ERS Charts of Note
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Thursday, August 24, 2023
Use of aerial imagery provided by aircraft, drones, and satellites remains limited on U.S. farms. USDA has tracked adoption of many agricultural production technologies through its annual Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) of U.S. farms. Farmers using drones and aircraft can survey large stretches of farm and ranch land. Aerial imagery helps identify land features or vegetation patterns that are more easily visible from above and thus aids in crop mapping, livestock monitoring, land surveying, crop spraying, and crop dusting. According to the most recent data for various row crops, aerial imagery was used on 7.0 percent of acres planted to corn in 2016 and 9.8 percent for soybeans in 2018. The adoption rate on winter wheat-planted acreage in 2017 was 3.5 percent, with comparable adoption in 2019 on cotton acres (2.8 percent) and sorghum (4.6 percent). For context, in 2016, these adoption rates were lower than those of related technologies like yield maps (43.7 percent) and soil maps (21.5 percent), which provide visualizations of how yields and soil properties vary within and across fields. The ongoing digitalization of U.S. agriculture presents considerable opportunities for improvement in farmers’ productivity, environmental footprint, and risk management. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Farmers use variable rate technologies (VRT) to control the amount of farm inputs—such as seed, fertilizer, and chemicals—applied as farm machinery moves across a field. With more precise control of inputs, farmers can make more efficient applications that might lower production costs or reduce environmental impacts. Data from USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) show that initial adoption of VRT in the late 1990s and early 2000s was sluggish, remaining below 10 percent of planted acres for several field crops. However, adoption rates for corn and cotton have increased markedly over the last decade. The VRT adoption rate for corn stood at 37.4 percent of planted acres in 2016, up from 11.5 percent in 2005. Cotton acreage using VRT showed a similar increase, rising from 5.4 percent in 2007 to 22.7 percent in 2019. Recent VRT adoption rates across other crops included 13.9 percent for sorghum in 2019, 18.8 percent of winter wheat planted acres in 2017, and 25.3 percent of soybean-planted acres in 2018. VRT adoption follows a pattern common to other precision technologies: higher adoption by large farms and lower adoption among smaller farms, in part because larger farms can spread the fixed costs of adoption over greater production amounts. This chart and more information on the topic appear in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
Corn farmers most frequently apply manure to the soil surface without incorporating it, rather than using other methods. Manure types vary based on water content, such as lagoon liquid, slurry liquid, and dry or semi-dry. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers found that irrespective of manure type, corn farmers used surface application most often, tending not to incorporate the manure with tillage afterward. With incorporation, manure is first spread on the soil surface and then mixed into the first few inches with a tillage implement, thus increasing its contact with the soil. Less than 30 percent of all surface-applied manure on corn fields is incorporated. Surface application without incorporating into the soil or applying manure through an irrigation system results in less nutrient retention and lower fertilizer value. Farmers gauge manure moisture content to determine which application method to use when addressing crop nutrient needs. On operations such as swine or dairy farms, it is common to use water to wash manure out of barns, creating lagoon and slurry liquid manure with a high water content. Liquid manure is usually applied to the land’s surface, but roughly 20 percent is injected into the soil using specialized equipment like a manure injector. Only a small portion of liquid manure stored in lagoons is sprayed through irrigation systems. Poultry and beef feedlot manures are typically dry or semisolid. Almost all dry or semisolid manures are surface applied. In 2020, more acres were planted to corn (90.8 million acres) in the United States than any other crop, and a larger percentage of corn acres (16.3 percent) received manure than any other crop. This chart appears in the ERS report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published in March 2023.
Monday, July 24, 2023
In 2020, manure was applied to about 8 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to 7 major U.S. field crops. Most manure applied to U.S. cropland (78 percent) comes from animals raised on the same operation, while 14 percent is purchased and 8 percent is obtained at no cost from other animal operations. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) survey data show that crop farmers received compensation from animal producers for taking manure for less than 1 percent of the manure applied, noted as “Obtained with compensation” in the chart. For most crops, farmers use manure that either comes from their own farm or at no cost from other farms. However, cotton and peanut producers are the most likely to purchase manure, typically from poultry growers. Among all animal manure types, poultry litter has the highest nutrient content, making it less costly to transport. Manure markets tend to be highly localized. When manure is obtained by a crop producer at no cost from the animal producer, that can indicate an excess supply of manure in the local area. Animal producers who apply their operations’ manure to their own crops account for a high proportion of manure used on oats, corn, and barley crops, followed by soybean and wheat. This chart appears in the USDA, ERS report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published in March 2023.
