Cover crops are gaining popularity as a way to improve soils, drought resistance and cash crop yields. Grasses, legumes and forbs can be used as cover crops. To protect crop insurance eligibility, farmers must understand and carefully follow the NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines including the termination periods.
Norm Widman, national agronomist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helped develop simple NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines. Growers can zoom in on national maps to determine their zone and applicable recommendations.
Search online for the complete NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines at www.nrcs.usda.gov
Cover Crops become a “crop” when treated as a grain or when their seed is harvested.
Haying and grazing a cover crop is permitted without impacting crop insurance coverage except under summer fallow practices. When hayed or grazed, sufficient biomass must be retained at termination to meet conservation goals. Cover crops planted on RMA-insurable Summer Fallow acres cannot be hayed or grazed during that growing season. Haying or grazing a cover crop will not affect eligibility for a prevented planting payment as long as this cover crop use was not the cause of the prevented planting.
Cropland not in production for a growing season is considered summer fallow. This dryland farming practice allows a following crop to grow using moisture and nutrients of more than one crop cycle. Cover crops in summer fallow dry regions need to be terminated earlier to conserve soil moisture and nutrient availability for following cash crops.
Termination dates for non-irrigated summer fallow lands vary by zones and seeding period.
Farmers should not plan to repeat summer fallow year after year or crop yields will decline.
Cover crops can be terminated to stop growth using cultivation, herbicides, roller/crimper or frost/winterkill (for spring planting). Organic farmers may terminate crops using roller crimpers or mowing during crops’ reproductive phase.
In dry seasons, earlier termination may be advised. In wetter seasons, growers may delay termination so cover crops can use up excess soil moisture and improve seedbed conditions. Under early favorable planting conditions, early termination and closer planting dates may be advised.
No-till farmers can delay termination up to seven days from standard dates. Cover crops should be terminated prior to emergence for all zones. Summer Fallow practices do not allow grazing or haying cover crops.
Tim Hoffmann, director of product administration and standards division at the Risk Management Agency (RMA), said RMA and the guidelines value farmers and local agricuture knowledge of “unique and individual circumstances.” Crop insurance policies require that producers carry out Good Farming Practices. In some cases, local agricultural experts may recommend variances from the guidelines including closer termination dates and/or other non-standard practices, based on varying years yield data. Variances may be granted, in accordance with the guidelines.
Growers may overseed a grass or legume cover crop into an existing corn or soybean crop to allow the cover crop to provide adequate coverage soon after the cash crop harvest. For example, radishes may be seeded into corn (normally arial seeded) before harvest without impacting corn yields. This allows better establisment of the radish cover crop.
When cash crops and cover crops are planted together or such that they cannot be managed or harvest separately, they cannot be insured as cash crops.
RMA policies require farmers to follow Good Farming Practices for their county (unless a variance is pre-approved). When yields vary significantly, they will consider compliance before determining eligibility for a crop loss payment. If farmers suffer losses not incurred by neighboring or regional farmers, farmers may need to show they followed approved farming and termination practices/timing to minimize compitition from cover crops or disruption of cash crops.
2014 Cover Crop Survey
Growers are urged to participate in the 2014 Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) Cover Crop Survey funded by SARE at http://bit.ly/CoverCropSurvey