Why are the concepts of land use and land cover relevant to agricultural landscape management?

The concepts of land use and land cover are increasingly relevant to agricultural landscape management. Land use refers to how land is utilized based on economic and policy decisions. Land cover refers to vegetation characteristics (USDA ERS 2022) Precision agriculture and the quantification of ecosystems services require that agricultural landscapes be classified into different land use and land cover categories using a process called stratification (World Bank 2021)

Stratification relies on geospatial tools and data along with field surveys to divide areas of land use and land cover into clearly bounded and georeferenced units. Geospatial tools and data include GIS, GPS, aerial photos, and satellite imagery. Field surveys can include direct observations or surveys and interviews with land managers.

There are no set rules for determining land use and land cover categories – they are often tailored to particular applications. Site stratification for quantifying ecosystems services in North American agricultural landscapes might divide land use into three categories with land cover as a sub-category, as shown in the table below.

Land Use CategoryLand Cover Sub-Category
Crop FieldAnnual Crops; Perennial Forage
PastureGrasses; Perennial Forage
Field Boundary Habitat (FBH)Grasses; Tree/Shrub; Wetland

Land use and land cover categories should have clear delineations, but this is not always easy in agricultural landscapes, since crop fields seeded to perennial forage may serve similar economic and ecosystems functions when compared to pasture with perennial forage species.

From a precision agriculture perspective, land use and land cover are important because crop field boundaries must be clearly delineated from other categories of land use. Variable rate applications and yield maps also rely on clear, georeferenced boundaries. From an ecosystems services perspective, land use categories and land cover sub-categories can serve very different ecosystem functions. In order to quantify these functions, crop fields, pastures, and Field Boundary Habitat must be clearly divided with georeferenced boundaries. For example, areas of crop fields that are not devoted to annual crop production such as fencelines, permanently retired headlands, windbreaks, and wetlands can be quite small in area, but still provide critical flora and fauna habitat that crop fields are not able to provide.

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