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What Do I Have to Plant for a Cover Crop?

University of Minnesota Extension, Stearns County News
June 25, 2014         
Source:  Dan Martens, Extension Educator
University of Minnesota Extension
Stearns, Benton & Morrison Counties

What Do I Have to Plant for a Cover Crop?
By Dan Martens, University of Minnesota Extension

FOLEY, Minn. (06/20/14) —  A crop insurance agent called recently to ask about cover crops that were approved for use in their county. They were told to call the Extension office to find out. For the caller, I’m sorry if I sounded a little on edge about answering this question. I’ve found the answer depends on which agency’s rules someone is trying to comply with. That is sometimes difficult to sort out.

The specific question was whether oats or rye were “approved.” Both can be used for cover crops. Where you have taken prevented planting payments, you CANNOT harvest a crop for grain this year. Winter rye would not make grain this year, if planted this summer. If you want to keep full prevented planting payments, you can harvest either of these, or other crops, for a forage crop after November 1 – if the weather allows. Your prevented planting payment is reduced to 35% if you harvest or graze crops planted for forage on those acres before November 1. If you want to harvest the rye for grain in 2015, you would normally plant it late enough in the fall so it would likely NOT produce enough forage to be practical to harvest this fall. It might provide a little grazing with an ideal fall. 

U of M Extension DOES have a list of forage and “cover crops” that can be used for a variety of purposes with planting date and planting rate information. These crops can have value for one or more of the following purposes: forage feed, reducing erosion, loosening the soil, providing nitrogen, hold or make nutrients available, and weed suppression. NRCS has a list of cover crops primarily for the purpose of trying to improve soil characteristics. Many of the same crops are on both lists.

Crop insurance agents should tell you what the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) Federal Crop Insurance requires. NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) staff should tell you what they required.

1. Am I REQUIRED to plant a cover crop on land that was too wet to plant a regular crop? I’ll share what I think I’ve learned so far, BUT DOCUMENT the ANSWER for YOUR situation with YOUR insurance and county agencies. Listen and watch for any new directives that might be issued.

a. Based on discussions I’ve had with crop insurance people, there is NOT a general federal crop insurance rule that requires you to plant a cover crop on prevented planting acres. They have information that says you need to follow any rules set by NRCS, FSA or other agencies.

If you plant a cover crop that is a perennial or biennial, there are requirements about how you terminate that crop before planting a new crop in the spring that you would insure for 2015.

b. In my discussions with FSA staff and NRCS staff, there currently is NOT a USDA general rule that requires a cover crop on prevented planting acres – EXCEPT MAYBE on land that is identified as HEL (highly erodible land), or when enrolled in conservation programs that require cover crops. HEL areas are subject to serious wind or water erosion. When in doubt, check with FSA and NRCS staff. 

c. At this point the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) indicates that producers must effectively control noxious weeds and otherwise maintain the land in accordance with sound agricultural practices, as determined by the Secretary - related to farm program participation. Cover crops can help to control erosion on some land. Cover crops might help control some weeds. Spraying and clipping are weed control tools in some situations. Ignoring needs for “care of the land” can be an issue.

Rules or no rules, farmers have a vested interest first for preventing weeds (noxious or not) from going to seed; and to keep valuable soil in place on fields, rather than filling road ditches, drainage ditches, creeks, rivers and lakes. The soil is the foundation for everything the farmer has first.  At the same time farmers need to find strategies that make sense in terms of finances, time and labor.

2. Are there other reasons to plant a cover crop? Along with those listed earlier, Fallow syndrome is an issue where yield for corn and small grains might be reduced next year where the ground is kept black this year. A special mycorrhizae fungus grows around roots and helps to make phosphorus available to the crop. If the field is kept black, this fungus population deteriorates. Growing weeds will reduce this problem, but we don’t want weeds to spread by seed or root structures. Planting a cover crop on the land can reduce this problem. Applying phosphorus and zinc in a starter fertilizer for corn can help next year. There are mixed reports of this being an issue for soybeans.

3. Farmers who need large amounts of forage feed might still be trying to plant a crop for feed. I’ve written about late planted corn silage, forage sorghum, and other crops that might be planted yet for this purpose. Many of these crops will serve some of the benefits of a cover crop as well as a feed crop. As stated in previous articles, farmers need to know how cropping decisions fit with their crop insurance coverage. Talk with livestock nutrition reps, creditors or others who have a stake in how things turn out. 

You can search Internet for “Minnesota Extension Cover Crop Options.” In Stearns, Benton, and Morrison Counties, you’re welcome to call the County Extension Office, or call me at 320-968-5077 or 800-964-4929. If you don’t have County Extension ag staff, you can call the farm information line at 800-222-9077.


Daniel Martens
Extension Educator, Ag Production Systems
(320) 968-5077
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