Part of that rise might be attributed to a soil health initiative by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) along with a growing body of research on the benefits of cover crops. Recent studies have shown that cover crops reduce soil erosion, retain more minerals and nitrogen, and improve the land’s water holding capacity by improving soil organic matter.
One of the issues that comes with cover crops is knowing when they have overstayed their welcome, especially for farmers growing insured cash crops on non-irrigated land. That has led to some confusion and misunderstanding about some of the rules associated with cover crop termination and crop insurance.
Administrators from the NRCS, USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Farm Service Agency (FMA) formed a working group to streamline and coordinate policies of the various agencies. To help clear up some of the misconceptions, the NCAT and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) recently held a webinar addressing those concerns and explaining the new cover crop termination policy to farmers.
Norman Widman, NRCS National Agronomist based in Kansas City, Mo., said some producers have been leery of planting cover crops because they might not have understood the guidelines and how they relate to crop insurance policies. There was confusion over some of the dates and stages of growth specified in the outlines, he said.
“So our effort was to simplify things as much as possible,” Widman said. “Believe me, we could have made this more difficult, but we really did try to simplify things as much as possible and keep things as consistent as possible and still provide some flexibility on any given farm for the management of cover crops.”
The guidelines divide the country into four cover crop termination zones, and since they apply only to non-irrigated land, are strongly oriented toward soil water impact on the insured crop, though Widman noted that other management considerations might require an earlier termination date.
The zones are generally aligned geographically with Zone 1 being primarily the Western states, especially the dry ones; parts of the Pacific Northwest are zoned differently. Zone 2 states and counties generally get a little more rain than Zone 1. Water is not nearly so much a limiting factor in Zone 3, and Zone 4 has very few restrictions on cover crop termination because it generally gets all the rain it needs.
Texas, being the geographically diverse place that that it is, has all four zones within its boundaries.
Zone 1 cover crops are to be terminated at least 35 days before the planting of late spring to fall seeded crops and as soon as practical for crops planted in early spring. Zone 2 calls for termination 15 days prior to late spring plantings and as soon as possible for early spring. Zone 3 cover crops need be terminated at or before planting but before emergence of the second crop, which is essentially the only guideline for Zone 4.
Rob Meyers with Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) said the same 2012 survey that showed a dramatic rise in the use of cover crops also showed higher corn and soybean yields on farms where cover crops were used. Corn yields increased 9.6 percent and soybeans had an 11.6 increase.
Oddly, he added, farmers who were hit by the drought of 2012 actually showed a higher increase in yields than farmers in non-drought states.
“We might expect yields in the cash crop would be worse,” Meyer said. “What we found was the reverse.”
A continuing study by Texas AgriLife Research on cover crops in the Rolling Plains region of the state has shown that cover crops do use a significant amount of water, but not necessarily at the expense of the cash crop. Part of the ongoing research is to determine if soil health is improved enough by cover crops to encourage moisture infiltration after the cover crop is terminated.
Paul DeLaune, a Texas AgriLife Research soil scientist based in Vernon, is conducting the studies, which are funded by NRCS. He said farmers and ranchers who grow cover crops might not see changes right away.
“It is something the farmer is going to have to be dedicated to, committed to and understand that it is a long-term process before possibly seeing the benefits of this system,” he said.