ERS Charts of Note

Subscribe to get highlights from our current and past research, Monday through Friday, or see our privacy policy.

Get the latest charts via email, or on our mobile app for Download the Charts of Note app on Google Play and Download the Charts of Note app on the App Store


Farmers are reducing excess nutrient use on planted acres for major crops

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nitrogen and other nutrients are essential in the production of crops used for food, feed, fiber, and biofuel. Applied annually, most of these nutrients are absorbed by the crops, but when applied in excess, they can be lost to the environment through volatilization, leaching, or runoff, contributing to air and water quality impairment. For corn, the share of planted acres with excess nitrogen applied (over 125 percent of the crop’s needs) declined from 59 percent in 1996 to 47 percent in 2010. Cotton also exhibited declining shares of planted acres with excess use of nitrogen, while winter wheat exhibited a slight decrease in share since 2004 after increasing earlier in the decade. Yield growth is a major factor improving nutrient use efficiency in corn in recent years. Higher yields result in more nutrients being absorbed by the crop, thus reducing nutrient losses. Yields (and efficiency) have benefited from increased crop rotation (corn planted after soybeans), soil testing for nitrogen, use of genetically engineered seeds to reduce pest damage, seeding rates, and adoption of precision technology (such as yield monitors and soil maps). This chart comes from the Crop & Livestock Practices topic page on the ERS website, updated December 2012.

Agricultural inputs of all types are sold globally

Monday, November 5, 2012

All of the leading firms in food manufacturing and agricultural input industries are multinational, offering product sales spread across several continents. One indicator of the degree of globalization of agricultural input markets is the global distribution of agricultural input sales. In 2006, member countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA--United States, Canada, and Mexico) accounted for about 23 percent of the global seed market and 30-36 percent of global sales of agricultural chemicals, farm machinery, animal feed, and animal health pharmaceuticals (including those for nonfood animals). The Europe-Middle East-Africa market (which is mostly Europe) had the largest aggregate seed sales in 2006, whereas Asia-Pacific countries used the most fertilizers and bought the most farm machinery. Together, Asia-Pacific and Latin America are indicative of the developing-country share of global agricultural input markets. They account for 37-51 percent of global sales of crop seed and chemicals, farm machinery, fertilizers, and animal feed. This chart is found in the ERS report, Research Investments and Market Structure in the Food Processing, Agricultural Input, and Biofuel Industries Worldwide, ERR-130, December 2011.

Organic and conventional operations differ in their characteristics and practices

Friday, November 2, 2012

The organic label is the most prominent food eco-label in the United States. In 2000, USDA published national organic standards that reflected decades of private-sector development. USDA regulations define organic farming as an ecological production system that fosters resource cycling, promotes ecological balance, and conserves biodiversity. In 2005, USDA began to include targeted oversamples of organic producers in its Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), which collects detailed information about farmers' production practices, as well as costs and returns in major farm sectors. Some of the differences in practices and characteristics of organic and conventional production systems are apparent from survey responses by soybean, wheat, apple, and corn producers. In general, organic acres are more likely to be owned by the operator, enrolled in a conservation program, have planting and harvest dates adjusted to control for pests, and use compost and manure. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.

In regions with less cropland, lagoon use increases among hog operations

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Geographical shifts in hog production have accompanied structural and organizational changes in the industry. Historically, hog production was concentrated in the Heartland, particularly in Iowa and Illinois, where an abundant corn supply provided a cheap source of hog feed and sufficient acreage on which to spread hog manure. During the 1980s and 1990s, hog production grew dramatically in the Southeast, especially in North Carolina, driven mainly by the growth of large contract operations. Growth in the Southeast has posed the challenge of managing an increasing volume of hog manure in areas with a denser population and much less crop acreage for manure application than in the Heartland. In 2009, hog operations had about a quarter-acre of cropland per animal unit in the Southern regions compared with about 1 acre per animal unit in other regions. Most hog producers in the Southeast treat and store manure in lagoon systems and apply manure to farm acreage with an irrigation system, which allows producers to apply hog manure on less acreage than other manure management systems. This chart is found in Trends and Developments in Hog Manure Management: 1998-2009, EIB-81, September 2011.

China's livestock industry is using more commercially manufactured feed

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

China imports distillers dried grain with solubles, a co-product from corn-based ethanol production, for use by commercial feed compounders who combine various ingredients to meet the nutritional needs of livestock at minimum cost. Traditionally, Chinese animals and poultry were fed household and processing wastes, crop byproducts, vines, tubers and forages, but the use of feed grains, oilseed meals, and feed additives has increased rapidly since the 1980s. China's commercial feed production rose from under 36 million metric tons in 1991 to 169 million metric tons in 2011. China's 5-year plan anticipates that commercial feed production will grow to 200 million metric tons in 2015. The projected annual increase of 4.7 percent is much faster than the projected growth in livestock and poultry output. This rapid growth reflects a shift from traditional feed sources to commercial feed in China's livestock industry. This chart is found in China's Market for Distillers Dried Grains and the Key Influences on Its Longer Run Potential, FDS-12g-01, August 2012.

