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Cover crop complications

03/07/2012 @ 3:49pm

While they are soaring in popularity, cover crops are also trying to avoid being entangled in agriculture’s acronyms. From USDA’s RMA (Risk Management Agency) to FSA’s DCP (Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program) and NRCS’s CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) to the seed industry’s PVP (Plant Variety Protection Act), cover crops pose potential issues. Clarifying their policies and modifying their regulations have administrators from those programs and agencies scrambling to answer yet another acronym – FAQs (frequently asked questions).

“We’re trying to keep on top of the impact cover cropping has on crop insurance. But frankly, farmers are coming up with new ways to use them almost every time we look,”  says Rebecca Davis, director of RMA’s regional office in Topeka, Kansas.

Barry Fisher, state agronomist for the NRCS in Indiana, says the USDA’s various agencies are well aware of the benefits cover cropping provides, and they’re working to solve the compliance and eligibility issues that are encountered. “The potential benefits that cover cropping provides for the soil and the environment are so outstanding that surely we can work through any obstacles that may be in the way,” he says.

The Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB)recently analyzed how various USDA agencies were handling fall-planted cover crops in that state. “There were instances where local crop insurance agents were telling farmers their spring crops weren’t eligible because of cover crops grown the previous fall. Farmers planted those fall cover crops as part of a robust rotation intent on building soil organic matter and improving soil quality and, in some cases, were even required to plant them as part of a CSP contract with USDA,” says Steve Swaffar, director of natural resources.

Mark Nelson, KFB’s director of commodities, says much of the confusion is often simple misunderstandings or misinterpretations of terminology. “However, there are situations that can arise with cover crops that can impact a farmer’s eligibility for certain USDA payments,” he says.

Nelson says one area of potential problems is in the planting date and acreage that growers report to FSA. “The FSA year runs from October 1 to September 30. And when there is more than one crop planted in that period, the first one is reported as the initial crop and the next one is the subsequent crop. When a fall cover crop is the initial crop (planted after October 1) the subsequent crop (such as corn planted the following spring) may not be eligible for some payments. This is a particular concern under FSA’s ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) program.”

Fisher says ACRE also presents challenges for cover crop growers in Indiana. “There are issues with date of planting and termination that need to be corrected. The RMA recently did this with crop insurance, and we hope FSA does the same,” he says.

The KFB report also cautions growers regarding FSA’s DCP payments (the main farm program payments most commodity producers receive). If a cover crop planted on base acres includes any species considered a fruit or vegetable (such as turnips, radishes, and peas) then it cannot be harvested as produce or seed. If it’s grazed or used as a forage, the producer pays a $46 fee to cover the cost of an FSA inspection to verify that use. No inspection is required if the cover crop is terminated by a herbicide or frost.

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