An innovative program that provides Iowa farmers a discount on crop insurance premiums for planting cover crops is catching on. The program, according to farmers who have used it, is easy to use and provides a welcome cost break as farmers take on the challenge of improving water quality.

“It’s a great program,” said Mark Heckman, a Muscatine County Farm Bureau member who serves on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. “It was really simple to sign up for it, and you see the benefit in cost savings.”

Scott Shriver, who raises livestock and organic crops near Jefferson in Greene County, agreed that the program offers a real benefit to farmers. “I signed up and then checked on my crop insurance bill this fall, and the credit was there,” he said. “That helped us offset the costs of planting cover crops.”

The discount on crop insurance is very welcome at a time of low commodity prices, said Scott County Farm Bureau member Jerry Mohr. “It’s a really nice perk at a time when we are doing everything we can to reduce costs,” he said.

The three-year cover crop insurance pilot program was launched in the fall of 2017. Iowa farmers who plant cover crops in the fall are eligible to apply for a $5-per-acre reduction on their crop insurance premium for their spring-planted crops.

A positive response from farmers

The Iowa crop insurance discount program, the only one of its kind in the country, received a very positive response from both farmers and crop insurance agents in its first year, said Matt Lechtenberg, water quality coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). “It’s had a broad reach with a lot of people interested, all over the state,” he said.

In all, approximately 700 Iowa farmers participated in the program, and it covered some 170,000 acres of cover crops, Lechtenberg said. In addition, there were about 300 crop insurance agents in the state who handled at least one application for the program, he said.

IDALS officials developed the program working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency as a way to provide incentives for farmers to plant cover crop acres. The program is targeted at acres that aren’t eligible for state or federal cost-share programs. 

IDALS officials are optimistic about seeing continued growth in the cover crop program for the 2019 season, despite a delayed harvest that has made cover crop planting difficult in late 2018. In addition, Lechtenberg said, the department has upgraded the application process to make it easier for farmers to sign up and for the agency to process the necessary data.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation supports the state’s program to offer crop insurance discounts for cover crops. However, the organization does not support federal programs that would make cover crops or other best management practices a requirement for participation in crop insurance, said Rick Robinson, IFBF environmental policy advisor.

A key for water quality

Cover crops are a key tool of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science-based program to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus into the state’s waterways. Iowa State University research shows that, on average, the use of cover crops can reduce nitrogen loss from farm fields by 31 percent and phosphorus loss by 29 percent.

Mohr, who farms near Eldridge, said he’s been planting cover crops for nearly a decade to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health and offer other agronomic improvements. “I’m a big believer that cover crops are improving my soil structure, which is helping retain moisture, and that’s going to translate into higher yields,” he said.

To learn more about the crop insurance discount and to apply for the program, go to The application deadline for 2019-planted crops is Jan. 15, 2019.