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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.

Adoption of herbicide-tolerant alfalfa increased in recent years

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Alfalfa is the fourth largest U.S. crop in terms of acreage and production value, behind only corn, soybeans, and wheat. Most of the alfalfa grown in the United States is used as feed, particularly for dairy cattle. However, weed infestations can reduce alfalfa yields, lower forage quality, and increase the severity of insect infestations. Planting genetically engineered (GE), herbicide tolerant (HT) alfalfa reduces crop damage from specific herbicides. Alfalfa tends to be seeded (on average) once every 7 years, so GE HT alfalfa adoption rates have increased relatively slowly compared to other GE HT crops, such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. In 2013, about 810,000 acres were planted with GE HT alfalfa, approximately a third of newly seeded acres that year. This chart appears in the ERS report The Adoption of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, Canola, and Sugarbeets in the United States, released November 2016.

Precision agriculture technologies adopted at different rates on soybean farms

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Precision agriculture (PA) delivers localized crop production management through a number of different technologies, including guidance systems, and variable rate technology (VRT). These technologies require a significant investment of capital and time, but may offer cost savings and higher yields through more precise management of agricultural inputs like pesticides and fertilizers. For example, VRT adapts machinery and field operation equipment—such as sprayers and seeders—to automatically control input flow rates for precise field locations. Guidance systems, on the other hand, use GPS to automatically steer farm equipment—such as combines and tractors—helping reduce operator fatigue. In 2012 (the most recent data available), yield monitors and guidance systems had the highest rate of adoption on soybean farms: 51 and 34 percent, respectively. For all PA technologies, the percent of soybean cropland acres was higher than the percent of farms—showing that larger farms have higher adoption rates for these technologies. Soybeans are the second most planted crop in the United States, after corn. Farms often rotate soybeans annually with corn, so PA adoption rates for these two major crops were relatively similar. This chart appears in the ERS report Farm Profits and Adoption of Precision Agriculture, released October 2016.

USDA funds helped livestock operations in the Chesapeake Bay reduce nutrient runoff

Friday, February 17, 2017

Some USDA programs offer financial and technical assistance to farmers who volunteer to implement conservation practices. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one such program that provides assistance to livestock producers to improve nutrient management and to reduce manure nutrient runoff. Nationally, 60 percent of EQIP funding is designated for livestock producers. Between 2006 and 2013, EQIP issued 7,452 contracts to producers in Chesapeake Bay counties alone—totaling nearly $243 million (adjusted for inflation). On average, that amounted to 932 contracts and $30 million per year over that period (in 2013 dollars). Each EQIP contract may fund multiple conservation practices. The largest share of spending was for waste-storage facilities, followed by protection of heavy-use areas to reduce sedimentation and nutrient runoff. This chart appears in the ERS report, Comparing Participation in Nutrient Trading by Livestock Operations to Crop Producers in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, released in September 2016.

Payments for energy production, and the share of farms receiving them, vary by State

Monday, February 13, 2017

Landowners can lease farmland for energy production, such as for oil exploration or wind turbines. For example, households that own the oil and gas rights for their property or for land in other States may lease these rights to an energy company. In 2014, the majority of income from royalties or leases associated with energy production was earned from selling or leasing these rights. In Oklahoma, Utah, and Kansas, about 20 percent of farms received income from energy production. In States with active development of shale oil or gas, about 12 percent of farms received an average income of $65,781 from energy production—compared with 6 percent and $56,162 for the entire United States. Average payments were highest in North Dakota ($157,000) and Pennsylvania ($154,000), mainly due to oil and gas drilling in the Bakken and Marcellus shales. Total payments from energy companies to farms reached $2.9 billion in 2014, up from $2.3 billion in 2011. This chart appears in the November 2016 Amber Waves article, Share of Farm Businesses Receiving Lease and Royalty Income From Energy Production Varies Across Regions.

Variable rate technology used on about a fifth of planted acres for several major crops

Monday, December 12, 2016

Precision agriculture delivers localized crop production management through a number of different technologies. One of them, variable rate technology (VRT), adapts machinery and field operation equipment—such as sprayers and seeders—to automatically control input flow rates. Farmers can even use VRT to plant different types of seeds at different locations with a single pass of the tractor. However, installing and maintaining equipment with VRT capabilities comes at a relatively high cost. Empirical estimates showed that, in 2010, VRT still improved profits on corn farms by about 1 percent. Between 2010 and 2013, VRT adoption also reached about 20 percent of planted acres in corn, soybean, rice, and peanut production. This chart appears in the ERS report Farm Profits and Adoption of Precision Agriculture, released October 18, 2016.

Almost all U.S. sugarbeets and canola planted in 2013 used genetically engineered seeds

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-tolerant (HT) varieties of crops were first developed in 1996 to survive herbicides that previously would have destroyed the crop along with the targeted weeds. The success of major GE crops—more than 90 percent of U.S. corn, soybean and cotton use GE seeds with HT or insect-resistant traits—enabled the commercialization of HT canola in 1998 and of HT alfalfa and sugarbeets in 2005. Two of these crops have seen rapid adoption in recent years: about 95 percent of U.S. canola and over 99 percent of sugarbeet acres planted in 2013 had HT traits. By comparison, only 13 percent of alfalfa acres harvested had HT traits that year. This slower adoption rate is expected—alfalfa is a perennial crop and only about one-seventh of the alfalfa acreage is newly seeded each 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.

On-farm renewable energy production varies regionally

Friday, October 28, 2016

Since the early 2000s, farms have increased renewable energy production with technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and methane digesters. From 2007 to 2012, the number of farms generating on-farm renewable energy more than doubled to nearly 58,000—or 2.7 percent of U.S. farms. This does not include the roughly 16,600 farms that leased wind rights to others or that produced ethanol and biodiesel on the farm. Adoption of on-farm renewable energy systems varies across the country but it is concentrated in the Western United States, Illinois, and New England. In these regions, about two in five farm businesses produce renewable energy in some counties. The Southeastern States, which have fewer subsidies and programs supporting renewable power, had low adoption rates. 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.

To promote soil health, USDA’s funding for cover crops increased ten-fold between 2005 and 2013

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Farmers can receive Federal financial assistance for implementing a wide range of conservation practices from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Adopting no-till and planting cover crops are two common agricultural practices that can improve soil health. Farmers receiving payments for no-till agree to plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Those receiving payments for cover crops plant certain crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) or a mixture of crops to maintain cover and add organic matter. Cover crops are usually grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. From 2005 to 2013, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased ten-fold—from about $5 million to more than $50 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till adoption declined. This shift in focus can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment and improving availability of cover crop seeds and educational materials. This chart appears in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”

Guidance systems are used on about half of planted acres for several major crops

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Guidance systems use global positioning system (GPS) coordinates to automatically steer farm equipment like combines, tractors, and self-propelled sprayers. Guidance systems help reduce operator fatigue and pinpoint precise field locations, within a few inches. Freed from steering, operators can access timely coordinates from a screen, monitor other equipment systems more closely, and correct problems more quickly. Guidance systems also reduce costs by improving the precision of sprays and the seeding of field crop rows. Between 2010 and 2013, these systems were adopted on 45 to 55 percent of planted acres for several major crops, including rice, peanuts, and corn. Once adopted for a particular crop, the use of guidance systems tends to be rapidly adopted by other crop farmers. The ease-of-use and functionality of these systems has also increased along with adoption rates. This chart appears in the ERS report Farm Profits and Adoption of Precision Agriculture , released October 18, 2016.

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.

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