Satellite mapping of tillage practices in the North Central US region from 2005 to 2016

Low-intensity tillage has become more popular among farmers in the United States and many other regions. However, accurate data on when and where low-intensity tillage methods are being used remain scarce, and this scarcity impedes understanding of the factors affecting the adoption and the agronomic or environmental impacts of these practices. In this study, we used composites of satellite imagery from Landsat 5, 7, and 8, and Sentinel-1 in combination with producer data from about 5900 georeferenced fields to train a random forest classifier and generate annual large-scale maps of tillage intensity from 2005 to 2016. We tested different combinations of hyper-parameters using cross-validation, splitting the training and testing data alternatively by field, year, and state to assess the influence of clustering on validation results and evaluate the generalizability of the classification model. We found that the best model was able to map tillage practices across the entire North Central US region at 30 m-resolution with accuracies spanning between 75% and 79%, depending on the validation approach. We also found that although Sentinel-1 provides an independent measure that should be sensitive to surface moisture and roughness, it currently adds relatively little to classification performance beyond what is possible with Landsat. When aggregated to the state level, the satellite estimates of percentage low- and high-intensity tillage agreed well with a USDA survey on tillage practices in 2006 (R2 = 0.55). The satellite data also revealed clear increases in low-intensity tillage area for most counties in the past decade. Overall, the ability to accurately map spatial and temporal patterns in tillage should facilitate further study of this important practice in the United States, as well as other regions with fewer survey-based estimates.