The share of planted acres with excess nutrient use is declining for most crops

Friday, October 12, 2012

Nitrogen, phosphate, and potash are essential in the production of crops used for food, feed, fiber, and biofuel. Applied annually, most of these nutrients are absorbed by the crops, but when applied in excess, they can be lost to the environment through volatilization into the air, leaching into ground water, emission from soil to air, or runoff into surface water. These losses can be reduced by the adoption of best management practices that match nutrient supply for crop needs, minimize nutrient losses, and enhance plants' capability to uptake nutrients. For corn, the share of planted acres with excess nitrogen applied (above 25 percent of the crop's needs) declined from 59 percent in 1996 to 47 percent in 2010, while the share of acres with excess phosphate declined from 43 percent in 1996 to 31 percent in 2010. Other crops also exhibit either declining or unchanged shares of planted acres with excess use of nitrogen or phosphate. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.

Irrigated acres vary across regions and over time

Thursday, September 13, 2012

From 1982 to 1997, irrigated acres increased for most farm regions. Since 1997, however, most regions have seen either slow growth or a decline in irrigated acres. The largest growth in irrigated acres since 1997 is concentrated in the Northern Plains, Delta, and Corn Belt regions. Growth rates in the Northern Plains (primarily Nebraska) pushed irrigated acreage (at 11.9 million acres in 2007) above acreage irrigated in the Pacific region (at 11.6 million acres). Similarly, since 1997, irrigated acres in the Delta region surpassed acres irrigated in the Southern Plains. Over the same period, irrigated acres contracted in the relatively arid Mountain, Pacific, and Southern Plains regions. This chart comes from Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demand, EIB-99, September 2012.

Conservation structures are more common on highly erodible land

Friday, September 7, 2012

Conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program help farmers implement best management practices, including the installation of soil conservation structures and vegetative measures. Structures and vegetation such as terraces, grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, filter strips, and riparian buffers can reduce soil erosion and sedimentation and chemical runoff in local waterways, especially on highly erodible land (HEL). According to data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, erosion control structures and conservation buffers were more prevalent on HEL than on non-HEL, but adoption rates varied across commodities and conservation structure types. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.

Farm production expenses in 2012 post another increase

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Total production expenses are currently forecast to rise $18.6 billion (6.0 percent) in 2012, following an 8.9-percent increase in 2011 and continuing a string of large year-to-year movements that have taken place since 2002. Farm-origin expenses and manufactured inputs have increased 116 percent since 2002, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the change in total production expenses during the period. The widespread drought is expected to affect production expenses principally through its impact on livestock feed. Most crops were already planted before the severity of the drought was established so only harvest-related expenses will be affected. Among livestock-related expenses, the price of feed is increasing--following a 20-percent jump in 2011 feed expenses are expected to rise another 13 percent in 2012. This chart is from the Farm Sector Income & Finances topic page on the ERS website.

Nutrient consumption has been volatile since 2004

Friday, August 24, 2012

Commercial fertilizer consumption increased rapidly before 1982 as more acreage was devoted to high-yield crop varieties and hybrids that responded favorably to more intensive fertilizer use. As global demand for grains grew, nutrient consumption peaked at 24 million tons in 1981. When grain demand dropped in 1983, government payment-in-kind programs idled record acres and reduced nutrient consumption to 18 million tons. Nutrient use then moved steadily upward, largely due to an increase in corn plantings. (Corn, on average, uses the most fertilizer of all crops.) Beginning in 2004, fertilizer consumption was volatile due to highly variable corn plantings and volatile fertilizer prices in the biofuels era. Record fertilizer prices in 2009 reduced consumption to 18 million tons, a 24-percent decline from 2004. As fertilizer prices declined in 2010, consumption rebounded to 21 million tons. This chart can be found in the ERS report, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 2012 Edition, EIB-98, August 2012.

U.S. supply of nitrogen-based fertilizer coming more from abroad

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fertilizer is an important component of production costs for crops, especially corn. Nitrogen fertilizer production is energy-intensive as natural gas makes up 70 to 80 percent of production costs. U.S. nitrogen fertilizer supplies, while historically domestic, have been increasingly imported over the past decade. Shares of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer are now nearly equal between domestic and foreign suppliers. This chart may be found in the ERS report, Impacts of Higher Energy Prices on Agriculture and Rural Economies, ERR-123, published in August 2011.

More farms find methane digesters profitable at higher carbon prices

Monday, March 21, 2011

Methane digester systems capture methane from lagoon or pit manure storage facilities and use it as a fuel to generate electricity or heat. In addition to providing a renewable source of energy, digesters can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide other environmental benefits. Methane digesters have not been widely adopted in the United States mainly because the costs of constructing and maintaining these systems have exceeded the value of the benefits provided to the operator. But policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could make such biogas recovery facilities profitable for many livestock producers. Without a carbon market (when the price is zero), no hog and few dairy operations find it profitable to adopt a digester. As the carbon price increases, more operations adopt digesters, lowering emissions. At a carbon price of $13, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 9.8 and 12.4 million tons (carbon dioxide equivalent) for the dairy and hog sectors, respectively. This amounts to reductions of 61-62 percent of manure-generated methane in these sectors. A doubling of the carbon price to $26 could cause manure-based methane emissions from dairy and hogs together to be reduced by 78 percent. This chart was originally published in Carbon Prices and the Adoption of Methane Digesters on Dairy and Hog Farms, EB-16, February 2011.