-cropped acreage (nearly 10 percent, on average) of the region?s total cropland, and the Northern Plains had the smallest (less than 0.5 percent on average). This chart is found in the ERS report, Multi-Cropping Practices: Recent Trends in Double-Cropping, EIB-125, May 2014.

Contract broiler growers have higher median and greater range of household incomes

Thursday, September 1, 2016

For farmers, household income combines the income that the household receives from off-farm activities with the income that the household receives from the farm business, net of expenses and payments to other stakeholders in the business. Households that raise broilers have higher median incomes than other farm households, and other U.S. households. In 2011, the median income among all U.S. households was $50,504, while the median income among farm households was $57,050. The median for contract broiler growers was higher, at $68,455. However, median income doesn?t tell the whole story; the range of household incomes earned by broiler growers is also wider than other groups, even though contract growers are a much more demographically homogeneous than both the U.S. population and the overall farm population. The wider range reflects, in part, the financial risks associated with contract broiler production. Grower costs can vary widely, and flat annual broiler production in recent years has increased the risk that growers will get fewer chicks placed, or that their contracts won?t be renewed. This chart is found in the August 2014 Amber Waves feature, ?Financial Risks and Incomes in Contract Broiler Production.?

Insect resistant GE crops may have area-wide insect suppression benefits

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Since their first successful commercial introduction in the United States in 1996, genetically engineered (GE) seeds have been widely adopted by U.S. corn, cotton, and soybean farmers. In 2013, 169 million acres of GE corn, cotton, and soybean were planted, accounting for about half of U.S. land used for crops.? One trait engineered into GE corn and cotton is resistance to certain insects (by introducing a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)), protecting the plant over its entire life cycle.? Bt corn was planted on 19 percent of corn acres in 2000, 35 percent in 2005, and 76 percent in 2013. Over this period, insecticide use on corn has declined for both Bt adopters and nonadopters. These trends are consistent with research findings that area-wide suppression of certain insects is associated with Bt crop use, benefiting not only Bt adopters but non-adopters as well.? However, there are some recent indications that insect resistance is developing to some Bt traits in some areas, which may increase insecticide use compared to the 2010 low levels. This chart can be found in Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, ERR-162, February 2014.

Herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybean growers more likely to practice conservation tillage

Thursday, September 1, 2016

By leaving at least 30 percent of crop residue covering the soil surface after all tillage and planting operations, conservation tillage (including no-till, ridge-till, and mulch-till) reduces soil erosion, increases water retention, and reduces soil degradation and water/chemical runoff. Conservation tillage also reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture. By 2006, approximately 86 percent of land planted with herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans was under conservation tillage, compared to only 36 percent of conventional soybean acres. Differences in the use of no-till were just as pronounced. While approximately 45 percent of HT soybean acres were cultivated using no-till technologies in 2006, only 5 percent of the acres planted with conventional seeds were cultivated using no-till techniques, which are often considered the most effective of all conservation tillage systems. Cotton and corn data exhibit similar, though less pronounced, patterns. This chart is found in ?Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops by U.S. Farmers Has Increased Steadily for Over 15 Years? in the March 2014 Amber Waves online magazine.

Farm business reliance on energy-intensive inputs varies by commodity specialization

Thursday, September 1, 2016

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."

Midpoint farm sizes more than doubled in the Corn Belt and Northern Plains between 1982 and 2007

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The pace of cropland consolidation between 1982 and 2007 varied widely across States, although most saw substantial increases in the amount of cropland harvested by larger farms. Only five States (Alabama, Hawaii, and three in southern New England) experienced declines in midpoint farm sizes and, therefore, a shift of harvested cropland to smaller farms. In the other 45 States, acreage shifted to larger farms. During the period, the midpoint farm size increased by at least 100 percent in each of the 12 contiguous States in the Corn Belt and Northern Plains, as well as several other States, and by 50-99 percent in another 18 States. This map is found in ?Cropland Consolidation and the Future of Family Farms? in the September 2013 issue of Amber Waves magazine.

