Farming: There's an App for That

More farmers are going high tech, maximizing yields of crops by tapping GPS, data analytics, and apps—tools known as precision agriculture.

As agriculture becomes more high tech, a growing number of farmers are using GPS-equipped machinery supported by platforms that collect data on plants, soil, and weather. Termed “precision agriculture,” these technologies help them identify and manage variability within fields. Armed with data, farmers can fine-tune their operations, potentially increasing yields and profits. —Kelsey Nowakowski

Precision agriculture

New technologies allow farmers to harness data in order to increase their land’s productivity. Most begin the cycle by collecting information about their crop yields.

DATA

HARVEST YIELDS

GPS-equipped combines, used for harvesting crops, are outfitted with yield monitors that collect geo-referenced data, revealing variations within each field.

GROUND TRUTH

Farmers take soil samples from different parts of each field, then create maps by analyzing soil structure and chemical properties like nitrogen levels.

WEATHER WATCH

Hyper-local monitoring allows for both short and long-term forecasts and extreme-weather alerts. Farmers get real-time information via mobile apps.

HOW IT’S USED

ANALYSIS

Computers analyze the data, helping farmers make precise and predictive decisions for maximum productivity.

PRESCRIPTIVE MAPS

Maps created from the data tell farmers when and how much seed, water, fertilizer, and pesticide to use in each field area as well as when to harvest.

DATA MANAGEMENT

Farmers manage data on user-friendly platforms run by agricultural companies that use the information to tailor and improve their products and services.

TAKING ACTION

GUIDANCE SYSTEMS

With the help of GPS, farmers steer machinery more accurately —preventing an overlap of crop rows, for example—and easily, reducing fatigue.

VARY APPLICATIONS

Farmers use variable-rate technology to optimize inputs on each part of the field, placing the right amount of fertilizer and pesticide where and when it’s needed.

MONITORING

Field monitors and other sensing technology are used to remotely track field conditions such as soil moisture. Drones have not yet been widely utilized.

Buying In

With more ability to scale, large farms have higher rates of adoption for the most popular precision agriculture technologies, including soil and yield mapping and guidance systems.

SIZE MATTERS

2010 data

SMALL

FARMS

LARGE

FARMS

% of cropland

Soil and

yield

mapping

Guidance

systems

Variable-

rate tech

0-600

acres

Over

3,800

1,701-

2,200

APPLICATION

Mapping is most practical, applying to both seeding density and fertilizer use. Variable -rate technology (VRT) allows farmers to customize, planting different types of seeds at multiple locations with a single pass of the tractor. But VRT comes at a high cost, requiring specialized machinery for each crop.

EASE

OF USE

Guidance

systems

High

Soil and

yield maps

Variable-

rate tech

Low

Low

High

FUNCTIONALITY

By the Numbers

Farmers take a number of variables into account when deciding to implement precision agriculture technologies, including farm size, yields, and market prices.

WEIGHING THE PAYOFF

FARM SIZE

Returns are estimated in dollars per acre, so larger farms stand to gain more from the technology and can allocate a larger budget to precision agriculture.

YIELDS

With yields over 180 bushels per acre, 30 to and 50 percent of farms adopt the technology. With yields under 140 bushels per acre, the adoption rate is less than 17 percent.

PRICES

Farmers tend not to invest when commodity prices are down, usually due an oversupply of a crop. Since other costs remain fixed, lower revenue may not cover the investment.

$

AVERAGE GAINS WITH

PRECISION TOOLS

The average profit for U.S. corn farms is $345 per acre. After overhead expenses, the net return is $85 per acre. Precision agriculture technologies can add marginal gains.

$88.74

$1.53

$85

MAPPING

Yield and soil

$1.27

GUIDANCE

SYSTEMS

$0.93

VARIABLE-

RATE TECH

RECOVERING THE INVESTMENT

Small farm

(800

acres)

Average

(1,600

acres)

Large

(2,400

acres)

GROSS

ANNUAL

BENEFIT

$26,000

$39,000

$11,000

0

YEARS FOR

TECHNOLOGY

TO PAY FOR

ITSELF

2

4

Over hundreds of acres, precision technologies boost farm profit, and costs are recouped within a few years.

