If farmers could earn a $5-per-acre discount on crop insurance for planting cover crops, more farmers might add the conservation practice to their operations. At least that’s the case in Iowa – where 1,700 farmers have enrolled more than 500,000 acres of cover crops since fall 2019. And that’s not counting farmers and landowners who enrolled in the program in fall 2020. Those applications are still being reviewed and confirmed, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
A similar program was introduced to the Wisconsin Legislature during the 2019-2020 regular session. Assembly Bill 795 was approved by the Assembly 98-0. It only needed a final vote by the Senate before it could be sent to Wis. Gov. Tony Evers for final consideration. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate didn’t convene for its final regular-session day of the year; the bill failed to be approved.
Wis. Rep. Todd Novak, R-51-Dodgeville, led the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, which held hearings around the state in 2019 and 2020. The group gathered stakeholder input, which culminated in the release of a report detailing specific legislative proposals. Assembly Bill 795, authored by Wis. Rep. Travis Tranel, R-49-Cuba City, was one of the legislative proposals identified by the report.
It noted a crop-insurance premium rebate wouldn’t be given if an individual enrolled the same acres in another program – such as in a producer-led watershed-protection grant, a soil- and water-resource-management program, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program or Conservation Stewardship Program. Other states that have created similar rebate programs use comparable guidelines.
“Rep. Tranel and I have been working on the issue and I believe the proposal will be returning in some form this legislative session,” Novak said. “Because (the proposal) involves a ($200,000) appropriation the timing relative to the passage of the budget will be important. Where it makes sense I’ll be advocating for unfinished business related to water quality to be incorporated into the budget bill.”
Novak said for non-budgetary items he’ll work for passage through the standard legislative process separate of the budget.
“This is an important step we can take right now to address issues related to nutrient runoff and nitrate leaching,” he said.
Margaret Krome is the program director of public policy for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She also coordinates activities for the Iowa County Uplands Watershed Group led by farmers. The crop-insurance-discount program for planting cover crops speaks to all types of farmers across Wisconsin, she said.
“We’ve learned that cover crops are compelling for those who have an incentive to either plant them for the first time or are expanding acreage to them,” she said.
Assembly Bill 795 is a great example of bipartisan support, she said. It had been approved unanimously in the Assembly.
“It’s also smart from a fiscal point of view,” she said. “With their ability to hold water and reduce the impacts of flooding, cover crops can save the state in infrastructure repairs.”
Mike Naig, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said, “Cover crops are proven to reduce nutrient loads and improve soil health. As part of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, our goal is to have at least 14 million acres of cover crops planted in the state of Iowa.”
His department and the USDA’s Risk Management Agency introduced Iowa’s three-year demonstration project in September 2019.
Illinois has a similar program. The second year of the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program ended with 768 applications in January 2021. Farmers enrolled more than 185,000 acres. The application period for the discount program opened in December; in just 24 hours the acreage limit was met. The program applies to acres planted to cover crops in fall 2020.
If Wisconsin growers could earn an insurance discount for planting cover crops they might increase acreage in cover crops or try different cover-crop mixes. Jed Long of Hartung Brothers Inc., a seed company headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, said $5 per acre to $10 per acre is typical of what seed costs. A discount would help reduce the costs of trying new cover-crop seeds.
Hartung Brothers has been using cover crops ahead of its seed-corn crops for several years, Long said.
“We see two main benefits from planting cover crops,” he said. “First they help control erosion. The second benefit is less tangible. They help control weed pressure but this may also be due to the burndown herbicide we use to terminate the cover crop.”
A drawback is that cover crops require more management, he said. Management would include, but isn’t limited to, added seed cost, fuel, equipment, labor, termination, weather, rotation and working with landowners.
Jay Aspenson farms in the Driftless Area region north of Ferryville, Wisconsin. He’s planted cover crops for about seven years. He farms 1,300 acres, working with several landlords with small parcels. Aspenson grows corn, soybeans and wheat. Along with those crops he’s planted 1,150 acres to cover crops.
He has experience with ground-driven as well as aerial seeding – both by airplane and helicopter. And he has experimented with different cover crops, including a six-species mixture to improve soil health. If Wisconsin growers could earn an insurance discount for planting cover crops he would try other mixes, he said.
Cover crops reduce erosion and have helped mellow the soil, he said. He plans to do soil testing this year to see if organic matter has increased; he tests soil every four years.
Dave Justman of Cuba City, Wisconsin, has planted cover crops for eight years. That’s included planting a mix of oats, rye and tillage radish into standing seed corn. In commercial corn and soybeans he has cover crops flown on when corn is about 50 percent yellow, and when soybeans are about 50 percent to 75 percent yellow.
A good cover-crop stand with a dense root mass helps “float” harvest equipment better. That’s especially beneficial if there’s been much rainfall, he said.
He likes using oats as a cover crop because they provide a host for mycorrhizal fungi, he said. The fungi provide crop protection against pests and pathogens. Another benefit of cover crops in general is that they help suppress weeds.
But a drawback of cover crops is they require a good burndown herbicide, he said. Armyworms also can be a problem with rye cover crops.
“I think a crop-insurance-discount program for planting cover crops could increase adoption of cover crops,” he said.
With climate change, farm policy will change in the next 50 years.
“Subsidies will be under greater scrutiny,” he said. “(Farmers) will need to show we can do more with no-till and cover crops.”
When farmers have an economic incentive, such as crop discounts, they will adopt such practices, he said.
Joe Stapleton farms near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He started planting cover crops nine years ago to minimize erosion on his rolling farmland. Without cover crops his land was bare after he harvested corn silage, he said. He plants cereal rye in the fall. An insurance discount would encourage him to experiment with different cereal cover crops.
Dan Smith, University of Wisconsin-Madison nutrient and pest-management specialist, said, “Any incentive could go a long way to increase the use of cover crops. Producer-led watershed-protection groups and outreach events have helped to increase farmer adoption. When farmers see the benefits of cover crops it’s easier for them to adopt.”
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.