Spectral Reflectance Properties of Winter Cover Crops in the Southeastern Coastal Plain

Conservation tillage is a commonly adopted best management practice for reducing runoff and erosion, and increasing infiltration. Yet current methodologies in place to monitor conservation tillage adoption are largely inappropriate for regional or national assessments. A major goal of this study was to evaluate the spectral response properties of four alternative winter cover crops using remotely derived crop residue cover indices. Experimental plots were located in east-central Alabama on a coarse-loamy siliceous, subactive, thermic Plinthic Paleudult. The experiment was a randomized complete block design having four replications of each of the following treatments: one fallow conventional tillage treatment and four no-tillage treatments with black oat (Avena strigosa Schreb.), crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum L.), turnip (Brassica rapa L. subsp.rapa), or rye (Secale cereale L.) cover crops. Remotely sensed data were acquired three times using a 14 d sampling interval beginning near planting and using a handheld multispectral radiometer (485–1650 nm) in 2005 and 2006. Three crop residue cover indices using combinations of middle-infrared and visible spectra were compared and evaluated. Rye, clover, and black oat were spectrally similar, having an overall spectral response ranging from 8 to 45% (440–1650 nm). Increasing soil water content between remotely sensed data acquisitions was evidenced by as much as a 24% decline in middle-infrared reflectance. Despite this variability, a normalized difference ratio of middle-infrared (1650 nm) and blue (445 nm) spectra (Crop Residue Cover Index) provided the most consistent differentiation between tillage systems, varying within 8% of benchmark conditions (low soil water and low canopy cover). Considering the impact that conservation tillage may have on soil and water resources, rapid, watershed scale assessments of conservation tillage adoption may facilitate natural resource inventories, carbon sequestration estimates, and improved agricultural water management regimes.

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