Farmers gradually have been increasing their use of precision-ag technologies, such as yield monitors, GPS autosteering and variable rate technologies, says a USDA ag economist.

Robert Ebel uses surveys to study the adoption rates of precision agriculture among farmers.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service collects this data through its Agricultural Resource Management Survey, which studies farm-financial and crop-production practices.

While farmers have started using some of the technologies more quickly than others, the overall use of precision-ag tools is increasing.

“In our data over the past 15 years or so, we’ve seen consistent increases in adoption (of precision agriculture technology),” Ebel says.

“That’s just what the numbers say. It is increasing.”

Ebel says precision agriculture can have a lot of benefits, leading to the increasing interest and use by farmers.

“There is a lot of evidence of many different benefits. Perceived benefits include reductions in input use and costs, and it can also have environmental benefits and effects.”

Ebel says the more basic precision-ag tools have seen higher adoption rates so far.

“The highest adoption rate across crops is yield monitors, closely followed by guidance systems,” he says.

The USDA survey data indicates some type of precision agriculture was used on 72.467 percent of corn acres surveyed in 2010.

Missouri generally has lower precision-ag adoption rates with 57.479 percent of corn acres surveyed using some type of precision agriculture.

In Iowa, 81.721 percent of corn acres surveyed used some precision-ag technology.

Nationally, 61.41 percent of corn acres surveyed used yield monitors, 45.17 percent used auto-guidance systems, and 22.45 percent used some type of variable-rate technology.

Missouri farmers surveyed used each technology a little less with 48.12 percent using yield monitors, 34.15 percent using auto-guidance systems and 1.36 percent using any variable-rate technology.

Iowa farmers surveyed used yield monitors at a higher rate than the national average but were below the average for auto-guidance systems and variable-rate technology.

Among the Iowans surveyed, 73.36 percent used yield monitors, 37.23 percent used auto-guidance systems, and 19.70 percent used any variable-rate technology.

Ebel’s data shows farmers have been slower to adopt variable-rate technologies, despite their potential for improved production efficiency.

The research suggests the low adoption rates may be due to uncertainty about the economic returns from the large initial investments in equipment, the complexity of this technology and the need to use multiple precision technologies together to obtain cost savings.

The most recent soybean data is from 2006, but it shows a similar breakdown in how widely each precision-ag technology is used.

Even with the increased use of precision agriculture over the Past 15 years, Ebel says there is still a lot of potential for these technologies to have much bigger effects and benefits for farmers.

“It does seem like there’s potential for big changes there,” he says.