In the “Frank Comments” column (Page 6) in the May issue of No-Till Farmer’s Conservation Tillage Guide, we outlined major cover-crop concerns with current government-payment and crop-insurance regulations.

However, we pointed out that policy changes were likely coming later this spring from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in regard to Acreage Crop Revenue Program (ACRE) payment rules concerning cover crops.

As expected, the USDA recently issued an official ruling in regard to eligible ACRE cropping programs. The new ruling is in effect only for the 2011 and 2012 cropping years due to the pending Farm Bill.

Juan Garcia, deputy administrator of farm programs for the USDA, says the previous ACRE policy only allowed the initial crop, which was the first crop, excluding double-cropping, to be eligible for an ACRE payment. In double-cropping situations, the second crop would be eligible as an ACRE crop, as long as the second crop is a covered commodity such as corn, wheat, soybeans or grain sorghum.

He says FSA defined double-cropping as being able to plant the first crop and take it to harvest — then planting the second and carrying it to harvest within a 12-month period.

Here’s an example of the previous FSA policy in regard to a covered commodity crop: If corn was planted after a cover crop that is not a covered commodity, the corn would not have been eligible for an ACRE payment since it would not meet the initial crop definition.

Rule Changes Were Needed

The recently-issued FSA rule changes allow farmers to seed cover crops and still be eligible for ACRE payments.

“What we did is allow cover crops to be planted while now defining the corn as the initial crop to be eligible for an ACRE payment,” says Garcia.

He says instructions were recently provided to field offices on how to properly code acreage reports where cover crops are involved. If an ACRE payment is red-flagged, steps are now taken so the software programs would recognize the corn as the initial crop and compute the proper payment.

Extra Cost For Field Visits

Garcia says producers will be required to pay for a field visit so FSA can verify that the cover crop hasn’t been harvested. While states have established their own field-visit costs for these drive-by checks, most rates have been established at around $40 for the field visits.

However, the FSA field-visit fee in Kansas is set at $47 per certification, an added tax some growers have classified as ‘government extortion.’ These no-tillers maintain most of the folks who will be doing the verification wouldn’t recognize a good cover crop from a field of weeds.

There is also concern about how the program will be policed and the detrimental impact it will continue to have on cover-crop adoption.

Lack Of A Cover-Crop Incentive

University of Wisconsin ag economist Paul Mitchell says this cover-crop rule change pertains only to farmers who participate in the ACRE commodity-support program for base acres. These recent rule changes will have no impact on NRCS regulations regarding cover crops.

“Historically, these farms couldn’t plant a cover crop before a commodity crop and still receive ACRE payments, so farmers had no government-payment incentive to plant cover crops,” Mitchell says. “This rule change now allows these farmers to plant a cover crop and still receive ACRE payments.”

Mitchell says the ACRE program will likely be replaced in the new Farm Bill, as crop insurance will receive increased emphasis as a way to support agriculture.

With the new Farm Bill, Mitchell says key questions regarding cover crops eligibility for FSA programs will be:

Will the new commodity-support program still provide payments to farmers if they plant cover crops?

As most of the emphasis will be on crop insurance, and not on commodity programs, will the federal government relax its crop insurance rules on cover crops?