Spring is in the air, and farmers are itching to dust cobwebs off equipment in anticipation of planting season. Soon we will be seeing a wide range of machinery in the fields, from four-row planters to 40-foot wide drills.
While features such as make and model are clearly visible to the passerby, what you may not notice as easily are the digital components. Are they using guidance systems or yield monitors? Applying fertilizer with variable rate technology (VRT)?
Surprisingly, fewer producers have integrated precision agriculture or other digital technologies into their farming operations than one would expect. A recently published article based off of data from 1996-2019 reveals technological trends in agriculture over the past three decades.
“Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms” was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research compiled by the Economic Research Service (ERS) and Agriculture Resource Management Survey (ARMS).
Terry Griffin, associate professor in the Department of Agriculture Economics at Kansas State University, has been studying digital agriculture since the mid-1990s. He is co-author of the article, along with USDA researchers Jonathan McFadden and Eric Njuki.
Griffin explained how precision agriculture and technologies used in farming have evolved but not dominated the agricultural industry yet.
“Digital agriculture seems to be everywhere, but statistics up to 2019 show the adoption of those technologies are still not ubiquitous,” he said.
Use of GPS for on-farm production activities in 2019 was roughly 12% across the U.S. Predictably, the Corn Belt states adopted guidance systems more quickly than other regions. They still outpace their coastal counterparts in regards to use of navigation technology. The article alludes to the larger size of farms in the Midwest as a possible explanation.
The study analyzed six major crops grown in the U.S., including corn, cotton, sorghum, rice, soybeans and winter wheat. Livestock and specialty crops (fruit, vegetables, tree nuts) were excluded because no national data exists for these commodities.
The digital technologies assessed in the study were placed into three categories:
1. Data and data collection systems: yield monitors; soil monitors; sensors; imagery from drones, aircraft or satellite
2. Decision support tools: electronic maps or other visualization of georeferenced data; smartphone apps; other sources with management recommendations
3. Data-driven equipment and input adjustments: guidance systems; automated section control; variable-rate applicators
A major focus of the article is why producers choose to use digital agriculture tool. Farm size relates directly to technology adoption, regardless of technology type or crop.
Larger farms are more likely to use digital agriculture. They are also more likely to own wider implements that may be easier to maneuver with a guidance system. Of all the farms in the U.S., only 7% of those with less than 200 total acres use yield maps. More than half of farms with total cropland of 1,725 acres or larger rely on yield maps.
Digital agriculture can provide production information crucial for farms of all sizes.
“When we had animal power, farmers spent more time on every square inch of the field. As equipment was mechanized, the intimate knowledge of every square foot went away,” he said. “Technology kind of makes a proxy for that such that we can collect data through sensors.”
This is especially helpful for operations with multiple decision makers, such as a multi-generational farm. Each partner can access specific field records at any time.
Because digital tools enable greater efficiency, more acres can be farmed by one producer. Griffin predicts that technology will accelerate the consolidation of farms.
“We have a century of data with evidence to suggest that fewer farms will own more acres as time goes by,” said Griffin.
In the article, examples of efficiency demonstrate the labor savings from implementing certain technologies. On average, those who used yield maps and georeferenced soil maps spent 35% less hours per bushel of corn than those who did not. For VRT users, 28% less hours was spent per bushel of corn.
With the current workforce issues, increasing productivity through technology could be the key to keeping their farm afloat.
People are also reading…
Jay Rempe, senior economist for Nebraska Farm Bureau, addressed this phenomena in an Economic Tidbits newsletter from March 13.
“Labor shortages could lead to more vertical integration in agriculture, more partnerships to scale across the existing labor pool, greater concentration including farms, and the adoption of more technology and automation,” Rempe wrote.
In addition to boosting individual productivity, digital agriculture can lead to greater efficiency of equipment and resources. Increased yields, lower input costs and management of risk (i.e. pests, weather and prices) can result from precision agriculture and other agricultural technologies.
In a press release dated March 13, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., detailed the positive effects of digital agriculture:
According to an industry analysis, recent use of precision agriculture—including variable rate technologies, auto-steer and sensor-driven pivots—has reduced herbicide use by 30 million pounds, fossil fuel emissions by 100 million gallons and water usage by 500,000 million gallons. That’s good for producers and communities. Productivity levels also shoot up as a result of precision agriculture tools.
