Cover crops are certainly a viable option to help Great Plains growers improve soil health and extend their feeding options for livestock.
But for some no-tillers, crop insurance rules have been an impediment to adopting covers. That could be changing, however, with the $867 billion Farm Bill signed into law by President Trump last week.
The new Farm Bill provides badly needed language improvements within the federal crop insurance program in regard to the management of cover crops. As No-Till Farmer editor Frank Lessiter will report in our February 2019 edition, the big news is the more specific definition of cover crop termination.
According to the University of Illinois, the Farm Bill says cover crop practices are to be considered a good farming practice if terminated according to USDA guidelines (or an agricultural expert) and that termination should not impact the insurability of the insurance crop.
In the past there’s been considerable confusion and mis-interpretation regarding insurance coverage when no-tillers have used cover crops due to an inaccurate and poorly-defined definition of what the rules meant for termination.
Under the old definition, it was confusing as to when cover crop growth actually ended. Was it when the herbicide was applied? When 50% of the field was dead? Or not until every single cover crop plant is dead?
“We could never get a straight answer in regard to cover crop termination from the Risk Management Agency,” says Ryan Stockwell, the director of sustainable agriculture for the National Wildlife Federation and a no-tiller from Wisconsin. “We now have a new definition and effective language that spells this out.”
Of course, proper decision making with cover crop termination by no-tillers will still be needed. This is a very crucial point in the semi-arid Great Plains, where soil moisture to support plant growth is at a premium and the margin for error is very small.
Consistent use of cover crops typically provides gains in soil organic matter, which improve water-holding capacity of soils and lets growers keep more of the soil moisture they do accumulate from Mother Nature.
Hopefully ag educators can now spend less time sorting out policy confusion and more time on helping no-tillers learn proper cover crop termination methods so they can confidently take advantage of this soil-building conservation tool.