In a time of tight supplies of both forage and agricultural land, many Michigan producers are interested in making use of cover crops as alternative forages. Most cover crop species used in Michigan also have a long history of use as forage crops for livestock and offer great potential for dual use to improve soil while providing forage. However, if the cover-cropped acreage is also enrolled in a crop insurance program, Michigan State University Extension reminds farmers that it is important to recognize how intended use as forage may impact the insurance policy.
The challenge regarding use of cover crops as forages for insured cropping systems centers on how the cover crop can be used during its growth period and at termination. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) states that it wants to promote use of cover crops to the greatest extent possible, including forage uses. Nevertheless, cover crop management must not negatively impact crop yield. If the cover crop were to cause yield of the enrolled crop to drop, this would increase the potential insurance payout and is not compatible with the current design of the program which seeks to minimize the cost of the program to the taxpayer. Termination regulations on use of cover crops in insured crops are based on plant water use requirements and are designed to make sure the cover crop is terminated early enough to prevent it from stealing stored soil water from the insured crop that will be planted next.
RMA issued a fact sheet on cover crop termination policy in June 2013 and clarified it in a Natural Resources Conservation Service fact sheet in December 2013. The NRCS publication defines acceptable cover crop termination dates for non-irrigated crops enrolled in RMA programs. Dates are based on regional rainfall patterns for four zones across the United States. Michigan is in Zone 4, the highest rainfall zone, where cover crop termination must occur “at or within five days after planting, but before crop emergence.” Therefore, Michigan producers have the ability to maintain cover crops without any mandated time gap between cover crop termination and planting of an insured crop.
The December rule specifically allows forage harvest or grazing of actively growing cover crops as long as sufficient regrowth occurs after forage harvest or grazing to meet the target for ground cover at cover crop termination. This target is defined in the contract for each individual farm. The only exception to cover crop use during active growth is cropland enrolled in summer fallow insurance programs, where the land is not used for a full year and no harvest or grazing of any kind is allowed. The summer fallow program does not apply to Zone 4 and thus need not concern producers in Michigan.
Unfortunately, acceptable methods for cover crop termination are not defined in the regulations, but were described by RMA and NRCS in a Jan. 23 webinar to include any method that causes cover crop growth to completely stop. This can include natural winterkill, herbicides or tillage. Termination by harvest for seed or grain is not allowed because it is considered to be double cropping. Termination by crimping, mowing or harvest for hay and haylage is acceptable as long as it is done at a sufficiently mature stage that regrowth does not occur. The June 2013 regulation specifically states that grazing does not qualify as termination, but in the January webinar, RMA seemed to understand that grazing can also lead to cessation of growth in a mature annual cover crop. In the absence of a published rule allowing grazing as a termination method, any producer planning to use grazing as a termination method should discuss the situation first with their crop insurance agent and be prepared to document and prove that the cover crop did not regrow after grazing. Agents will also be aware of any impending changes to the regulations as a result of the recently passed farm bill.