4R Framework Implementation: Precision Ag Adoption by Farmers and Dealers

| September 12, 2017

4R Consistent, 4R Practices, Blog, Implement the 4Rs


Implementing the 4R framework in the field often results in the question “What specific 4R practices I should do?” Precision ag practices like GPS mapping, grid or zone soil sampling, yield monitors, variable rate nutrient applications, and split nutrient applications, are all recognized as 4R practices (Snyder, 2016 and Bruulsema, 2017). Selecting the right suite of 4R practices for site specific characteristics can result in increased crop uptake of nutrients for greater productivity and return on investment and decreased loss of nutrients to air and water.

Understanding trends in practice adoption by farmers and agricultural dealers helps CCAs know where there are opportunities to increase implementation and what information is key when interacting with producers. Recently, surveys were conducted to evaluate the adoption rate and the economics linked to precision ag practice adoption. Two surveys focused on famer adoption and two on agricultural dealers.

Farmer Adoption

In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) published a report using data from the USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey of field crop producers evaluating adoption trends and farm profitability for specific precision ag technologies (Schminelpfennig, 2016). The report focused on the use of GPS mapping systems (including yield monitors and soil or yield mapping), guidance or auto-steer systems, and variable rate technology (VRT). Yield monitors had the highest rate of adoption on corn and soybean farms, though the creation of yield maps was only half of that value (Table 1). Pointing to a gap in the use of data collection and analysis tools on the farm. Use of GPS soil maps and VRT had the lowest reported rate of adoption per farm (Table 1). This level of implementation by individual farms represents 70 percent of corn acres and 69 percent of soybean acres with yield monitor recording versus only 28 percent of corn and 34 percent of soybean acres implementing VRT (Schminelpfennig, 2016).

Table 1. Rate of adoption of precision ag technologies on Corn (2010) and Soybean (2012) for all reporting farms (Schminelpfennig, 2016).

Farm Type Yield Monitor Yield Map GPS Soil Maps VRT
Corn 48% 25% 19% 19%
Soybean 51% 21% 16% 26%


When results were assessed based on acres farmed, implementation level increased with farm size. On corn farms over 3,800 acres, GPS mapping systems had an 84 percent adoption rate, followed by guidance systems (80 percent), and VRT (40 percent) (Schminelpfennig, 2016). However, the rate of adoption of each practice as farm size increased was different. The use of GPS mapping increased the most between the farm sizes of under 600 acres to between 600 and 1,000 acres, 22 percent (Schminelpfennig, 2016). Guidance system adoption increased the most between the acreage range of 1,300 to 1,700 acres and 1,700 to 2,200 acres, 20 percent (Schminelpfennig, 2016). While the use of VRT did not see the largest increase in adoption until the highest acreage ranges, 2,900 to 3,800 acres to over 3,800-acre farms, when it increased to 40 percent (Schminelpfennig, 2016). These adoption trends reflect the impact of expense and availability of precision ag technologies to smaller farms. For example, the adoption VRT for nutrient application requires the purchase of specialized equipment by the producer or an extra charge from an applicator and the time to compile and interpret the data collected.

The USDA survey information was also used to calculate precision ag technology impacts on the farms’ total net return. Overall, implementing a precision technology increased net returns on U.S. corn farms participating in the 2010 USDA survey (Schminelpfennig, 2016). The highest increase was for GPS mapping (1.8 percent), followed by guidance systems (1.5 percent), then VRT (1.1 percent). Additionally, the 4R practice of using soil testing to determine nutrient deficiencies had a positive effect on adoption across the three precision ag technologies (Schminelpfennig, 2016). Adopting 4R practices can be profitable for a farm. Encouraging farms to use simple practices like soil testing at a field level, can increase the likelihood of that farm continuing to adopt advanced practices.

Similar levels of practice adoption were reported in a Kansas Farm Management Association member survey, with only 26 percent adopting VRT, and 40 percent adopting GPS yield monitors (Griffin et al., 2016). The survey also assesses use of grid soil sampling and found 42 percent of farms had adopted the practice. Less than 4 percent of the farms reported abandoning these precision ag technologies after adopting them (Griffin et al., 2016). By collecting data from the same farms in multiple years, this survey could also evaluate the probability of additional practice adoption based on those previously adopted by the farm. Farms that reported using VRT had a 92 percent likelihood of adopting precision soil sampling (Griffin et al., 2016). Precision soil sampling is a major component of a VRT program. And, farms reporting use of variable rate seeding and GPS yield monitors had a 75 and 69 percent likelihood of also adopting precision soil sampling (Griffin et al., 2016). Indicating again that as a farm increases management precision in one area they are more likely to continue to improve precision in others.

Written By:

Melinda Sposari, Senior Manager Economic Services, The Fertilizer Institute, Washington, DC Sally Flis, Ph.D. and CCA Director of Agronomy, The Fertilizer Institute, Washington, DC

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