6

Case Study

Some of the country's 250,000 small corn farms are turning to precision techniques. Expert David Schimmelpfennig of the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated how a typical operation might introduce and benefit from enhanced production.

Small, family-owned corn farms are predominant in these states.

Ohio

Kentucky

Average size

FIELDS

ACRES

THE BOTTOM LINE

Precision agriculture technologies require investing, but the benefits outweigh the cost.

COSTS

Figures for a seasonal corn crop

$1,100

$300

MACHINERY

AND EQUIPMENT

HIRED LABOR

Skilled workers are needed to apply technologies.

It’s not just applications or software; investments in machinery are required.

SAVINGS

$2,000

FAMILY LABOR

(Estimated value)

BALANCE

$600

$121

GUIDANCE

$400

VRT

$79

MAPPING

Savings are highest from variable-rate technologies (VRT), since they optimize all inputs such as seeds, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Guidance systems and precision mapping can assist VRT, but are also helpful for crop production by themselves.

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO. SOURCE: DAVID SCHIMMELPFENNIG, ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

As agriculture becomes more high tech, a growing number of farmers are using GPS-equipped machinery supported by platforms that collect data on plants, soil, and weather. Termed “precision agriculture,” these technologies help them identify and manage variability within fields. Armed with data, farmers can fine-tune their operations, potentially increasing yields and profits. —Kelsey Nowakowski

Precision agriculture

New technologies allow farmers to harness data in order to increase their land’s productivity. Most begin the cycle by collecting information about their crop yields.

DATA

HARVEST YIELDS

GPS-equipped combines, used for harvesting crops, are outfitted with yield monitors that collect geo-referenced data, revealing variations within each field.

GROUND TRUTH

Farmers take soil samples from different parts of each field, then create maps by analyzing soil structure and chemical properties like nitrogen levels.

WEATHER WATCH

Hyper-local monitoring allows for both short and long-term forecasts and extreme-weather alerts. Farmers get real-time information via mobile apps.

HOW IT’S USED

PRESCRIPTIVE MAPS

Maps created from the data tell farmers when and how much seed, water, fertilizer, and pesticide to use in each field area as well as when to harvest.

DATA MANAGEMENT

Farmers manage data on user-friendly platforms run by agricultural companies that use the information to tailor and improve their products and services.

ANALYSIS

Computers analyze the data, helping farmers make precise and predictive decisions for maximum productivity.

TAKING ACTION

GUIDANCE SYSTEMS

With the help of GPS, farmers steer machinery more accurately —preventing an overlap of crop rows, for example—and easily, reducing fatigue.

VARY APPLICATIONS

Farmers use variable-rate technology to optimize inputs on each part of the field, placing the right amount of fertilizer and pesticide where and when it’s needed.

MONITORING

Field monitors and other sensing technology are used to remotely track field conditions such as soil moisture. Drones have not yet been widely utilized.

Buying In

With more ability to scale, large farms have higher rates of adoption for the most popular precision agriculture technologies, including soil and yield mapping and guidance systems.

SIZE MATTERS

2010 data

SMALL

FARMS

LARGE

FARMS

Percentage of cropland

Soil and

yield

mapping

Guidance

systems

Variable-

rate tech

0-600

acres

601-

1,000

1,001-

1,300

1,601-

1,700

1,701-

2,200

2,201-

2,900

2,901-

3,800

Over

3,800

APPLICATION

EASE

OF USE

Mapping is most practical, applying to both seeding density and fertilizer use. Variable-rate technology (VRT) allows farmers to customize, planting different types of seeds at multiple locations with a single pass of the tractor. But VRT comes at a high cost, requiring specialized machinery for each crop.

