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Photo: Satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay.
ARS is working with the state of Maryland to develop a tool based on combining satellite imagery and farmer information to implement and monitor the state's cover crop program, to reduce nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC.

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Satellites Help Keep Chesapeake Bay Clean

By Don Comis
March 3, 2009

Space-age technologies to help Maryland implement and monitor an expanded winter cover crop program that is vital to the Chesapeake Bay's health are being developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Beltsville, Md.

Soil scientist Gregory McCarty and colleagues Dean Hively, Ali Sadeghi and Megan Lang with the ARS Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville are developing satellite-monitoring technologies to reveal cover crop growth and nutrient uptake. The satellite images are used in combination with field information submitted by farmers enrolled in the state's cover crop cost-share program.

The ARS research team works closely with John Rhoderick, chief of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Resource Conservation Operations. Together they monitor winter cover crop performance in the Maryland counties east of the Bay, an area known as Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Planting winter cover crops is important to reducing agricultural nutrient losses to the Bay and improving the Bay's health. Maryland has doubled its budget for its cover crop cost-share program to $18 million in 2008-2009. This will provide for more than 387,000 acres of cover crops with no fall fertilization.

Rhoderick and the ARS team are planning to jointly develop an operational cover crop implementation and monitoring tool based on technologies that emerge from their collaboration.

Already, the combined satellite imagery/farmer information approach has improved the operation of the MDA cover crop program. This demonstrates that satellite data can be routinely used to implement and monitor cover crop and other important state conservation programs.

The research is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Choptank River Watershed Conservation Effects Assessment Project.

Read about cooperative ARS, state and university research in the March 2009 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency in USDA.