A field planted with rye cover crops.
Cereal rye cover crops on Darrell Steele farm in Washington County, IA. © Lynn Betts, NRCS/SWCS

Food & Water Stories

OpTIS: New Data Drives Conservation Solutions

The global population is estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, placing unprecedented pressure on U.S. farmers to grow even more of the crops that clothe, fuel and feed the world. One way to help alleviate this pressure is to significantly improve soil health on cropland.

OpTIS Data

Access the OpTIS visualization tool & start using the data today.

Visit ctic.org/OpTIS

By adopting practices like planting winter cover crops and reducing—or eliminating—tillage practices, farmers can significantly improve productivity of their fields, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and increase carbon storage. In fact, agricultural soils are among the planet's largest reservoirs (or sinks) of carbon. Improving soil on U.S. croplands has the potential to mitigate 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year.

Now, a new data-driven tool is freely available that has the potential to unlock soil health solutions for the agriculture industry and conservation benefits for people and nature. The Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS) can help increase and accelerate the rate of adoption of soil health practices across U.S. farmlands.

OpTIS (1:40) The Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS) uses satellite imagery to track annual trends in tillage and cover crop adoption, yielding data that can assist scientists, policy makers and carbon trading managers.

Technology is Key

Regrow Agriculture developed OpTIS, a tool that uses publicly available data from several earth-observing satellites to annually map and monitor cover crop development and detect plant residue left on cropland to determine the tillage activities. Regrow, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have spearheaded the development, testing and application of OpTIS.

The OpTIS project has received generous funding and support from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA, Bayer Crop Science, CF Industries, Corteva Agriscience, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation, John Deere, The Joyce Foundation, J.R. Simplot Company, The Mosaic Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and TNC.

Available data document the level of adoption of soil health practices for the 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—from 2005 to 2018. The data show that soil health practices across the region are steadily moving in the right direction. (Learn more about the data results)

It is important to note that OpTIS calculations are made using publicly available data and reported at watershed scales to ensure the privacy of individual growers is fully protected. 

Two maps showing amounts of cover crops and conservation tillage across the Corn Belt.
OpTIS Map OpTIS analysis revealed an increase of nearly 2 million acres of winter cover crops were planted after soybeans and corn across the Corn Belt between 2006 and 2018. During that time, conservation tillage across the region remained steady in corn and soybeans, averaging 44.4 percent in 2018.

Not only are the partners mapping soil health practice trends, but they are inputting the OpTIS data into a computer simulation model to determine the environmental benefits associated with the trends of cover crop and conservation tillage use. The DeNitrification-DeComposition Model (DNDC) measures factors such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon, and water-holding capacity. 

Benefiting People and Nature

The better we—governments, academia, conservation organizations and businesses—understand the trends in adoption rates of these practices, the better we can focus resources and tools that will help farmers secure their future while benefiting communities and nature.

For instance, OpTIS can help:

  • Soil and water conservation districts establish priorities and evaluate progress in achieving county or statewide goals.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments track progress towards and better focus efforts to meet the ambitious goals of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to reduce harmful nutrient (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus) loading in the Mississippi River basin.
  • Stakeholders throughout the agri-food system supply chain better understand market trends in the adoption of cover crops and specific tillage systems that impact environmental sustainability, such as greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration.
  • Conservation organizations target efforts to improve soil health and water quality.
  • Regional and national agricultural offices evaluate and compare the effectiveness of conservation programs across large regions. These groups can use this information to identify areas with low rates of conservation technology adoption and target these areas for future support.
  • Academic researchers use spatial information on conservation practices for modeling water quality and the carbon cycle.

Knowledge is power, and OpTIS will help to empower a wide range of stakeholders with vital data to help improve farmers’ productivity, safeguard our water and lands and ensure a sustainable future.