Guidance

systems

High

Soil and

yield maps

Variable-

rate tech

Low

Low

High

FUNCTIONALITY

By the Numbers

Farmers take a number of variables into account when deciding to implement precision agriculture technologies, including farm size, yields, and market prices.

WEIGHING THE PAYOFF

$

FARM SIZE

Returns are estimated in dollars per acre, so larger farms stand to gain more from the technology and can allocate a larger budget to precision agriculture.

YIELDS

With yields over 180 bushels per acre, 30 to and 50 percent of farms adopt the technology. With yields under 140 bushels per acre, the adoption rate is less than 17 percent.

PRICES

Farmers tend not to invest when commodity prices are down, usually due an oversupply of a crop. Since other costs remain fixed, lower revenue may not cover the investment.

AVERAGE GAINS WITH PRECISION TOOLS

The average profit for U.S. corn farms is $345 per acre. After overhead expenses, the net return is $85 per acre. Precision agriculture technologies can add marginal gains.

MAPPING

Yield and soil

GUIDANCE

SYSTEMS

VARIABLE-

RATE TECH

$1.53

$1.27

$0.93

$85

$88.74

RECOVERING THE INVESTMENT

GROSS ANNUAL BENEFIT

YEARS FOR TECHNOLOGY TO PAY FOR ITSELF

0

2

4

6

Small farm

(800 acres)

Average

(1,600

acres)

Over hundreds of acres, precision technologies boost farm profit, and costs are recouped within a few years.

Large

(2,400

acres)

Case Study

Some of the country's 250,000 small corn farms are turning to precision techniques. Expert David Schimmelpfennig of the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated how a typical operation might introduce and benefit from enhanced production.

Average size

Small, family-owned corn farms are predominant in these states.

Ohio

ACRES

Kentucky

FIELDS

THE BOTTOM LINE

Precision agriculture technologies require investing, but the benefits outweigh the cost.

COSTS

SAVINGS

BALANCE

$79 MAPPING

$2,000

$600

FAMILY

LABOR

$121 GUIDANCE

(Estimated value)

$400 VRT

$300

HIRED LABOR

Skilled workers are needed to apply technologies.

Savings are highest from variable-rate technologies (VRT), since they optimize all inputs such as seeds, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Guidance systems and precision mapping can assist VRT, but are also helpful for crop production by themselves.

MACHINERY

AND EQUIPMENT

$1,100

It’s not just applications or software; investments in machinery are required.

Figures for a seasonal

corn crop

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO. SOURCE: DAVID SCHIMMELPFENNIG, ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE,

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

As agriculture becomes more high tech, a growing number of farmers are using GPS-equipped machinery supported by platforms that collect data on plants, soil, and weather. Termed “precision agriculture,” these technologies help them identify and manage variability within fields. Armed with data, farmers can fine-tune their operations, potentially increasing yields and profits. —Kelsey Nowakowski

Precision agriculture

New technologies allow farmers to harness data in order to increase their land’s productivity. Most begin the cycle by collecting information about their crop yields.

DATA

HARVEST YIELDS

GPS-equipped combines, used for harvesting crops, are outfitted with yield monitors that collect geo-referenced data, revealing variations within each field.

GROUND TRUTH

Farmers take soil samples from different parts of each field, then create maps by analyzing soil structure and chemical properties like nitrogen levels.

WEATHER WATCH

Hyper-local monitoring allows for both short and long-term forecasts and extreme-weather alerts. Farmers get real-time information via mobile apps.

HOW IT’S USED

PRESCRIPTIVE MAPS

Maps created from the data tell farmers when and how much seed, water, fertilizer, and pesticide to use in each field area as well as when to harvest.

DATA MANAGEMENT

Farmers manage data on user-friendly platforms run by agricultural companies that use the information to tailor and improve their products and services.

ANALYSIS

Computers analyze the data, helping farmers make precise and predictive decisions for maximum productivity.

TAKING ACTION

GUIDANCE SYSTEMS

With the help of GPS, farmers steer machinery more accurately—preventing an overlap of crop rows, for example—and easily, reducing fatigue.

