The effective implementation of agricultural conservation practices is critical to the improvement of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay region, where non-point sources of nutrients, sediment, and agrichemicals are major contributors to water quality impairment. The use of winter cover crops, for example, has been identified as a key conservation management practice for reducing the loss of nitrogen and sediment from agricultural lands. However, the effectiveness of conservation practices varies widely depending on landscape, climate, and agronomic management. How successful are cover crops at protecting water quality when implemented across the landscape on a wide variety of farms? This question can be answered by combining satellite remote sensing of wintertime vegetation with site-specific knowledge of agricultural management practices. This allows a field-by-field evaluation and mapping of winter cover crop performance and associated nutrient and soil conservation benefits. The results can be reported to farmers, Soil Conservation Districts, and State and Federal conservation programs, providing valuable information to support adaptive management strategies that target and promote the most successful conservation practices. Our remote sensing research is currently focused on mapping the amount of biomass, nutrient uptake, and vegetative ground cover associated with winter cover crops, as well as the amount of crop residue associated with conservation tillage practices.
Advances in available information and data management allow analysis of agricultural conservation management on a field-by-field basis, integrating high-resolution maps of crop type and winter cover crop performance with privacy-protected knowledge of farm conservation practice implementation records.