Even in the horrific aftermath of the this year’s extreme weather events across Midwest farms, there is some welcome news. A total 620 Nebraska farmers took the opportunity to work with the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Cover Crops for Disaster Recovery Initiative, and plant cover crops to help the health of their fields.

It was an opportunity for some to try cover crops for the first time - a step toward realizing their long term benefits.

“The work takes time, and a growing season is a good start,” said Aaron Hird, Nebraska state soil health specialist with NRCS.

The cover crop program was fully dispensed on about 125,000 acres for a total of $2.6 million. Each participant was held to a state implemented cap of $7,500 per person and a maximum cost rate of $33.97 per acre.

Cover crops provide benefits during fallow periods, when the soil has lost some of its capacity to function, by keeping the biological community working, Hird said.

“Cover crops are like a spark plug in the soil’s engine,” he said.

A living cover maintains the flow of energy from the sun into the soil ecosystem.

Keeping soil from exposure to the sun and rain cuts down on erosion. Cover crops also compete against weeds.

The opportunity to work with hundreds of farmers in Nebraska to plant cover crops on qualifying fields for the Disaster Recovery Initiative is monumental, Hird said. Many of those folks might not have ever had the opportunity to grow cover crops during the growing season and beyond. A total 52 participants qualified as a beginning farmer, meaning they have farmed for 10 or fewer years.

NRCS Nebraska recommended the best management practices to each participant and provided them with custom cover crop designs to meet their primary objectives.

“This ‘one on one’ service is something NRCS provides to all land managers, owners and interested customers,” Hird said.

States in the region provided similar opportunities to help farmers during the disaster, including Kansas, where farmers used the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). The state held a special summer sign-up to encourage farmers to plant cover crops that improve water quality and soil health, prevent soil erosion, and suppress weeds on areas not planted to crops.

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program helping agricultural producers protect the environment while promoting agricultural production, as assistant state conservationist Sharonté Williams described it.

Nebraska fields were particularly hard hit prior to the planting season with flooding, sediment deposits and severe erosion. More extreme weather through the season resulted in “stripes” of crop damage from hail storms.

Despite these challenges much of the 22 million-plus acres of cropland in Nebraska were successfully planted and stand a chance to produce average to excellent crop yields, according to Hird.

Taking prevented planting provisions of crop insurance was a tough decision for many farmers. It typically resulted from severe damage to fields or flood waters still covering the land.

Even though some fields were left without a cash crop, they still had to be rebuilt.

“Flood damage had to be repaired, debris removed and bare fields covered,” Hird said.

NRCS was able to step in and partner with these farmers, offering cover crops to cover the fields.

Another benefit of cover crops is the opportunity to graze them. Congress approved early haying and silage chopping this year.

“‘Nebraska Strong’ is a message that can resonate with all Nebraskans this year,” Hird said. “The NRCS cover crop partnership helps work for the future productivity of the land.”

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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