Farm scene with cover crops in foreground and farm buildings in background.
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

Soil Health Strategy Manager
Pipa Elias Soil Health Strategy Manager, North America Agriculture Program

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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.

Use the OpTIS Tool

Pull data from the Operational Tillage Information System

Unlock Soil Health Solutions

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.

Two hands holding a colorful variety of seeds for cover crops.
Cover Crops Multiple cover crop and pasture plant species are improving soil health and overall production capacity. © Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS

Technology is Key

New Hampshire-based Applied GeoSolutions(AGS) has 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. AGS, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have spearheaded the development, testing and application of OpTIS.  

Multiple funders recognize how this technology will advance soil health and deliver numerous environmental benefits. In fact, Corteva AgriScience, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation, Bayer CropScience, Mosaic, J.R. Simplot Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have matched a $500,000 grant from FFAR to support expanding the application of the OpTIS technology. This FFAR grant, in addition to support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has made it possible for AGS, CTIC, TNC and other partners to apply the OpTIS technology across the Corn Belt. 

The first round of available data document the level of adoption of soil health practices for Illinois, Indiana and Iowa from 2005 to 2018. The data show that soil health practices across the three states are steadily moving in the right direction. (Learn more about the data results). By the end of July 2019, 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.

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 in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.
MAPPING THE RESULTS OpTIS analysis revealed an increase of nearly 2 million acres of winter cover crops were planted after soybeans and corn across the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa between 2006-2018. © TNC

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) will measure factors such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon, and water-holding capacity. This additional dataset is slated for release in August 2019.

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. 

Resources

  • Cover of a fact sheet about technology for cover crops.

    OpTIS: Operational Tillage Information System

    (4.25 MB PDF)

    See how remote sensing data can map conservation agriculture practices and help farmers be more efficient and effective.

    DOWNLOAD
Soil Health Strategy Manager

Pipa Elias is Soil Health Strategy Manager at The Nature Conservancy.

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