A new pilot program aimed at boosting Iowa’s cover crop acres by linking them to discounts on crop insurance premiums is gaining momentum, an official with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) said last week.

“The reaction to the program has been really positive,” said Matt Lechtenberg, IDALS water quality coordinator. “Farmers are asking a lot of good questions and working to see how they can participate.”

Under the program, considered the first of its kind in the country, Iowa farmers who have planted cover crops this fall (2017) can apply for a $5-per-acre reduction on their crop insurance premium for their spring-planted crops in 2018.

Officials at IDALS worked with the U.S. Department of Agri­­culture’s (USDA) Risk Man­agement Agency (RMA), which oversees the federal crop insurance program, to establish a three-year demonstration project aimed at expanding the usage of cover crops in Iowa.

The pilot program, first an­­nounced in November, offers an online sign-up and application process for farmers and landowners to certify eligible land for the program. The link to the program is at www.cleanwateriowa.org/covercropdemo.

The deadline for sign-up is Jan. 15, 2018.

The program, Lechtenberg said, is designed to both spur interest in cover crops and sustain momentum in planting cover crops on more acres.

Other incentive programs, which IDALS and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have offered for the past few years, offer farmers cost-share dollars to provide an incentive to try cover crops on a limited number of acres. This new program, he said, is designed to help sustain the momentum by providing an incentive for planting cover crops on more acres, year after year.

Piece of the puzzle

“This is another piece of the puzzle to expanding cover crops in Iowa,” said Lechtenberg, who worked with other IDALS officials to address farmers’ questions last week during the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Des Moines.

Cover crops are a key tool in Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative, the IDALS implementation program for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was launched in 2013 to improve water quality in Iowa and reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Research by Iowa State University for the water quality initiative showed that farmers planting cover crops could reduce the loss of nitrogen from their fields by more than 30 percent and cut phosphorus losses by nearly 30 percent.

More and more farmers have begun to plant cover crops, like cereal rye, tillage radishes and other species, to cover their fields after corn or soybeans are harvested.

A 2017 report by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimated that Iowa farmers planted more than 600,000 acres of cover crops in fall 2016, up from about 10,000 acres of cover crops statewide in 2009.

Iowa conservation leaders ex­­pect another gain in cover crop acreage planted in 2017.

Crop insurance is an integral part of the farm safety net that helps farmers manage the risks associated with growing a crop and provides protection for farmers impacted by severe weather and challenging growing seasons.

After the Jan. 15 deadline of the pilot program, IDALS will review and verify the applications and then will contact farmers to let them know if they qualify for the crop insurance premium reduction.

The department will forward that information to RMA, which, in turn, will provide the information to insurance carriers participating in the program.