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
The proximity of livestock production helps explain the type of manure farmers apply to crops. Livestock production is geographically concentrated in the United States, and manure can be expensive to transport because of its low nutrient density and high proportion of water. Accordingly, farmers typically apply the type of manure that is available from local animal production. Since most hogs are produced in the Midwest, hog manure is applied more often to corn and soybeans that are grown in the region. Dairies, which tend to be located in the western, midwestern, and northeastern U.S., supply the largest share of manure applied to corn, barley, and oats. Most chickens are raised in the southeastern U.S. and poultry manure is used to meet crop nutrient needs of cotton and peanuts that are mainly grown in the region. Beef cattle operations in the Great Plains supply more than 50 percent of the manure applied to wheat acreage. In 2020, manure was applied to about 8 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to seven major U.S. field crops. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published March 2023.
Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Manure has long been used as a source of primary plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. However, the proportions available in manure are unlikely to match a crop’s nutrient needs perfectly. For instance, while manure could be used to satisfy many crops’ nitrogen requirements, this would result in more phosphorus being applied than what most crops need. Excessive application of manure on cropland can cause nutrients to accumulate in soil, leach, or to run off into nearby bodies of water. To help avoid over-application of nutrients, farmers can test the nutrient content of manure, restrict manure applications, and/or apply just enough supplemental commercial fertilizer nutrients to meet their crop’s needs. Between 2013 and 2019, producers of seven major crops in the United States who used manure were asked how much manure they applied per acre on these croplands. Using this information, ERS estimated crop nutrient application rates. Corn received the highest application rate of nitrogen from a manure source—92 pounds per acre—followed by cotton, wheat, barley, oats, soybeans, and peanuts. Cotton led phosphorus application at 37 pounds per acre, and corn led potassium application at 59 pounds per acre. Soybeans and peanuts require less nitrogen fertilization; therefore, they were applied with the lowest manure nitrogen application rates. Manure applied to soybeans and peanuts is valued primarily for its phosphorus and potassium. In 2020, manure was applied to about 8 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to 7 major U.S. field crops. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published March 2023.
Monday, March 27, 2023
Auto-steer and guidance system adoption on U.S farms increased sharply in the past 20 years, with use on more than 50 percent of the acreage planted to corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and cotton as of 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. Adoption rates were 58.4 percent of acres planted to corn in 2016, 55.9 percent of winter wheat acres in 2017, 54.5 percent of soybean acres in 2018, and 64.5 percent of cotton acres in 2019. USDA, Economic Research Service researchers examined producer responses from various Agricultural Resource Management Surveys (ARMS) to better understand how auto-steer and guidance systems use has evolved. Using GPS, these technologies visualize and track the position of tractors, harvesters, and sprayers in the field in real time. Autonomous steering permits automatically guided fertilizing, harvesting, and other tasks in the field with minimal involvement from the farmer, increasing field efficiency (i.e., fewer errors), reducing operator fatigue, and freeing up operator time in the equipment’s cab. This chart is based on information in the Economic Information Bulletin, Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Thursday, March 23, 2023
For most crops, small-scale farmers are more likely than large-scale farmers to apply manure. The smallest 25 percent of farms (by planted area) were more likely to apply manure than any other farm size group for five of seven crops studied: corn, barley, oats, soybeans, and wheat—all except cotton and peanuts. For example, among the smallest 25 percent of corn farmers, roughly half applied manure. On the other hand, only 13 percent of the largest corn farmers applied manure to their corn. This pattern of small-scale farmers using manure as a crop nutrient source more than other size farmers may be partly explained by specialization. Larger crop farms are more likely to specialize and not diversify their operations with animal production, limiting access to manure produced on the farm. Manure was applied to about 8 percent of the 240.9 million acres planted to the seven major U.S. field crops. Manure supplies nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to growing crops and can improve soil quality. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published March 2023.
