Using Remote Sensing Data to Monitor the Adoption of Sustainable Practices

“ Cover crops and conservation tillage practices are vital practices to build healthy soil on U.S. farmlands, which in turn delivers a host of environmental and economic benefits to farmers, communities and nature.”

Pipa Elias
Soil Health Strategy Lead

July 16, 2019 - [Originally published by TNC] Today marks the first release of regional-scale data from the Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS), a new tool that has the potential to unlock conservation solutions for a variety of food and agricultural supply chain stakeholders. These data document the level of adoption of soil health practices for Illinois, Indiana  and Iowa from 2005 to 2018. By the end of July, the same data will be available for the entire Corn Belt—an area extending from eastern Ohio to eastern Kansas and Nebraska, and from the Missouri Bootheel to the Red River Valley of North Dakota.

OpTIS, developed by Dagan (now part of Regrow), analyzes remotely sensed images of the landscape, automatically identifying and quantifying the proportion of cropland that is managed with various types of conservation tillage practices and winter cover crops each year. The partnership with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have spearheaded the development, testing and application of OpTIS.

An aerial-applied rye grass cover crop grows between harvested corn rows in southwest Iowa. © Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS Iowa
"In the past, we have relied on data from cost share programs to measure conservation practice adoption, but we know most farmers implement conservation practices on their own,” said Ben Gleason, sustainable program manager, Iowa Corn Growers Association. “Utilizing remote sensing technology that is ground-truthed allows us to see the entire picture of conservation practice adoption, and the results show that we are making progress."

Data Results

Using publicly-available, remote sensing data from Landsat and Sentinel 2 satellites to monitor the adoption rate of no-till, conservation tillage, and cover crops, the current round of OpTIS analysis for Illinois, Indiana and Iowa represents about 1 billion acre-years of agricultural conservation practices. The data show:

  • Adoption of winter cover crops—non-cash crops growing over the winter—is increasing. Across the three states, cover crops planted after corn and soy increased by nearly 2 million acres between 2006 and 2018. Specifically, cover crop use went from 0.9 percent (528,559 acres) to 4.1 percent (2.4 million acres) of usage in the three states.

    The increased usage of cover crops was limited during the first half of this monitoring period (through 2012), but the level of adoption accelerated in recent years across all three states.

  • Conservation tillage practices—those that leave at least 30 percent of residue on the surface before planting—have remained relatively steady for corn and soybeans, averaging 45 percent (25.7 million acres) across the three states in 2018 and 47 percent (26.6 million acres) in 2006.

A selection of multiple cover crop species help to improve soil health andoverall production capacity.
© Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS
"Cover crops and conservation tillage practices are vital practices to build healthy soil on U.S. farmlands, which in turn delivers a host of environmental and economic benefits to farmers, communities and nature,” said Pipa Elias, soil health strategy lead for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). “The OpTIS data show we’re moving in the right direction, but we want to work with farmers to increase adoption and help them learn from the growers who have been experiencing the benefits from cover crops and conservation tillage for years."

By adopting soil health practices, farmers can improve productivity of their fields, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and increase soil carbon storage. In fact, agricultural soils are among the planet's largest reservoirs of carbon. Improving soil management practices on U.S. croplands has the potential to mitigate 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.

"OpTIS is break-through technology that provides the agriculture and conservation communities with a means to measure the adoption of conservation practices in a large-scale, systematic and cost-effective way,” said Mike Komp, CTIC’s executive director. “These data—which provide perspective over large areas and many years—will enable a more targeted focus of resources and tools to help farmers secure their future while benefiting communities and nature."
Remote sensing technology, combined with computer analytics, has proven to be a cost-effective, accurate method to gain valuable insight into the adoption of conservation practices across America’s croplands, including those practices related to improved water quality and soil health. © CTIC

Easily Accessible Data Can Help Advance Soil Health

The data can be used to track trends in the adoption of conservation tillage and cover crops over time, providing essential insights for a wide-range of applications, including:

  • Tracking progress in meeting goals to reduce soil loss or nutrient flow into waterways;
  • Targeting resources like technical services or incentive programs;
  • Comparing the success of various conservation programs across large areas;
  • Validating and tracking progress on ecosystem services for market-based solutions; and
  • Substantiating sustainability programs throughout the farm and food supply chain.

Online queries of OpTIS data—available freely at—can be customized by timeframe, units, crops and geographic area. While OpTIS calculations are performed and validated at the farm-field scale using publicly available remotely sensed data, the privacy of all individuals is fully protected by reporting only spatially-aggregated results at larger geographic scales (Crop Reporting Districts and HUC8 watersheds).

More so, OpTIS users can be confident that they are receiving the best available analysis. During a pilot program in Indiana, Dagan (now part of Regrow), CTIC and TNC used 10 years' worth of tillage transect data to ground-truth the OpTIS methodology. That validation process ensured that the system accurately recognizes the visual signature of various percentages of ground cover across a variety of landscapes, crops and soil types.  Additionally, in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, 736 sites analyzed by OpTIS were validated through on-site visits by trained contractors.

"We have been developing this technology for several years with support from NASA and the USDA, with the goal of providing accurate information to those working to support healthy soils,” said Steve Hagen, head of the OpTIS team at Regrow. “It has been a delight to work with TNC and CTIC to apply this technology across the Corn Belt to extract critical information on changes in conservation practice adoption rates and outcomes. We are excited to get the information out to the public and into the hands of those who can make good use of it."

OpTIS data are being input into the DeNitrification-Decomposition (DNDC) computer simulation model to determine the environmental impacts of cover crops and reduced tillage practices. The DNDC model will help to correlate the OpTIS data with factors such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon, and water-holding capacity. This additional dataset is slated for release in August.

Funding for the OpTIS data release covering the Corn Belt includes grants from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation, J.R. Simplot Company, The Mosaic Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation and TNC.

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