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Remote sensing to monitor cover crop adoption in southeastern Pennsylvania

October 31, 2015

In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, winter cereal cover crops are often planted in rotation with summer crops to reduce the loss of nutrients and sediment from agricultural systems. Cover crops can also improve soil health, control weeds and pests, supplement forage needs, and support resilient cropping systems. In southeastern Pennsylvania, cover crops can be successfully established following corn (Zea mays L.) silage harvest and are strongly promoted for use in this niche. They are also planted following corn grain, soybean (Glycine max L.), and vegetable harvest. In Pennsylvania, the use of winter cover crops for agricultural conservation has been supported through a combination of outreach, regulation, and incentives. On-farm implementation is thought to be increasing, but the actual extent of cover crops is not well quantified. Satellite imagery can be used to map green winter cover crop vegetation on agricultural fields and, when integrated with additional remote sensing data products, can be used to evaluate wintertime vegetative groundcover following specific summer crops. This study used Landsat and SPOT (System Probatoire d’ Observation de la Terre) satellite imagery, in combination with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Cropland Data Layer, to evaluate the extent and amount of green wintertime vegetation on agricultural fields in four Pennsylvania counties (Berks, Lebanon, Lancaster, and York) from 2010 to 2013. In December of 2010, a windshield survey was conducted to collect baseline data on winter cover crop implementation, with particular focus on identifying corn harvested for silage (expected earlier harvest date and lower levels of crop residue), versus for grain (expected later harvest date and higher levels of crop residue). Satellite spectral indices were successfully used to detect both the amount of green vegetative groundcover and the amount of crop residue on the surveyed fields. Analysis of wintertime satellite imagery showed consistent increases in vegetative groundcover over the four-year study period and determined that trends did not result from annual weather variability, indicating that farmers are increasing adoption of practices such as cover cropping that promote wintertime vegetation. Between 2010 and 2013, the occurrence of wintertime vegetation on agricultural fields increased from 36% to 67% of corn fields in Berks County, from 53% to 75% in Lancaster County, from 42% to 65% in Lebanon County, and from 26% to 52% in York County. Apparently, efforts to promote cover crop use in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have coincided with a rapid increase in the occurrence of wintertime vegetation following corn harvest in southeastern Pennsylvania. However, despite these increases, between 25% and 48% of corn fields remained without substantial green vegetation over the wintertime, indicating further opportunity for cover crop adoption.

Publication Year 2015
Title Remote sensing to monitor cover crop adoption in southeastern Pennsylvania
DOI 10.2489/jswc.70.6.340
Authors Wells Hively, Sjoerd Duiker, Greg McCarty, Kusuma Prabhakara
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Index ID 70159630
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Geographic Science Center