Relatively few farms produce just one crop

Thursday, September 1, 2016

U.S. crop farms have become more specialized over the years, but few are so specialized as to produce only a single crop. Less than 5 percent of the value of corn production occurs on farms that produce only corn, while more than half occurs on farms that produce at least two crops in addition to corn. Soybeans, often grown in rotations with corn, show a similar pattern. Among major field crops, rice and hay have the most specialized production, with 30 and 33 percent of the value of production, respectively, occurring on farms that raised only that crop. Farms with combinations of crops can benefit economically from diversifying against income risks, and can also realize agronomic improvements from rotations that reduce pest infestations and improve soil quality. This chart is based on data table 13 in the ERS report, Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming, ERR-152, August 2013.

Changes in U.S. double-cropped acreage roughly mirror commodity prices

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Double-cropped acreage has varied from year to year. Because decisions about double cropping are made annually, fluctuations are likely as farmers respond to changing market and weather conditions. For example, higher commodity prices give farmers more incentive to intensify production and could offset revenue shortfalls from lower potential yields when double cropping. From 2004 to 2012, total double-cropped acreage roughly paralleled soybean, winter wheat, and corn prices. When commodity prices at the time of planting decisions were increasing or relatively high, total double-cropped acreage also increased. Total double-cropped acreage peaked at 10.9 million acres in 2008, when prices for soybeans, winter wheat, and corn also peaked. In 2005 and 2010, nearly every region witnessed declines in double-cropped acreage amid commodity price declines. This chart is found in the ERS report, Multi-Cropping Practices: Recent Trends in Double-Cropping, EIB-125, May 2014.

Most U.S. corn acres at risk of nitrogen losses to the environment

Thursday, September 1, 2016

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.

Milk production continues shifting to large scale farms

Thursday, September 1, 2016

In 2012, there were still nearly 50,000 U.S. dairy farms with fewer than 100 cows, but that represented a large decline from 20 years earlier, when there were almost 135,000 small dairy farms. Over the same period, the number of dairy farms with at least 1,000 cows more than tripled to 1,807 farms in 2012. Movements in farm numbers were mirrored by movements in the share of cow inventories. Farms with fewer than 100 cows accounted for 49 percent of the country?s 9.7 million milk cows in 1992, but just 17 percent of the 9.2 million milk cows in 2012. Meanwhile, farms with at least 1,000 cows accounted for 49 percent of all cows in 2012, up from 10 percent in 1992. The shift to larger dairy farms is driven largely by the economics of dairy farming. Average full costs of production (which include the annualized cost of capital, imputed cost of unpaid family labor, and cash operating expenses) are substantially lower on farms with larger herds. This chart is drawn from the December 2014 Amber Waves data feature, ?Milk Production Continues Shifting to Large Scale Farms.?

Dairy farmers shifted to catastrophic coverage under the MPP-Dairy Program in 2016

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Margin Protection Program-Dairy (MPP-Dairy) is a risk management program introduced in the 2014 Farm Act. MPP-Dairy is designed to protect agricultural producers against adverse movements in the difference between milk and feed prices (the margin). Enrollees receive catastrophic coverage, for an annual $100 enrollment fee, that provides payments when a national-average margin falls below $4 (the average monthly margin was $8.30 in 2004-13). Farmers can purchase additional ?buy-up? coverage, for margin thresholds ranging from $4 to $8 in 50-cent increments. Almost 25,000 farms?55 percent of licensed U.S. dairy operations, accounting for 80 percent of 2014 U.S. milk production?enrolled in the program for 2015 coverage. Forty-four percent of enrollees?with more than three-quarters of production covered by MPP?chose catastrophic coverage. Farms may change coverage annually, and many did so in 2016, as the shares of farms and production under catastrophic coverage rose, moving away from all levels of buy-up coverage. This chart is based on data found in the ERS report, Changing Structure, Financial Risks, and Government Policy for the U.S. Dairy Industry, March 2016.

Charts of Note header image for left nav