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Cover crops have become a more recently focused commodity in Maryland. A cover crop, a plant that covers soil, is specifically used to improve soil health and nutrient cycling, reduce erosion, enhance water availability, increase biodiversity, and control weeds, pests, and diseases. These crops have proven to improve the quality and productivity of general farmland and the Chesapeake Bay. As producers have begun to recognize the importance of cover crops, cover crop adoption in Maryland has significantly grown and more producers want to understand how cover crops are insured under their existing crop insurance policy. Because of this, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) included cover crops under the Federal Crop Insurance Policy Program through the 2018 Farm Bill, providing risk management for all eligible cover crop commodities on operations, under your existing crop insurance policy.
This program is specifically for producers who have farms consisting of cover crops. A federal crop insurance policy protects crops and producers against loss of revenue due to unexpected causes of loss. Protection will carry over coverage to eligible cover crops that will not impact the yield or harvest of the insured crop. As cover crops and crop insurance continue to coexist, farmers need the correct information regarding cover crops, insurability, and proper farming practices.
USDA’s Cover Crop Eligibility
Under the federal crop insurance program, a cover crop is defined as any “crop generally recognized by agricultural experts as agronomically sound in the area for erosion control or other purposes for conservation or soil improvement” (RMA Fact Sheet, 2019). These types of crops can include grass, legumes, and forage crops for seasonal cover and other conservation purposes. For a cover crop to be insured under the policy, the commercial crop must also be insured. Currently, RMA does not have an approved list of cover crops. Producers can consult agricultural experts, however, about those crops which are “agronomically sound” for your specific area. Also, an approved list of cover crops, by state, can be found on the NRCS State Field Office Technical Guide website available at https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/#/details.
Understanding the Guidelines and Good Farming Practices
To develop a consistent policy for cover crops, RMA, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) organized an interagency task force, and developed the NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines. These guidelines were designed for producers inexperienced in cover crops or who are incorporating cover cropping systems into their farming practices, and want assurance that their cropping management decisions will be considered a good farming practice (GFP) and insured. As a producer, you can ensure that your cover crop management system is considered GFP through one of the following options:
Following generalized zonal guidance provided in the guidelines;
Using published materials from agricultural experts applicable to the crop and area which support the cover crop management practice as a GFP determination (per the GFP Handbook); or
Requesting an exception to the guidelines by receiving agricultural expert support, in writing (per the GFP Handbook). *This is only the case if options 1 and 2 do not cover a specific cover cropping management system.
Following the guidelines is not required to obtain insurance. If you choose not to follow the guidelines or do not obtain other agricultural expert material, insurance still attaches as per the changes in the 2018 Farm Bill. In the event of a claim questioned by an Approved Insurance Provider (AIP), on the grounds of cover crop management, the AIP will investigate before making a GFP decision.
What Should a Producer Know?
In accordance with the 2018 Farm Bill, cover crops planted during or after the 2020 crop year will have insurance attached to them at the time of planting the insured crop. For concerns solely regarding cover crops, cover crop management practices, and production management decisions, including fertilizer application, seeding rates, and tillage practices, determinations will be based upon GFP regulations. The commercial crop must also follow all other crop insurance provisions, so that it can remain insurable. If the acreage has been interplanted (two or more crops planted in a manner that does not permit separate agronomic maintenance or harvest of the insured crop), the insured crop is no longer insurable.
When planting a cover crop after an insured crop is harvested or planting the cover crop with intention of harvesting, the cover crop is considered to be a second crop. Also, a cover crop covered by FSA’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) or receives other USDA benefits associated with forage crops will be considered a plant with the intention of haying, grazing, or harvesting. In this case, the cover crop will also be considered a second crop, and all rules and procedures will apply. RMA does allow for a commodity crop to be insured following a cover crop, under certain conditions. If the conditions are not met, the commercial crop will be considered double-cropped and not insurable.
In some cases, based on the NCRS guidelines, a cover crop will have to be terminated, meaning that growth of the crops has ended. If the cover crop is not terminated according to the NRCS guidelines, it will not be considered a cover crop, which may adversely affect the insurability of the following crop. In the case of cover crop termination in Maryland, non-irrigated cover crops termination needs to take place within 5 days of planting the commercial crop, but before the commercial crop emerges. For irrigated cover crops, termination will be based on the acreage and crop system, but should be terminated before commercial crop emerges. Finally, termination does not include grazing or harvesting – although in many cases grazing is allowed but will not be viewed as terminating the cover crop.
What Should a Producer Do?
Producers should realize that harvesting a cover crop can impact their commercial crop’s eligibility for the crop insurance program. Terminating a cover crop through traditional methods, such as tilling, winterkill, or spraying herbicide, are allowable with Maryland’s cover crop program and with the crop insurance program. Before planting a cover crop a producer should review his/her risk management plan and consider the following:
What if the cover crop is harvested and the commercial crop is uninsurable?
Does his/her risk management plan allow for this level of self-insurance?
Would the operation be better off using an approved termination process?
Each producer will answer these questions differently depending on his/her risk management plan. Producers should also consult with their crop insurance agent to discuss possible cover crops and records which need to be maintained in order to maintain eligibility for the crop insurance program. Before planting rye, for example, a producer should consider the impact of harvesting the rye crop on the operation’s risk management plan. Will the producer be able to self-insure the commercial crop that follows the harvested rye? Would the producer be better off planting a traditional cover crop? A producer should check with a crop insurance agent to determine if there are other requirements and records that should be kept in order to remain eligible for the crop insurance program.
For more information regarding cover crops and commodity crop insurability, farmers should check with their local crop insurance agent. Producers can buy crop insurance directly by contacting a crop insurance agent. Please contact your local USDA Service Center or the call center for further assistance at 877-508-8364.
USDA-NRCS. NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines Non-Irrigated Cropland. Washington DC. U.S. Department of Agriculture. June 2013. Available at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1167871.pdf
USDA-RMA. Cover Crops. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture/A Risk Management Agency. June 2013. Available at https://www.rma.usda.gov/en/Topics/Cover-Crops
USDA-RMA. Cover Crops and Federal Crop Insurance. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture/A Risk Management Agency Fact Sheet. June 2019. Available at https://www.rma.usda.gov/Fact-Sheets/National-Fact-Sheets/Cover-Crops-and-Crop-Insurance.
USDA-RMA. 2016 Cover Crops Crop Insurance, Cover Crops and NRCS Cover Crop Termination Guidelines. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture/A Risk Management Agency. August 2017. Available at https://www.rma.usda.gov/en/News-Room/Frequently-Asked-Questions/Cover-Crops
Clark, Andy. Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education: SARE. 2015. Available at https://www.sare.org/resources/cover-crops/
USDA- FOTG. NRCS Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture/A Risk Management Agency. Available at https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/#/details
This material is funded in partnership by USDA, Risk Management Agency, under award number RMA21CPT0011599