Wednesday, March 15, 2023
The number of on-farm anaerobic digester systems has steadily increased since 2000, according to AgSTAR, a collaborative program sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA. An anaerobic digester is an airtight vessel in which bacteria digest, or decompose, organic waste such as manure, and the resulting biogas can be used to generate electricity or sold. A total of 322 on-farm systems were in operation at the end of 2021, including 50 that started operating that year. Recent growth in the number of digesters corresponds to increased demand for renewable fuel as a result of carbon credit trading and incentive programs. Further, more covered lagoons have been built as their costs have decreased. Although adoption began in the 1970s, steady growth of on-farm anaerobic digestion systems in the United States did not pick up until the 1990s. Growth then persisted until about 2013, after which it slowed considerably, then began increasing again. Many of the newer digester projects are designed to produce compressed natural gas that can be injected into pipelines to take advantage of carbon credit-trading programs such as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program. Roughly 78 percent of all on-farm anaerobic digestion facilities in the United States are found on dairy farms. Digester adoption is highest in California, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report, Increasing the Value of Animal Manure for Farmers, published March 2023.
Friday, February 24, 2023
U.S. farms are adopting precision technologies at different rates, with the largest farms adopting auto-steer guidance technology at significantly higher rates. USDA, Economic Research Service researchers used data from four successive Agricultural Resource Management Surveys (ARMS) to assess the adoption of precision agriculture technologies across four major field crops. After sorting farms into five equally sized groups based on farm size, they found that the largest farms across all commodities had adopted guidance at the highest rates. Specifically, of farms growing corn in 2016, 73 percent of farms in the largest size category adopted guidance. The rates were similar for the group of largest farms growing other commodities in later years: 82 percent of the largest winter wheat farms in 2017, 68 percent of the largest soybean farms in 2018, and 67 percent of the largest cotton farms in 2019. Conversely, among the smallest farms, adoption of guidance systems was much lower: 10 percent of the smallest corn farms in 2016, 11 percent of the smallest soybean farms in 2018, and 7 percent of the smallest winter wheat farms in 2017, with the exception of cotton, which starts at a relatively high rate of 50 percent for the smallest cotton farms in 2019. Adoption rates vary based on field terrain, soil characteristics, the scale and scope of production, and farmers’ risk preferences. Other factors affecting adoption rates include the type of crop produced and farmers’ socioeconomic characteristics, such as age, education level, and years of experience. This chart appears in the Economic Information Bulletin Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms, published in February 2023.
Monday, May 11, 2020
U.S. regulations on antibiotic use in food animal production have focused on antibiotics important for human disease treatment, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) terms “medically important.” If current human antibiotics lose efficacy and new ones are not developed, the ability to treat human infections may be hindered. In 2017, FDA policies ended the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food animals. Antibiotics deemed “currently not medically important” are not used to treat human illnesses and can still be used for animal growth promotion. Other uses of medically important antibiotics in food animal production require veterinarian oversight. These policies follow earlier actions in the European Union (EU) banning medically important antibiotics for growth promotion. Most new antibiotic approvals for food animals have been generic drugs that are also used for humans. Between 1992 and 2015, about 70 percent of antibiotics were considered medically important. This suggests that animal pharmaceutical companies are increasingly developing generic antibiotics for food animals, not new varieties of antibiotics. Although new approvals for non-medically important, non-generic antibiotics for food animals declined, they still averaged about 1.3 per year in 2015. This chart appears in the ERS report, The U.S. and EU Animal Pharmaceutical Industries in the Age of Antibiotic Resistance, released May 2019.
