Using remote sensing to identify liquid manure applications in eastern North Carolina

Kelly Shea, Danica Schaffer-Smith, Rebecca L. Muenich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Nutrient pollution from farm fertilizers and manure is a global concern. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous has been linked to algal blooms and a host of other water quality issues. In the U.S., most animal production occurs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) housing a significant number of animals in a confined space. CAFOs tend to cluster in space and thus generate large quantities of manures within a small area. Liquid manure from CAFOs is often stored in open-air lagoons and then applied via irrigation to crops on nearby ‘sprayfields’. The full scope and extent of CAFO impacts remain unclear because of the paucity of public information regarding animal numbers, barn and lagoon locations, and manure management practices. Where and when manure is applied on the landscape is key missing data that is needed to better understand and mitigate consequences of CAFO management practices. The aim of this study was to detect land applications of liquid manure using a remote sensing approach. We used random forest models incorporating C-Band synthetic-aperture radar, multispectral imagery, and other predictors to examine soil moisture conditions indicating probable liquid manure applications across known sprayfields in eastern North Carolina. Our models successfully distinguished saturated and unsaturated soils within corn, soybean, grassland, and ‘other’ crops, with 93–98% accuracy against validation for clear weather periods during the dormant, early, and late growing seasons. A Kruskal-Wallis test revealed that the mean soil saturation frequency was significantly higher on sprayfields than non-sprayfields of the same crop type (p < 2.2e-16). We also found that manure applications were concentrated within ∼1 km from the point of generation. This is the first application of satellite-based radar for identifying the location and timing of manure applications over broad areas. Future work can build on these methods to further understand manure management at CAFOs, as well as to improve pollution source tracking and modeling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115334
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - Sep 1 2022


  • Agriculture
  • Livestock
  • Machine learning
  • Nutrient management
  • Satellite radar
  • Sentinel-1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Using remote sensing to identify liquid manure applications in eastern North Carolina'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this