If technology can be so beneficial, why do the statistics reflect such low adoption rates for digital agriculture?
Cost may be the deciding factor for many producers. Often, digital technology is a holistic system, so a farmer must purchase more than one product to fully access the advantages.
Adding the necessary equipment, such as sensors and monitors, to existing machinery is expensive. Even if the technology is integrated into the implement, often times there are additional fees for training or activation to even utilize the technology.
Take drones for example. A fairly new technology, drones have been adopted by less than 10% of farms so far. In addition to purchasing the actual drone platform, one must buy onboard cameras, communication devices and extra batteries, as well as register the device, complete certification courses for agricultural use and renew this certification regularly. Moreover, a drone is more likely to “incur irreplaceable damage” than a yield monitor. The entire unit must be replaced if damaged.
Adding technology to your operation increases cost per acre to grow a crop. The article gave an example for the cost of applying fertilizer via a custom variable-rate applicator. Nebraska farmers paid an additional $1.52 per acre for dry fertilizer application and $1.91 per acre for liquid fertilizer application.
Moreover, each crop requires different equipment to plant and harvest; price varies accordingly. Data from 2019 shows that the guidance system alone cost $5,700 more for a cotton yield monitor than one for soybeans. This was simply a replacement fee for the yield monitor and did not include the $1,000-plus annual fee nor additional equipment necessary.
Farm size is again a factor, as larger farms may be able to justify purchasing digital technology on a cost-per-acre scale.
Sen. Fischer wants to increase access to digital agriculture through the Precision Agriculture Loan (PAL) Act. This bill would provide an opportunity for small- to medium-sized farms to apply for USDA loans to fund precision agriculture purchases.
“Large scale farming operations can afford cutting-edge technology to increase their efficiency—but it can be more difficult for small and mid-size producers to make the necessary investments in these expensive technologies,” Fischer said in the afore-mentioned press release.
Access to capital is what prevents the technologically-savvy younger generation from purchasing digital agriculture.
“Millennials have an affinity for technology but lack the financial resources,” Griffin said.
A KSU study shows that those born before 1944 own more technology than any other generation currently. Referred to as the “silent generation” by Griffin, they control 20% of farm operations. Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, control half of farm operations. That leaves 30% of farms in the hands of those younger than 60 years old.
Having grown up immersed by technology, the next generation of farmers has the potential “to transform the U.S. agriculture sector” using digital agriculture.
Some new government programs have contributed to the demand for digital agriculture, especially those that integrate use of technology into their payout guidelines. Examples include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The article states that programs administered by the USDA and other Federal agencies have “direct bearing on farmers’ input choices,” but without major documented studies the extent of their impact is unknown.
An increased reliance on the data generated by these technologies will likely ensue as more farmers adopt digital tools. The concept of “big data” is a relatively recent phenomena, appearing within the last 15 years, said Griffin. He explained that data for every acre and every farm operation goes into a community aggregation controlled by a third-party farm economist.
Companies rely on this “big data” to make decisions. These are not just start-up companies, either. Well-known chemical corporations and traditional machinery manufacturers have invested millions of dollars in services to attract shareholders and maximize profitability. In return, data from digital agriculture is scrutinized to improve products; commodity traders receive sneak peeks into potential yield and productivity before USDA figures are released, said Griffin.
For this reason, Griffin encourages producers to respond to these surveys and provide accurate information. He referenced the ARMS and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
“These are the surveys that we as researchers use to publish reports,” Griffin said. “Your responses do impact USDA reports, presentations made and discussions with crop consultants, machinery dealers and farmers.”
Farming is continually under evolution, as proven by the study about precision agriculture in the digital era. However, each farmer must know what is best for his or her operation.
“Not all farms are using all technologies,” Griffin said. “It may not be appropriate for every farm, or more importantly, every farm operator in the country.”
Reporter Kristen Sindelar has loved agriculture her entire life, coming from a diversified farm with three generations working side-by-side in northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at Kristen.Sindelar@midwestmessenger.com.