If you planted a cover crop last fall and need to terminate it this spring in fields that will be planted to corn or soybeans, when should you kill the cover crop? In making that decision, keep in mind you want to maintain eligibility of the corn and soybeans for crop insurance coverage. Timing for termination of a cover crop can affect whether the corn and beans will be covered by crop insurance.
USDA's Risk Management Agency has issued new guidelines for cover crop termination in 2014 that are slightly different from last year. If you have a cover crop and want the soon-to-be-planted corn or soybean crop to be insured, make sure you are following the rules," advises Steve Johnson, an Iowa State University Extension farm management specialist.
USDA agencies now have a coordinated policy
RMA officials made these changes in the guidelines for cover crop management in 2014 after meeting with officials from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency. They wanted to provide more flexibility for cover crop management due to possible changes in spring weather conditions and changes in cover crop practices, which continue to evolve. To ensure RMA policies are up to date with evolving cover crop practices, RMA coordinated with NRCS and FSA through the interagency working group to develop a consistent and flexible cover crop policy that can be applied across all USDA agencies.
The working group developed the new guidelines so farmers could obtain the conservation benefits of cover crops while minimizing risk of reducing yield to the following crop due to soil water use.
Termination timing—a frequently asked question
When should you kill a cover crop? The USDA guidelines for 2014 use four strategic management zones across the nation. Iowa has two of those zones. As the accompanying map shows, about a third of Iowa (western portion) is in Zone 3, while the rest of Iowa is in Zone 4.
If you are in Zone 3, you must terminate the cover crop at or before planting the subsequent crop, which is likely corn or soybeans. In Zone 4, the rest of Iowa, you must terminate the cover crop at or within five days after planting the subsequent crop if you want the subsequent crop to be insured.
What does "termination" mean?
It means growth has ended for 100% of the cover crop in the field and NRCS guidelines must be followed, says Johnson. NRCS guidelines basically say you have to terminate growth of the cover crop before crop insurance coverage attaches to the corn or soybean crop you plant in that field.
Termination is not about a date; it's about when you are going to plant the subsequent corn or soybean crop. In 2014 the rules require terminating the cover crop at or within five days after planting if you are in Zone 4 and terminating the cover at or before planting if you are in Zone 3.
The cover crop, if it is not 100% destroyed, will compete with corn or soybeans for moisture in the soil. That's the reason for the different zones. You want to kill the cover crop before planting in the western part of the state, and within five days of planting in the rest of Iowa. "It's a good farming practice," notes Johnson. "When you put corn or soybean seed in the ground with a cover crop, they're both competing for moisture."
Are you allowed to graze a cover crop?
You can still graze or hay a cover crop, but crop insurance will not attach to the crop following a cover crop if termination of the cover crop is not done according to the NRCS guidelines. "The RMA rules and NRCS guidelines allow you to graze it or hay it -- that's not an issue," says Johnson. "The key is you want to kill the cover crop if you want the crop insurance coverage to attach to the following crop. Contact your crop insurance agent if you have questions. You can also read the new 2014 Cover Crops Crop Insurance FAQs on RMA's website."
Keep good records when you plant this spring
When you plant corn and soybeans this spring, Johnson strongly recommends you write down or otherwise record the date, farm and/or field, crop planted and number of acres planted. Then, if there is a question from an insurance adjuster about when you planted a field or when you terminated a cover crop, you'll have an accurate record.
What if it turns out you don't get a good kill and the cover crop isn't 100% terminated? If you have a corn or soybean crop loss and an insurance adjuster visits the field, and if there is evidence the cover crop is still growing there, that's not considered to be a "good farming practice," according to the RMA and NRCS guidelines. That could come into play in determining a potential crop insurance indemnity payment.
What are the "initial planting" dates for crop insurance?
Another question farmers are asking this spring: How early can you plant corn and soybeans and still be eligible for the replant coverage provided by most crop insurance policies? The "initial planting" dates are April 11 for corn and April 21 for soybeans in Iowa, says Johnson. These dates have not changed. If an insured crop is planted prior to these dates, the replant coverage is lost. In other words you will pay the entire cost yourself to replant, if replanting is necessary; your crop insurance won't cover it.
The payment is about $34 to $37 per acre for replant coverage in 2014, he says. As long as the producer uses good farming practices, crop insurance coverage will remain in effect. But planting prior to the dates of April 11 for corn and April 21 for soybeans in Iowa is considered to be an increased risk by RMA.
Summing up: Your main focus should be about attaching crop insurance to the subsequent crop you want to plant following a cover crop. "Because the acreage of cover crops is increasing rapidly each year, and cover crops are viewed favorably across the state for their conservation, soil health and other benefits, we need to make sure we're following these new RMA and NRCS guidelines," says Johnson. "Be aware we have two zones in the state, the western third of Iowa is Zone 3 and the rest of Iowa is Zone 4. You need to pay attention to these new rules concerning crop insurance attaching to the subsequent crop, which in most cases is corn or soybeans, once you destroy the cover crop."