A new tranche of data from the Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS) tracked a 250% climb in cover crop acreage—from 2.8 million acres in 2015 to 7.5 million acres in 2021—led by row crop farmers in the southern portion of the region. The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), which hosts free access to OpTIS data on its ctic.org website, dubbed this week's release "OpTIS 3.0."

"The new OpTIS 3.0 release consists of two elements," notes Dr. Dave Gustafson, project director at CTIC. "The first is the 2021 data, which identify established cover crops and tillage practices across a region that extends from central Colorado to the Ohio border and from the southern edge of Tennessee up to the Canadian border. The second new element is that Regrow Ag, our long-time partner and developer of OpTIS, has improved the algorithm used to analyze the satellite imagery behind OpTIS."

The new data set also indicated that conservation tillage—leaving 30% or more of the soil surface covered with crop residue—was flat to slightly down through the 2015-2021 timeframe, with year-to-year variations that were likely due to spring weather.
Fine-Tuned Algorithm

Regrow developed the computer algorithm behind OpTIS, which analyzes publicly available satellite imagery to track cover crop adoption and conservation tillage trends. Regrow worked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and CTIC on the development, testing and application of OpTIS.

Soren Rundquist, OpTIS science lead for Regrow, explains that the algorithm was adjusted to fine-tune its ability to differentiate among cash crops, cover crops and weeds in different parts of the Corn Belt.

"In efforts to enhance the detection of cover crop fields using satellite sensors, the algorithm logic was updated to capture the regional variation on healthy vegetation emergence," Rundquist says. "Changes were applied to data from 2015 to 2021."

As a result of these updates, users can now access interactive maps that allow them to track changes in cover crop adoption and tillage practices between 2005 and 2021. OpTIS data through 2020 have also been run through Regrow's De-Nitrification-De-Composition (DNDC) model to simulate carbon and nitrogen dynamics in the soil.

A webinar on Friday, April 14 will delve into the new data, new algorithm, and an exploration of how people are using OpTIS in their research. Check ctic.org/OpTIS for webinar details in the coming weeks.
Free Online Access

An intuitive visualization tool on the CTIC website (ctic.org/OpTIS) allows users to explore the data, zooming in on watersheds of interest and moving sliders to vary the date range they want to study. OpTIS data are available free on the site at the HUC 8 watershed or Crop Reporting District (CRD) level. CTIC members have access to customized data formats, and finer granularity can be arranged through Regrow via its Sustainability Insights platform.

“Since its introduction in 2019, OpTIS has provided agronomists, researchers, agribusiness professionals, conservation groups, policy makers and more with a cost-effective and efficient way to measure adoption trends of soil health practices and their impact on the environment over large geographies and many years,” says Shamitha Keerthi , science director for The Nature Conservancy's North America Regenerative Crop System Strategy. “We are constantly learning how these data can be used to drive conservation practice adoption, assess environmental outcomes, and track the impacts of policy.”

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