It’s increasingly common to hear dealers and other agricultural industry experts simply refer to precision farming as farming. With the ongoing integration of technology into machinery, auto-steer and GPS systems have become almost as standard as in-cab features as air conditioning.

One question that pops up in conversation from time to time is what percentage of farmers utilize precision farming practices on their operation? This is a tough one to answer, given the range of variables that can fall under the “precision” farming umbrella.

But sitting in on a classroom presentation at the recent National No-Tillage Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., Ohio State University ag engineer John Fulton offered some adoption estimates. He suggested that precision farming touches about 70% of all U.S. farm acres.

This includes use of guidance, grid sampling and variable-rate seeding and fertilization practices — tools that range from entry-level precision products to more advanced methods.

But as Fulton notes, today’s technology is only as good as the information it collects and ultimately, how it’s used to make better on-farm decisions. This is clearly a work in progress, and Fulton estimates that only about 15% of U.S. farms utilize “prescriptive farming” practices, which includes working with third-party service providers for data management and analysis.

While this percentage is on the rise, Fulton says continued growth will depend in part on farmers’ commitment to a systematic approach. He charts this through an evolutionary process starting with precision farming, moving to prescriptive farming, then enterprise agriculture (a combination of precision and prescriptive farming to improve asset management) and finally, digital farming.

“This is where the big data piece of the puzzle fits in,” Fulton says. “We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to see increased investment by farmers in this area.”

Driving this evolution will be willingness by farmers to broaden their scope of business partnerships and allow a spectrum of service providers — equipment dealers, co-ops and agronomic consultants — to each play a role in data-driven decision making. Fulton anticipates that in the future, 95% of farmers will outsource data management service needs.

In Ohio, the most progressive farms are working with at least 3 different service providers for specific precision needs, Fulton says. In the future, he suggests that farmers may work with up to 10 different companies to provide a comprehensive farm management strategy.

If this is true, there will likely be increased specialization within the precision farming industry. This will require dealers to establish themselves as the go-to, trusted advisors in the areas they have the most confidence, experience and expertise in, or risk losing out on a lucrative niche.