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USDA study examines adoption of precision farming technologies

Brian Messerschmidt, of SGS Unlimited of Fargo, N.D., demonstrates a tractor being steered through a course by an AutoFarm GPS steering system at the Big Iron farm show in West Fargo, N.D., in this 2004 file photo. A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says such "precision farming" technologies have not been adopted as rapidly as expected. (Dave Wallis / The Forum, file photo)

WILLMAR -- With input costs increasing, farmers are always looking for ways to be more efficient in the use of inputs. In recent years, increased efficiency has been made possible through the adoption of modern precision technologies that use information gathered during field operations to calibrate the application of seed, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined both the prevalence and effectiveness of precision information technologies, based on survey data collected over the last 10 years. For the purposes of this study, precision information technologies included yield monitors, variable-rate applicators and GPS maps.

The overall conclusion of the study was that the adoption of the precision information technologies has been mixed among U.S. farmers, and that the adoption of the technologies has not been as rapid as previously envisioned.

Recent data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey found that the use of yield monitors, often a first step in using precision technology for grain producers, has grown most rapidly.

Yield monitors were used on 40 to 45 percent of the corn and soybean acres harvested in 2005 and 2006. However, most farmers are deciding not to complement this yield information with the use of detailed GPS maps or variable-rate input applicators that capitalize on the detailed yield information.

Some of the possible factors behind the adoption lag include farm operator education, technical sophistication and farm management skills.

Survey data indicate that in the Corn Belt, GPS maps and variable-rate technologies were used on 24 and 16 percent respectively of the corn acres in 2005, and 17 and 12 percent of the soybean acres in 2006. Nationally, the adoption rates for variable-rate technologies were only 12 percent for corn and 8 percent for soybeans.

One of the more recent technological advances are the guidance systems that provide farm machinery operators with their exact field position. The adoption of this technology is showing a strong upward trend, with 35 percent of the wheat producers using guidance systems in 2009.

The study also found definite advantages in adopting precision information technologies. For example, corn and soybean yields were significantly higher for yield monitor adopters than for non-adopters, and that this yield differential for corn grew from 2001 to 2005.

Corn and soybean farmers using yield monitors had lower per-acre fuel expenses. However, average per-acre fertilizer expenses were slightly higher for the corn farmers that adopted yield monitors, but were lower for soybean farmers.

Average per-acre fuel expenses were lower for farmers using variable-rate technologies for corn and soybean fertilizer applications, as were soybean fuel expenses for guidance system adopters.

The study found that adopters of GPS mapping and variable-rate fertilizer equipment had higher yields for both corn and soybeans.

USDA forecasting lower corn, soybean, sugar beet production this year in Minnesota

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's September Crop Production Report, Minnesota corn, soybean and sugar beet production is expected to be down from last year.

In the September report, USDA estimated that Minnesota corn production would total 1.26 billion bushels, down 1 percent from the August forecast and down 2 percent from last year's record high of 1.29 billion bushels.

Based on crop conditions as of Sept. 1, corn yields in Minnesota are expected to average 165 bushels per acre, down 1 bushel from last month and down 12 bushels from last year's record high average yield of 177 bushels per acre.

The number of corn acres expected to be harvested for grain is 7.65 million acres. That's up 5 percent from last year and would be Minnesota's second largest acreage of corn.

Minnesota soybean production is expected to total 292 million bushels, up 3 percent from last month's forecast, but down 11 percent from last year.

Based on crop conditions as of Sept. 1, Minnesota soybean yields are expected to average 41 bushels per acre, up 1 bushel from last month's forecast, but down 4 bushels from 2010.

Minnesota's soybean acreage for harvest, at 7.11 million acres, is down 3 percent from last year.

Minnesota sugar beet production is forecast to total 9.47 million tons, down 9 percent from the August report and down 19 percent from 2010. Sugar beet yields are expected to average 20.5 tons per acre, down 6.1 tons from last year's record high average yield of 26.6 tons per acre.

Minnesota farmers are expected to harvest 462,000 acres of sugar beets this year, which is down 5 percent from last year's 441,000 acres.

Based on crop conditions as of Sept. 1, USDA is forecasting that U.S. corn production will total 12.5 billion bushels, down 3 percent from the August report, but up fractionally from 2010.

In terms of soybeans, USDA is forecasting that soybean production in the U.S. will total 3.09 billion bushels, up 1 percent from last month's report, but down 7 percent from last year.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.