With input costs increasing, farmers are always looking for ways to be more efficient in the use of inputs. In recent years, increased efficiency has been made possible through the adoption of modern precision technologies that use information gathered during field operations to calibrate the application of seed, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined both the prevalence and effectiveness of precision information technologies, based on survey data collected over the last 10 years. For the purposes of this study, precision information technologies included yield monitors, variable-rate applicators and GPS maps.

The overall conclusion of the study was that the adoption of the precision information technologies has been mixed among U.S. farmers, and that the adoption of the technologies has not been as rapid as previously envisioned.

Recent data from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey found that the use of yield monitors, often a first step in using precision technology for grain producers, has grown most rapidly.

Yield monitors were used on 40 to 45 percent of the corn and soybean acres harvested in 2005 and 2006. However, most farmers are deciding not to complement this yield information with the use of detailed GPS maps or variable-rate input applicators that capitalize on the detailed yield information.

Some of the possible factors behind the adoption lag include farm operator education, technical sophistication and farm management skills.

Survey data indicate that in the Corn Belt, GPS maps and variable-rate technologies were used on 24 and 16 percent respectively of the corn acres in 2005, and 17 and 12 percent of the soybean acres in 2006. Nationally, the adoption rates for variable-rate technologies were only 12 percent for corn and 8 percent for soybeans.

One of the more recent technological advances are the guidance systems that provide farm machinery operators with their exact field position. The adoption of this technology is showing a strong upward trend, with 35 percent of the wheat producers using guidance systems in 2009.

The study also found definite advantages in adopting precision information technologies. For example, corn and soybean yields were significantly higher for yield monitor adopters than for non-adopters, and that this yield differential for corn grew from 2001 to 2005.

Corn and soybean farmers using yield monitors had lower per-acre fuel expenses. However, average per-acre fertilizer expenses were slightly higher for the corn farmers that adopted yield monitors, but were lower for soybean farmers.

Average per-acre fuel expenses were lower for farmers using variable-rate technologies for corn and soybean fertilizer applications, as were soybean fuel expenses for guidance system adopters.

The study found that adopters of GPS mapping and variable-rate fertilizer equipment had higher yields for both corn and soybeans.