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Farms increasingly turning to precision ag

Adoption rates show farmers increasingly turning to GPS mapping systems, auto-steer and variable-rate technologies.

Precision agriculture technologies require a significant investment of capital and time but may offer cost savings and higher yields through more precise management of inputs. Until the early 2000s, the adoption rate of different precision agriculture technologies varied up to 22% across major U.S. field crops. After that time, adoption of some technologies began to outpace others, according to a new Economic Research Service report, "Farm Profits & Adoption of Precision Agriculture."

The report examines adoption rates for three types of precision agriculture technologies: (1) global positioning system (GPS)-based mapping systems (including yield monitors and soil/yield mapping), (2) guidance or auto-steer systems and (3) variable-rate technology (VRT) for applying inputs.

Yield mapping is used on about 40% of U.S. corn and soybean acres, GPS soil maps on about 30%, guidance on more than 50% and VRT on 28-34% of acres.

Yield mapping via GPS grew faster for corn and soybeans than for other crops, while adoption of soil mapping varied substantially across crops, the report notes. Tractor guidance systems have grown faster than VRT input application for all major field crops over the last 10 years.

Guidance systems use 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 45-55% 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 their adoption rates.

Yield monitors that produce the data for GPS-based mapping are the most widely adopted, used on about half of all corn (2010) and soybean (2012) farms, while guidance or auto-steer systems are used on about a third of those farms and GPS-based yield mapping on a quarter. Soil mapping using GPS coordinates and VRT are used on 16-26% of these farms.

For more on how adoption of precision agriculture tools impact profits, read our additional coverage, Precision agriculture technologies boost net returns.

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