Use of cover crops for prevented planting

cover crops
Photo courtesy University of Missouri Extension

Farmers considering “prevent plant” crop insurance payments face decisions on what to do with unplanted fields, says Rob Myers, a University of Missouri Extension agronomist.

Many farmers will file for “prevent plant” crop insurance payments this year after record-setting May rainfall and flooding. Cover crops are one option. But Myers says there are nuances to complying with crop insurance regulations.

“If fields are not planted to their intended commodity, and a prevent plant insurance payment is collected, farmers then need to decide what to do with that field,” says Myers, who is also an MU adjunct associate professor of plant sciences.

He encourages farmers to plant something on those fields to suppress weeds, protect soil from erosion and maintain the soil biology.

Cover crops have become much more common in Missouri, with 864,178 acres planted on more than 6,000 farm operations in 2017, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. Normally, most Missouri cover crops are fall-planted, but this year Myers expects to see a large number of prevent plant fields with cover crops planted in midsummer.

Know before you plant

Farmers need to know the rules for federal crop insurance to decide on the best option for their operation, he says.

“If the cover crop serves only to protect and improve the soil, you can plant them without any concern about affecting payout of prevent plant insurance payments,” Myers says. There are no crop insurance restrictions on the use of a cover crop this summer as long as it is not hayed or grazed. USDA Risk Management Agency rules prohibit haying or grazing cover crops until after Nov. 1 for full payment.

A provision allows 35% payment on the prevent plant crop insurance if you wait to plant the cover crop for forage use after the late planting period for that commodity, he says.

“A farmer considering cover crops for haying or grazing would need to evaluate the worth of the cover crop forage versus the reduced insurance payment. They also need to be sure they are past the end of the late planting period on cover crop seeding. Otherwise, the insurance payment becomes zero.”

Myers also advises farmers to be aware of options for cover crop incentive payments from the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Program. Each agency offers programs and incentives only at certain times of the year.

There is currently a special sign-up through July 19 to receive Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds for cover crop planting on flooded cropland in the 13 Missouri counties that have been declared federal disaster areas. They are Andrew, Atchison, Buchanan, Carroll, Chariton, Holt, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Perry, Platte, Ray and Ste. Genevieve counties.

Check with your local NRCS or conservation district office for details.

Choices, choices

Myers says the choice of cover crop depends on timing and purpose.

“If you want to protect the soil, suppress weeds and feed the soil biology, a mix of cover crop species is helpful,” he says.

Generally, mixing one or more grass cover crop species with a legume or other broadleaf cover crops provides the best weed control and overall soil health.

Choose warm-season cover crops such as sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, cowpeas, sun hemp, sunflower and buckwheat if planting in June or July. After that, switch to cool-season cover crops such as radishes, cereal rye, oats, crimson clover or Austrian winter peas.

If you plant for forage, use a mix of covers. The exact mix depends on whether it is for grazing or haying.

“Again, keep the RMA rules in mind if the cover crop is to be used for forage, and also pay attention to herbicide labels for the relevant waiting period before forage use,” he says.

Cover crops also can “reboot” the soil biology in fields that were flooded for long periods.

“If fields are left fallow after a prolonged flooding event, growth of corn or other crops can be somewhat reduced the next spring due to damaged soil biology from flooding,” Myers says. “Cover crop roots feed many different types of beneficial soil organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, starting the process of rebuilding soil health after flooding and before planting the next cash crop.”

Download a fact sheet on RMA rules on cover crops and prevent plant insurance at rma.usda.gov/en/Fact-Sheets/National-Fact-Sheets/Prevented-Planting-Insurance-Provisions-Flood.

MU Extension guides on cover crops and summer forages:

► Cover crops: extension2.missouri.edu/g4161

► Warm-season forages: extension2.missouri.edu/g4661

► Millets: extension2.missouri.edu/g4164

► Buckwheat: extension2.missouri.edu/g4163

► Sunflowers: extension2.missouri.edu/g4701

University of Missouri Extension contributed this article.

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