Cover crops are gaining popularity as a way to improve soils, drought resistance and cash crop yields. Grasses, legumes and forbs can be used as cover crops. To protect crop insurance eligibility, farmers must understand and carefully follow the NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines including the termination periods.
Cover Crop Termination Guidelines
Norm Widman, National Agronomist, with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped develop simple NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines. Growers can zoom in on national maps to determine their zone and applicable recommendations.
The continental United States has been divided into four crop zones. Using scientific analysis, researchers determined optimal termination schedules under various growing conditions. The Guidelines for non-irrigated lands recommend various termination dates for each zone, season and management practice.
- Zone 1- The dry southwest and portions of Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. For Late Spring to Fall Seeded Crops, terminate cover crops 35 days or earlier prior to planting a cash crop.
- For Zones 1 and 2: Early Spring Seeded Crops: terminate cover crops as soon as practical prior to planting a cash crop. Fall seeded cover crops will have limited spring growth prior to planting “early” crops (spring wheat, sugar beets, corn) so cover crop may be terminated at or just prior to planting these crop. Later spring crops include soybeans and dry beans.
- Zone 2 – Most of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and portions of Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. For Late Spring to Fall Seeded Crops, terminate cover crops 15 days or earlier prior to planting a cash crop.
- Zone 3 – Portions of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Washington. Cover crops should be terminated at or before planting cash crops.
- Zone 4 – The eastern Unites States and portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. In this zone, water is typically not an issue. Cover crops should be terminated at or within 5 days after planting cash crops/before cash crop emergence.
View the complete NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines here.
Cover Crops become a “Crop” when treated as a grain or their seed is harvested.
Haying and grazing a cover crop is permitted without impacting crop insurance coverage except under “Summer Fallow” practices (see below). When hayed or grazed, sufficient biomass must be retained at termination to meet conservation goals. Cover crops planted on RMA insurable Summer Fallow acres cannot be hayed or grazed during that growing season. Haying or grazing a cover crop will not affect eligibility for a prevented planting payment as long as this cover crop use was not the cause of the prevented planting.
Cropland not in production for a growing season is considered Summer Fallow. This dryland farming practice allows a following crop to grow using moisture and nutrients of more than one crop cycle. Cover crops in Summer Fallow dry regions need to be terminated earlier to conserve soil moisture and nutrient availability for following cash crops. Provisions for Summer Fallow practices are included in the December 2013 update of the NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines available at www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/landuse/crops. Termination dates for non-irrigated Summer Fallow lands vary by zones and seeding period. (See zone coverage above.)
- Zone 1- For summer seeded or fall seeded crops, terminate the cover crop at least 90 days prior to planting. For early spring seeded crops, terminate the cover crop either in late fall or as early as possible in the spring prior to planting.
- Zone 2 – For summer seeded or fall seeded crops, terminate the cover crop at least 90 days prior to planting. For early spring seeded crops, terminate the cover crop either in late fall or as early as possible in the spring prior to planting.
- Zone 3 – For summer seeded or fall seeded crops, terminate the cover crop at least 90 days prior to planting. For early spring seeded crops, terminate the cover crop either in late fall or as early as possible in the spring prior to planting.
Four crops are insurable under Summer Fallow practices in Montana. The main ones grown are barley and wheat. Fewer farmers grow oats and even fewer grow Camelina.
Farmers should not plan to repeat summer fallow year after year or crop yields will decline.
Cover crops can be terminated to stop growth using cultivation, herbicides, roller/crimper or frost/winterkill (for spring planting). Organic farmers may terminate crops using roller crimpers or mowing during crops’ reproductive phase.
In dry seasons, earlier termination may be advised. In wetter seasons, growers may delay termination so cover crops can use up excess soil moisture and improve seedbed conditions. Under early favorable planting conditions, early termination and closer planting dates may be advised.
No-till farmers can delay termination up to seven days from standard dates. Cover crops should be terminated prior to emergence for all zones. Summer Fallow practices do not allow grazing or haying cover crops.
Tim Hoffmann, Director of Product Administration and Standards Division at the Risk Management Agency (RMA), said RMA and the Guidelines value farmers and local agricuture knowlegde of “unique and individual circumstances.” Crop insurance policies require that producers carry out Good Farming Practices. In some cases, local agricultural experts may recommend variances from the Guidelines including closer termination dates and/or other non-standard practices, based on varying years yield data. Variances may be granted, in accordance with the Guidelines.
Growers may overseed a grass or legume cover crop into an existing corn or soybean crop to allow the cover crop to provide adequate coverage soon after the cash crop harvest. For example, radishes may be seeded into corn (normally arial seeded) before harvest without impacting corn yields. This allows better establisment of the radish cover crop.
When cash crops and cover crops are planted together or such that they cannot be managed or harvest separately, they cannot be insured as cash crops.
Double Cropping means harvesting two crops (not cover crops) from the same land per year.
RMA policies require farmers to follow Good Farming Practices for their county (unless a variance is pre-approved). When yields vary significantly, they will consider compliance before determining eligibility for a crop loss payment. If farmers suffer losses not incurred by neighboring or regional farmers, farmers may need to show they followed approved farming and termination practices/timing to minimize compitition from cover crops or disruption of cash crops.
2014 Cover Crop Survey
Growers are urged to participate in the 2014 Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) Cover Crop Survey funded by SARE. (Seee the survey here)
The Cover Crop Termination Guidelines were explained in a webinar funded by the USDA Risk Management Agency and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Webinar speakers included speakers from Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), Risk Management Agency (RMA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). Cover Crop research is continuing and results may lead to changes for the 2015 crop year.
- Rob Myers, Ph.D., Regional Director of Extension Programs of Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE)’s North Central Region, University of Missouri, email: email@example.com, phone: 573-882-1547.
- Tim Hoffmann, Director of Product Administration and Standards Division at the Risk Management Agency (RMA), email: Tim.Hoffmann@rma.usda.gov, phone: 816-926-7387
- Norm Widman - National Agronomist with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 202-720-3783.
- Jeff Schahczenski, Agriculture Policy and Funding Research Director at the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), email: email@example.com, phone: 406-494-8636.