Daily Archives: July 24, 2013

New USDA Guidelines on Crop Insurance and Cover Crops

by Dr. Rob Myers

In late June, new guidelines were released by USDA pertaining to cover crop management and crop insurance. The new guidelines came about as a result of concerns expressed by many farmers who had difficulty terminating (killing) their cover crops by USDA-specified calendar dates, especially when weather conditions prevented field operations. If farmers using cover crops failed to terminate a cover crop by the applicable date, they were at risk of losing their eligibility for crop insurance on commodity crops such as corn and soybeans.   These concerns led USDA leadership to form an interagency task force that worked during the spring to gather the latest information on cover crop management and turn that into a revised set of policy guidelines.

The biggest change in the new guidelines is the move from a calendar date-based requirement on terminating cover crops to a more flexible policy that ties termination times to the planting date of the relevant cash crop (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, etc.). Under the new guidelines, the US is divided into four management “zones” for cover crop termination, with the requirements for termination varying based on the zone where the farm is located.

For all zones, there is no limitation on termination time for irrigated crops. For non-irrigated crops, the cover crops can be left growing up until at least the date of planting any “early spring” cash crop, such as spring cereals (eg., wheat, oats, or barley) or corn.

For the eastern portion of the US, farmers can terminate cover crops at or within five days after planting summer cash crops, though it should be before the cash crop has emerged.

For drier, western areas of the U.S., farmers may need to terminate their cover crop fifteen days or more before planting a summer cash crop (e.g. soybeans or dry beans), on the presumption that managing soil moisture carefully is more critical in those areas.

Farmers using no-till are allowed up to seven days of extra time to terminate their cover crop, though it should be before the cash crop seedlings emerge from the soil.

The new guidelines, which take effect for the 2014 cash crop year, also provide clearer definitions on practices such as overseeding cover crops or interplanting cover crops. Where farmers are trying innovative approaches with timing their planting or control of cover crops, that practice will be allowed if the farmer can document their “new technology” approach is designated as acceptable by at least two agricultural experts in their area.

Also, grazing of cover crops is allowed within certain limits, but not haying of cover crops (at least if crop insurance is to be provided).

Another way flexibility is provided is by acknowledging that special cover crop management situations can fall under “good farming practices,” including crop management designed to meet organic certification.

Overall, the new guidelines will provide much more flexibility for farmers using cover crops than was the case with the previous rules pertaining to crop insurance. While not likely to be perfect for every farming situation, these guidelines represent a major step forward in acknowledging the increasing use of cover cropson American farms and the important conservation and soil health benefits they can provide. Perhaps in future years, the restrictions on cover crops related to crop insurance eligibility will be reduced even further as more information about the performance of cover crops in various regions of the country becomes available.

Full details on the new guidelines can be found on the USDA-NRCS website.

Dr. Rob Myers is a University of Missouri agronomist and Regional Director for Extension Programs with the North Central Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Dr. Myers was a member of the USDA interagency task force that worked on development of the new cover crop management guidelines in the spring of 2013.

Outdoor Insights: Bees and Bee Trees Vanishing

                            Outdoor Insights: Bees and Bee Trees Vanishing
“The problem of dying bees ought not to be limited to environmentalists. Bees are major pollinators for many crops. Their absence could send prices for some produce soaring.”

Craig Regnier’s top bar bee hives thrive because he has planted a pollinator plot nearby to assist the bees. Photo by Craig Regnier.

For an excellent and informative article on this topic by Elby Adamson, published in The Dispatch,
 visit http://www.ccenterdispatch.com/news/local/article_5b0bdc60-cd46-11e2-a666-001a4bcf6878.html.


USDA Announces Results for 45th Conservation Reserve Program General Sign-Up

Offers Received for 1.9 Million Acres

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on July 22 announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will accept 1.7 million acres offered under the 45th Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up. The Department received nearly 28,000 offers on more than 1.9 million acres of land, demonstrating CRP’s continuing appeal as one of our nation’s most successful voluntary programs for soil, water, and wildlife conservation. Under Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has enrolled nearly 12 million acres in new CRP contracts since 2009. Currently, there are more than 26.9 million acres enrolled on 700,000 contracts.

“For 27 years, lands in CRP have helped to conserve our nation’s resources and played a part in mitigating climate change,” said Vilsack. “American farmers and ranchers continue to recognize the importance of protecting our nation’s most environmentally sensitive land by enrolling in CRP. As the commodities produced by our farmers and ranchers continue to perform strongly in the marketplace — supporting one out of every twelve jobs here in the United States — it is no surprise that American producers continue to recognize the importance of protecting our nation’s most environmentally sensitive land by enrolling in CRP.”

In addition to today’s announcement, over the last four years, USDA has set aside significant acreage under CRP’s Continuous enrollment programs to target habitat conservation on especially important lands. For example, in March, 2012, President Obama dedicated 1 million acres of CRP to Continuous Enrollment Programs to conserve wetlands, grasslands and wildlife. This year, farmers and ranchers have already offered more than 370,000 acres under Continuous CRP signup, a figure that is impressive given that the lack of a Farm Bill extension last fall meant that CRP enrollment only reopened this spring in May. Lack of a comprehensive Farm Bill this year has resulted in uncertainty for achieving further enrollment objectives under continuous CRP.

CRP is a voluntary program that allows eligible landowners to receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource-conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of their 10 to 15 year contracts.

Under CRP, farmers and ranchers plant grasses and trees in fields and along streams or rivers. The plantings prevent soil and nutrients from washing into waterways, reduce soil erosion that may otherwise contribute to poor air and water quality, and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. In 2012, CRP helped to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields by 605 million pounds and 121 million pounds respectively. CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. CRP also provides $2.0 billion annually to landowners—dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs.

In addition, CRP sequesters more carbon dioxide than any other conservation program in the country, and also reduces both fuel and fertilizer use. Yearly, CRP results in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.

USDA selected offers for enrollment based on an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) comprised of five environmental factors plus cost. The five environmental factors are: (1) wildlife enhancement, (2) water quality, (3) soil erosion, (4) enduring benefits, and (5) air quality.