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.