USDA: Consider Cover Crops

Demand for Seed Skyrockets, Supplies Tight as USDA Encourages Cover Crops

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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This German millet was planted for a Green Cover Seed field day near Bladen, Nebraska. Since USDA moved the haying and grazing dates for prevented planting acres, demand for varieties of sorghum and millet has shot up. USDA has tweaked its programs to encourage cover crops. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Prevented planting claims have topped $151 million so far and are expected to easily surpass $1 billion, USDA officials said during a call Monday. And, as the calendar rolls to July, the department continues to encourage farmers to consider planting a cover crop on those unplanted acres.

"It's certainly been a challenging spring for producers across the country, both in areas where we had flooding, as well as areas where we just had so much water that producers just haven't been able to get into the field to plant," said Bill Northey, USDA's undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

"The most important help is sunshine," Northey added. "We have been able to get a little bit of crop in some areas planted over the last month, which is way later than we would like it to be, and we still have many areas that are not planted."

Keith Berns, one of the owners of Green Cover Seed in Bladen, Nebraska, told DTN on Monday that cover crop seed demand jumped quickly last month after USDA announced it would allow haying and grazing on prevented planting cover crops as early as Sept. 1 this year rather than the traditional Nov. 1. Farm organizations in several states had complained that any nutritional value from a cover crop would likely be lost before November. The Sept. 1 date provides more flexibility and encourages farmers to plant those forage crops.

"Basically, the entire state of South Dakota started calling all at once," Berns said. "So it has been a challenge. There definitely are seed shortages. We have seed and we're trying to figure out how to allocate it out."

Demand has jumped quickly for warm-season crops such as varieties of sorghums and millets. Seed was already short for some of those varieties before USDA opened the cover crop harvest window. While trying to help others, Berns said he also has customers who typically plant cover crops after harvesting winter wheat in July, and he is trying to cover their needs as well.

"It's definitely exciting, and there is no shortage of seed calls right now," Berns said. "We're trying to help out other seed companies and new customers while saving the seed needed for our traditional customer base."

On the call with USDA, the Risk Management Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency each detailed changes the department has made in recent weeks to encourage farmers to plant cover crops in the wake of the rough spring.

One consideration is that farmers who plant cover crops on prevented planting acres will be eligible for a minimal Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payment once USDA details further specifics on the MFP county rate. Those details are expected to come sometime later this month. Farmers who either choose not to grow a cover crop, or simply cannot get into their fields, will not be eligible for MFP payments on those unplanted acres.

On the cover crop haying and grazing date, Keith Gray, chief of staff for RMA, said the decision was encouraged because hay stocks were already tight before the wet spring. "We know that, along with a typically harsh winter as well, that stocks on feed and forage are at a very tight supply right now," Gray said.

The haying and grazing change right now is only for 2019, but Gray said there will be more discussions later about further changes to haying and grazing deadlines for 2020 and beyond.

NRCS frequently encourages cover crops for farmers to manage soil erosion, weeds and other pests. Cover crops can help with soil health and water retention as well.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can provide cost-share dollars and right now has some special enrollment in eight states -- Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- that would allow those producers to receive cost-share dollars. However, producers need to reach out to their NRCS quickly because the signup deadlines vary in each state, but all of them will end before mid- to late-July.

"Unfortunately, we don't have an unlimited amount of resources, but we're doing the best we can in those states to make some additional dollars available," said Matt Lohr, chief of the NRCS.

Steve Peterson, associate administrator for Farm Service Agency, said FSA has worked to align its prevented planting reporting guidelines to accept claims filed with RMA as timely filing for FSA as well, up until FSA's final planting date of July 15. So farmers who are insured, as long as they meet the RMA requirement of reporting within 72 hours of the final planting date, can then come into FSA up through July 15 and FSA will consider claims as timely filed.

Northey noted USDA continues to look at increasing the indemnity coverage for prevented planting claims, based on the disaster aid legislation last month. The difficulty, Northey said, is that USDA has to address a lot of disaster needs with a limited amount of funding.

"We have not set what that will be. We know the demand will be greater than the dollars available to that," Northey said.

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Chris Clayton