Monday, February 24, 2020
The USDA Quarterly Hogs and Pigs report issued on December 23, 2019 indicated that the U.S. hog industry achieved a third consecutive quarterly litter rate of 11 or more pigs per litter. National litter rates of 11 pigs per litter or more have been a long-standing goal of the U.S. hog industry, although such litter rates have been commonplace in Canada (particularly in Manitoba) and in Europe for quite some time. Factors contributing to the 11+ litter rates in the United States last year—the September-November litter rate of 11.09, the June-August litter rate of 11.11, and the March-May rate of 11 pigs per litter—are varied; they include innovations in pre- and postnatal sow and weanling management and care, sow nutrition, weather adaptations, and management of disease occurrences. Chief among litter-rate enhancement factors, however, are improvements in genetics. Superior litter rates in 2019 likely indicate that distribution and optimal utilization of high-quality genetics is gaining traction in the industry. The suggestion of “more to come” is supported by considerable anecdotal evidence of trickle down effects of genetics transfers from nucleus farms to multiplier farms and then on to commercial farms. It is likely that higher litter rates will characterize the near future of U.S. pork production as highly productive genetics spread further in the U.S. commercial hog sector. This chart was previously published in the USDA, Economic Research Service report, Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook: January 2020.
Monday, December 16, 2019
Many antibiotics developed for use in animal production are “cast-offs” from products originally intended to be marketed to humans. Therefore, the decline in the development of new human antibiotics suggests there may a similar decline in the development of new antibiotics for food animal production. The share of food-animal antibiotics as a portion of all veterinary drug approvals has declined from 62 percent in 1992-94 to 40 percent in 2013-15. The decline reflects increasing development of new animal drugs approved for companion animals, from 30 percent of all approvals in 1992-94 to 47 percent in 2013-15. Given the overall decline in the number of all animal drug approvals between 1992 and 2015, the decline in the share of food-animal antibiotics approvals also reflects a decline in the number of approvals for such drugs. This chart appears in the ERS report, The U.S. and EU Animal Pharmaceutical Industries in the Age of Antibiotic Resistance, released May 2019. See also the Amber Waves article, “Developing Alternatives to Antibiotics Used in Food Animal Production,” published in May 2019.
Monday, June 3, 2019
The human and animal pharmaceutical industries are closely linked, with similar research processes and business structures. However, although animal pharma is a large global presence ($23.9 billion in sales in 2014), human pharma is 42 times larger (nearly $1 trillion in sales in 2014). Because the human pharma market is more lucrative, many drugs are originally explored for use in humans. Human drug innovations historically also have been a source of new products in animal pharma. Conversely, trends in the numbers of new drug approvals in the United States for humans versus animals have diverged over time. Between 1971 and 2015, the number of new nongeneric drug approvals for animal use dropped from 154 to 30 annually, while those for human use climbed from 136 to 392 annually. The higher number of approvals for human drugs reflects the larger size of the human pharma market. This divergence in the numbers of drug approvals may also be driven by changes in the focus of human medicine, which increasingly demands palliative care drugs that have fewer applications in the animal pharmaceutical market. This chart appears in the ERS report, The U.S. and EU Animal Pharmaceutical Industries in the Age of Antibiotic Resistance, released May 30, 2019. See also the Amber Waves article “Developing Alternatives to Antibiotics Used in Food Animal Production,” published in May 2019.
Friday, May 17, 2019
Guidance systems use global positioning system (GPS) coordinates to automatically steer farm equipment like combines, tractors, and self-propelled sprayers. This helps 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. In addition, guidance systems reduce costs by improving the precision of sprays and the seeding of field crop rows. The ends of rows, in particular, benefit from more accurate application of inputs. Manually reversing farm machinery to return in the opposite direction in adjacent rows on a field can cause overlaps and missed spots for applied inputs. Guidance systems can also help extend working hours for field operations during time-sensitive production periods because guided machinery works well in the floodlit dark. Out of all precision agriculture technologies, guidance systems had the highest adoption rates—used on 67 percent of corn planted acres (in 2016), 57 percent of spring wheat (2009), 53 percent of rice (2013), 49 percent of peanuts (2013), and 45 percent of soybeans (2012). This chart appears in the May 2019 ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2019.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Conservation tillage practices—including no-till, strip-till row crop planting, and mulch till—can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Strip tillage disturbs only the soil within the planting row, while mulch tillage minimizes soil disturbance and distributes crop residue. Between 2011 and 2016, the prevalence of EQIP contracts that included conservation tillage practices (as defined in the note) varied regionally. For example, the share was relatively high in North Dakota and northern Iowa, but much lower in neighboring counties in South Dakota. These variations may be due to underlying differences in regional adoption patterns, as well as differences in State and local funding priorities through EQIP. This chart updates data found in the April 2013 ERS report, “The Role of Conservation Programs in Drought Risk Adaptation.”
