USDA Rolls Out Conservation Grants

Once Taboo for Crop Insurance, USDA Grant Seeks to Test, Encourage Relay Intercropping

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Relay cropping with cereal rye harvested last summer with soybeans growing up through the rye crop. (Photo courtesy of Ross Evelsizer from Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development)

AMES, Iowa (DTN) -- Iowa Learning Farms and a small group of farmers will get the chance to test the benefits of "relay intercropping" under a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant awarded Thursday.

The grant, announced with some fanfare on the Iowa State University campus, was one of 31 Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) totaling $40 million awarded by USDA.

Relay intercropping involves planting a winter cover crop such as cereal rye or winter wheat, but instead of terminating the crop, a legume such as soybeans is planted directly into the cover crop. Then, the grain is harvested off the wheat or rye while the soybeans continue to grow. The practice essentially allows a farmer to grow three cash crops over two years instead of just two.


"Relay intercropping is going to allow that wheat or that cereal rye to grow to maturity so it can be harvested for its rye or its wheat, so that becomes a cash crop," said Jackie Comito, director of Iowa Leaning Farms. "Meanwhile, you will plant those beans right into that standing rye. The additional benefit is it becomes a cash crop."

There have been a few early test sites for relay intercropping in northeast Iowa in recent years.

Now that the $539,000 grant has been awarded, Iowa Learning Farmers will select six farmers to test the practice and will conduct three trials on university farms as well, Comito said. There's a social component to the grant of demonstrating to farmers the benefits of trying a new practice and planting directly into a standing cover crop.

"There is a social side of what are farmers' concerns or resistance to it? Do they see it as an opportunity?" Comito said.

The study also will examine how the intercropping system affects overall yields. Another key component of the trials will be to test what the three-crop strategy means for water-quality benefits, she said. The grant is tied into funding from the state, which also is providing matching funds partially to see if relay intercropping can help Iowa's nutrient-reduction strategy in waterways.

"That's the real addition to this, too, is to really quantify it," Comito said. "We need some good data, too, so we can overcome some of the bureaucratic barriers like crop insurance or things like that."


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the array of Conservation Innovation Grants announced Thursday will ideally reduce the risks for farmers and provide them with options to show they can benefit financially from some of these practices.

"It's tough to ask farmers to do these (practices) because it often requires an expenditure, and investment, upfront," he said. "And it's important for farmers also to see the benefit of that investment before we ask them to essentially spend their own resources."

Yet, not too long ago, practices such as relay intercropping were considered taboo by federal crop insurance, run by USDA's Risk Management Agency (RMA). When asked whether crop insurance would be a problem for these trials, Vilsack said, "We've taken care of that." He added that crop insurance was tweaked when the department encouraged more double cropping across the country last year. "RMA has also adjusted risk management so this is no longer a barrier."


During the event at the university, Vilsack also announced $19 million for two new nutrient management projects under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) specifically to target nutrient management. One will go to a group, Family Farms LLC, which will promote the use of biochar in nutrient management plans to reduce nutrient runoff along parts of the Mississippi River Basin "so we don't have the water quality challenges that we've had in the past in the Mississippi Basin."

A second watershed project funded is Environmental Initiative Inc., which will develop networks of farms and look to balance nutrient needs, dubbed "nutrientsheds" in which manure from livestock farms will be collected and processed through centralized anaerobic digesters.


The Regional Conservation Partnership Program was created in the 2014 farm bill as a strategy to address environmental concerns in larger watershed-scale projects. Groups that have used the program, though, have complained lately about the complications and hundreds of hours of work that go into applications for those projects.

Vilsack deflected some of that criticism, pointing to the $19.5 billion in funding for conservation programs under the Inflation Reduction Act and the ability for producers as individuals to apply for programs as well as partnerships on different levels and scales, such as the Conservation Innovation Grants. For RCPP projects, those are expected to be regional projects that require more work.

"We're dealing with larger-scale watersheds, so you are naturally going to get more groups and bigger groups that have the capacity to do more work in a larger area," Vilsack said. "We have a suite of options, which we didn't have before. And now with the Climate-Smart Partnership initiative, which we didn't have before, I think people can find a place for support and help if they want."


Along with the funding projects, USDA also announced two agreements to expand technical assistance for nutrient management as well. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) signed memorandums of understanding with the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and its International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) to recommend people to participate in NRCS' technical service provider program. The program will certify people who will be able to help producers and landowners with nutrient management plans, for instance.

A second agreement was reached with Land O'Lakes subsidiary Truterra, which also will work to develop nutrient management programs and increase technical capabilities of producers and landowners. Ideally, Truterra will help streamline technical assistance to producers as well as help farmers and landowners enroll in other NRCS programs.

The expansion of technical assistance to crop advisers and Land O'Lakes comes after lawmakers have been questioning whether NRCS has the staff capacity to expand technical assistance. At a congressional hearing last month, congressmen asked Vilsack if more could be done for crop consultants to provide conservation technical assistance.

For the full list of Conservation Innovation Grant projects, go to….

Also see "USDA Releases $1 Billion to Incentivize Rural Renewable Energy Grants" here:….

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Chris Clayton