By John Dobberstein, Senior Editor

The NRCS has proposed a change to its conservation standards that would prohibit farmers from mechanically harvesting cover crops for hay or silage, potentially causing some headaches for no-tillers who rely on covers as an option to feed livestock.

Changes to the agency’s Conservation Practice Standards were published March 9 and a month was set aside for comment. The group of revisions has drawn more than 100 comments, including numerous complaints about the cover-crop change from growers, agronomists, professors, seed industry reps and even lawmakers.

No-Till Farmer received a marked-up document with the changes to the conservation standard but was unable to get an answer from the NRCS on why the language changes were made. However, the NRCS announced Wednesday it would extend the deadline for public comments from the original April 8 date to April 22.

“By extending the deadline as requested by customers, we hope to collect as much input as possible to ensure that the standards used to carry out these 23 specific conservation practices are relevant to local agricultural, forestry and natural resource needs,” said NRCS Acting Chief Terry Cosby in a statement.

Five members of New York’s Congressional delegation penned a letter to Cosby on April 8 protesting the decision and asking the agency to continue to allow harvesting practices. 

“Our producers rely heavily on cover crops to control soil erosion and utilize the crops as a feed source for their animals,” wrote U.S. representatives Elise Stefanik, Chris Jacobs, Claudia Tenney, Antonio Delgado and Sean Patrick Maloney.

“Maintaining this language would have a severe negative impact on our farmers, affecting their profitability and their ability to maintain their reputation as responsible stewards of the land. We are concerned this change will hurt the overall goal of the program and will dissuade farmers in our districts from adopting cover crops.”

The 2018 Farm Bill required NRCS to review all 169 existing national conservation practices to seek opportunities to “increase flexibility and incorporate new technologies to help the nation’s farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners better protect natural resources on their working lands.” 

In 2020, 57 conservation practice standards were updated after public review and are available on NRCS’s conservation practices offer guidelines for planning, installing, operating and maintaining conservation practices nationwide.

As it pertains to cover crops, the new guidelines suggested cover crops can be grazed, but not mechanically harvested for seed, hay, silage or other biomass.

For those involved in federal conservation programs, that would potentially cause problems not only for dairies, but for growers who harvest cover crops for seed that can be used the following year.

Nathan Herendeen, a crop advisor and nutrient management planner in northwestern New York, told the NRCS he’s had challenges getting clients to implement cover crops due to timing and cost. Recently that has been easier due to the recent practice of allowing triticale, winter wheat or winter rye to be planted as a cover crop following corn silage harvest. 

 "With USDA’s help, this has become a standard practice for several of my struggling dairy farm clients. The practice has allowed the crop to be harvested in mid- to late May as hay crop silage. The soil has been protected over the winter. The field is then planted to corn for silage using no-till or minimum-tillage techniques.

"The end result is cover crop protection of the fields over the winter and providing quality forage as silage in early spring as well as high quality corn silage in September. I urge you to continue to allow cover crop harvest in spring as part of this conservation practice.”

 Herendeen says he was involved in the Conesus Lake, N.Y., Watershed Quality improvement program for 7 years. Some 70-80% of the runoff of nutrients and sediments occurred during the March-April snow melt and spring rains, he notes. 

By May, the fall-planted cover crops have done their job of taking up nutrients and preventing particulate erosion, and in mid- to late May they can be harvested as silage and provide an excellent forage for dairy cows or heifers, he says.  

“The root material can still provide the needed benefits to the soil and no-till or zone-tillage methods can be used to plant corn or summer annual forages as the following crop,” Herendeen says. “This practice is demonstrated on a practical basis by planting triticale in September in the Northeast and harvesting it for high protein silage in May and following up with corn planting. It is a win-win for the farmer and the environment.”

Amber Luke, a technician for the Washington County (N.Y.) Soil & Water Conservation district, told the NRCS it’s possible to mechanically harvest cover crops and still achieve conservation goals on farmland. “Farms this year are already short on feed for their animals due to drought conditions last summer. Being able to harvest cover crops will help some farms pull through.

“Allowing the harvest of cover crops allows farms to get dual purpose out of the conservation practices while decreasing the need for more land. Removal of this ability will mean less farms will implement cover crops and more farms will end up going out of business due to lack of feed.”

Peter Hagar, the district manager of the Clinton County, N.Y., Soil & Water Conservation District, says the growing season can be short in his area and spring planting is often delayed. “Since our primary cover crop is cereal rye, it is often not possible to terminate early. And once spring growth gets ahead of our farmers, they often have no option but to terminate the crop by mowing for hay or silage,” he says. 

“With our push to encourage no-till or reduced tillage, the inability of farmers to remove the excess residue would actually reduce the number of farmers trying cover crops.”

He believes cover crops that become mature enough for harvest as hay or silage “have more than met the planned amount of biomass to meet the conservation purpose.

“Furthermore, I feel that it is much easier for new adopters to utilize no-till when planting into cover crop stubble as opposed to large amounts of surface residue. Since our farms are constrained by short seasons, wet springs and early frosts, this harvest option is a win-win for conservation and our farmers.”

The NRCS says it will use public comments to further enhance its conservation practice standards. The proposed revisions to the 23 conservation practice standards are available on the Federal Register, and comments can be made through or by mail or hand delivery.

Click here to read additional comments on the rule changes or submit a comment.