Friday, May 4, 2018
USDA agricultural conservation programs provide technical and financial assistance to farmers who adopt and maintain practices that conserve resources or enhance environmental quality. Although USDA implements more than a dozen individual conservation programs, nearly all assistance is channeled through six: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). EQIP, CSP, and CTA are often referred to as “Working Land Programs” because they focus primarily on supporting conservation on land in agricultural production (crops or grazing). The 2014 Farm Act continued to emphasize working land conservation. Between 2012 and 2017, combined funding for Working Land Programs accounted for more than 50 percent of spending in USDA conservation programs. This emphasis reflects a long-term trend—begun under the 2002 Farm Act—that increased annual spending in Working Land Programs. In 2017 dollars (to adjust for inflation), this spending increased from roughly $1 billion under the 1996 Farm Act to more than $3 billion under the 2014 Act. This chart updates data found in the May 2014 Amber Waves feature, "2014 Farm Act Continues Most Previous Trends In Conservation."
Monday, April 23, 2018
USDA offers financial assistance to farmers for implementing a wide range of conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP). Two of the most popular EQIP practices for addressing soil-related resource concerns are no-till (or strip-till row crop planting) and cover crops. Farmers practicing no-till plant crops without using any sort of plow to turn residue from the prior crop into the soil. Cover crops (such as clover, field peas, and annual ryegrass) are typically grown over the winter, between plantings of commodity crops. Planting a cover crop can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and reduce nutrient pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. Between 2005 and 2016, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased from about $5 million to more than $90 million in nominal terms. Over this same period, funding for no-till declined, in part due to increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment. The larger total annual obligations for cover crops in more recent years partly reflects the higher per-acre costs of implementing cover crops. This may include seed costs and the cost of removing the cover crop. This chart updates data found in the September 2016 Amber Waves feature, “An Economic Perspective on Soil Health.”
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services in all parts of the United States. For most U.S. agricultural programs, farmers who receive benefits must refrain from draining wetlands on their farm. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Wetland Compliance (WC), for the first time since 1996. ERS researchers examined the effect of premium subsidies on farmer’s compliance incentives under the 2014 Farm Act. (Because of data limitations, ERS researchers focused on States that include the Prairie Pothole region: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, where wetland habitat is critical to ducks and other migratory birds.) In Prairie Pothole States, WC incentives are strong. When the compliance incentive includes premium subsidies, an estimated 75 percent (2.6 million acres) of potentially convertible wetland is on farms where Compliance incentives (farm program benefits) are clearly large enough to offset revenue lost by not draining these lands for crop production. Severing the link between WC and crop insurance premium subsidies (while continuing the link between Compliance and other 2014 Farm Act programs) would reduce the number of potentially convertible wetlands with strong protection by 15 percent (from 2.6 to 2.2 million acres). This chart appears in the July 2017 report, Conservation Compliance: How Farmer Incentives Are Changing in the Crop Insurance Era.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
To be eligible for most U.S. farm program benefits, participating farmers must apply soil conservation systems on cropland that is particularly vulnerable to soil erosion. The 2014 Farm Act re-linked crop insurance premium subsidies to this provision, known as Highly Erodible Land Compliance (HELC), for the first time since 1996. These premium subsidies account for a significant share of Compliance incentives—typically between 30 and 40 percent, depending on crop prices. The 2014 Act also included major changes in other Compliance-linked programs, including the elimination of Direct Payments, a large program under the 2008 Farm Act. On individual farms, Compliance-linked benefits could be higher or lower than they would have been under a continuation of the 2008 Act. Under the 2014 Act (blue bars), ERS researchers estimated that less than 10 million acres are on farms that would have experienced a 50-percent or larger decline in Compliance incentives between the two Farm Acts given crop prices similar to 2010 levels. If premium subsidies were not subject to Compliance (green bars), more than 40 million acres of cropland in HEL fields would be on farms where Compliance incentives would decline by 50 percent or more. This chart appears in the July 2017 Amber Waves feature, "Conservation Compliance in the Crop Insurance Era."