VARY APPLICATIONS

Farmers use variable-rate technology to optimize inputs on each part of the field, placing the right amount of fertilizer and pesticide where and when it’s needed.

MONITORING

Field monitors and other sensing technology are used to remotely track field conditions such as soil moisture. Drones have not yet been widely utilized.

Buying In

With more ability to scale, large farms have higher rates of adoption for the most popular precision agriculture technologies, including soil and yield mapping and guidance systems.

SIZE MATTERS

APPLICATION

2010 data

Mapping is most practical, applying to both seeding density and fertilizer use. Variable-rate technology (VRT) allows farmers to customize, planting different types of seeds at multiple locations with a single pass of the tractor. But VRT comes at a high cost, requiring specialized machinery for each crop.

SMALL

FARMS

LARGE

FARMS

Percentage of cropland

Soil and

yield

mapping

Guidance

systems

EASE

OF USE

Guidance

systems

High

Variable-

rate tech

Soil and

yield maps

Variable-

rate tech

Low

Low

High

0-600

acres

601-

1,000

1,001-

1,300

1,601-

1,700

1,701-

2,200

2,201-

2,900

2,901-

3,800

Over

3,800

FUNCTIONALITY

By the Numbers

Farmers take a number of variables into account when deciding to implement precision agriculture technologies, including farm size, yields, and market prices.

WEIGHING THE PAYOFF

$

FARM SIZE

Returns are estimated in dollars per acre, so larger farms stand to gain more from the technology and can allocate a larger budget to precision agriculture.

YIELDS

With yields over 180 bushels per acre, 30 to and 50 percent of farms adopt the technology. With yields under 140 bushels per acre, the adoption rate is less than 17 percent.

PRICES

Farmers tend not to invest

when commodity prices are

down, usually due an oversupply of a crop. Since other costs remain fixed, lower revenue may not cover the investment.

AVERAGE GAINS WITH PRECISION TOOLS

MAPPING

Yield and soil

GUIDANCE

SYSTEMS

VARIABLE-

RATE TECH

The average profit for U.S. corn farms is $345 per acre. After overhead expenses, the net return is $85 per acre. Precision agriculture technologies can add marginal gains.

$1.53

$1.27

$0.93

$85

$88.74

RECOVERING THE INVESTMENT

GROSS ANNUAL BENEFIT

YEARS FOR TECHNOLOGY TO PAY FOR ITSELF

0

2

4

6

Small farm

(800 acres)

Average

(1,600 acres)

Over hundreds of acres, precision technologies boost farm profit, and costs are recouped within a few years.

Large

(2,400

acres)

Case Study

Some of the country's 250,000 small corn farms are turning to precision techniques. Expert David Schimmelpfennig of the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated how a typical operation might introduce and benefit from enhanced production.

Small, family-owned corn farms are predominant in these states.

Ohio

Average size

ACRES

FIELDS

Kentucky

THE BOTTOM LINE

Precision agriculture technologies require investing, but the benefits outweigh the cost.

COSTS

SAVINGS

BALANCE

$79 MAPPING

FAMILY

LABOR

$2,000

$600

$121 GUIDANCE

(Estimated value)

$400 VRT

HIRED LABOR

$300

Skilled workers are needed to apply technologies.

Savings are highest from variable-rate technologies (VRT), since they optimize all inputs such as seeds, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Guidance systems and precision mapping can assist VRT, but are also helpful for crop production by themselves.

MACHINERY

AND EQUIPMENT

$1,100

It’s not just applications or software; investments in machinery are required.

Figures for a seasonal

corn crop

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO. SOURCE: DAVID SCHIMMELPFENNIG, ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE,

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

What Happens When Farming Goes High-Tech?

Soil maps, GPS guidance, and even drones are becoming critical tools for modern farmers. These methods of precision agriculture can help increase yields and efficiency—and save farmers a surprising sum along the way.