Now a conservation practice for many years, cover crops have seen a recent surge in interest.
Why is that?
“Over the last few years, though, there has been a greater push for adoption in light of the benefits to soil moisture, weed suppression, nutrient management and so on,” says Naveen Adusumilli, LSU AgCenter Assistant Professor – Water Policy/Economics.
As a result, federal policies around cover crops have changed “significantly. For example, new termination guidelines have been put in place for farmers in every state. Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas fall into ‘Termination Zone 4.’”
The termination zones were based on growing periods in the Delta region. “That’s something we wanted our farmers to understand so they don’t lose out on any crop insurance in the cash crops that follow the cover crop or, in some instances, before.”
Who made the rules?
“The NRCS (National Resource and Conservation Service), I believe, with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA). With all that input, the three agencies came up with the termination guidelines but the document is officially put out by the NRCS.
After the termination guidelines came out, “similar concerns (emerged) for livestock farmers in the region. RMA and the FSA said the cover crops could be grazed or hayed but they shouldn’t be harvested for seed. If you harvest for seed, that cover crop is no longer considered such but instead is a double-crop.”
Know the rules
The upshot, says Adusumilli, is if any of the guidelines are not followed then “the cover crop falls outside a ‘cover crop.’ That means the insurance for the crop that follows could be affected.”
That’s what put Adusumilli and colleagues’ interest on cover crops. “You know, ‘There’s a lot of new information here and we need to help our farmers understand what these policies could mean.’ We wanted to make sure that when they go in to do their part in respect to insurance calculations they aren’t left with ‘this is too much. What did I get into?’”
The LSU AgCenter recently released a document to help producers and ranchers understand the issues better.
“When we went to farmer meetings we kept hearing some of the same questions. So, we put together a Q-and-A of the most common. Farmers should check that out.”
One question is: when can we terminate the cover crops under the NRCS guidelines?
“Since we fall into Zone 4, as mentioned previously, the cover crops should be terminated before the cash crop. If a farmer wants to plant soybeans, the land should be clear of the cover crop before the beans emerge.”
Other questions: can we graze the cover crops? Is grazing considered termination?
“Yes, you can graze the cover crops but you cannot harvest them for seed.
“You should know the definition for ‘termination’ is the growth should end. If grazing ends the growth of the cover crop, then it’s termination. If it won’t end the growth, the farmer will have to make sure the cover crop is terminated through herbicides, through mowing, whatever method he’s comfortable with.”
Many farmers considering cover crops look to the NRCS’ conservation incentive cost-share – about $60 to $70 per acre a year – to adopt cover crops.
“A farmer would ask ‘I’ve already have a cover crop. Do I still qualify for the cost-share payments?’ The first answer is no. But – and there is often a ‘but’ – the same field can be planted in multiple species of cover crops, which, if the NRCS says is a meaningful and measurable improvement, could qualify the field for the incentives.”
The cover crops can also be part of the conservation tillage program and farmers could get around another $10 per acre.
Is concern about crop insurance and this issue something Adusumilli is trying to head off or something that farmers are already running into?
“Fortunately, we haven’t yet run into farmers saying their crop insurance was affected by cover crops. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real problem, though. There are policies now in place regarding termination guidelines that you must follow, these are the species that will qualify for the program, etc.”