Jill Sackett and Dr. M. Scott Wells, University of Minnesota

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released updated termination and insurance guidelines for farmers using cover crops. An interagency workgroup organized by Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Risk Management Agency (RMA) developed a cover crop management guide in order to have consistent and flexible cover crop policy for the Nation’s farmers. The third version of the guide, NRCS Cover Crops Termination Guidelines, was released in September 2014. RMA also has released updated insurance information on its 2015 Cover Crop FAQ website. 

The USDA information includes definitions and explanations for practices related to cover crop use. Cover crops can be any number of seasonal plants used for conservation purposes that don’t interfere with cash crop yields. In order for a cover crop to not be considered a cash crop, it must be managed and terminated according to NRCS guidelines. Cover crops can be terminated by frost, chemical application, crimping, rolling, tillage, or cutting. Termination dates are determined by a farm’s location on the NRCS Management Zone map. The majority of Minnesota is located in Zone 3 which requires termination at or before cash crop planting. Some eastern Minnesota counties are in Zone 4, and their termination must be at or within five days after cash crop planting, but before cash crop emergence. Farmers using summer fallow will need to follow different guidelines. For further information about definitions and the Cover Crop Management Zones, review the NRCS Cover Crops Termination Guidelines and the RMA 2015 Cover Crops FAQ (links above).

Farmers in northern latitudes may lack the time and growing degree days to successfully establish cover crops after cash crop harvest. Because of this, farmers and researchers have been developing alternative establishment methods that interseed cover crops into standing cash crops. Establishment methods that occur at or near the cash crop’s physiological maturity are accepted by USDA as long as the cover crops do not interfere with cash crop yield or harvest. Some farmers and researchers, however, are looking into early-seeded (i.e. V4-V8 in corn) cover crops in order to get more fall growth. Farmers interested in trying this or other novel cover crop techniques may be able to apply for a deviation from the NRCS guidelines and should contact their insurance provider. Additional information about establishment and deviation from the guidelines is in the RMA 2015 Cover Crops FAQ (link above).

All those interested in cover crops are encouraged to review the latest USDA cover crop termination and crop insurance guidelines. If you have questions about how cover crops will affect your crop insurance and/or your involvement in USDA programs, please contact your insurance provider and local USDA service office.