No-till and cover crops working together in central Iowa

ILFHeaderCover crops are growing in popularity across the state as a way to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality and soil health. In central Iowa, where fall tillage is common, there has also been increasing interest in no-till — especially no-till soybeans thanks to innovative farmers like Mike Helland leading by example in Story County.

IMG_0065Mike hosted a field day last Thursday near Huxley to share his experiences using cover crops in his operation. While there was significant interest in the benefits of cover crops, including a credit on crop insurance, the majority of the questions and discussion was around using no-till in central Iowa where the soils tend to be heavier and wetter than other soil regions.

Mike began no-tilling soybeans in 1993 after attending the Farm Progress Show the year before. That first year the soybeans yielded better than the other fields so he decided to try it again the next year. After similar results, he began no-tilling all his soybeans in 1995.

“Tillage is one of the root causes of compaction,” stated Helland. “This year, the no-till soybean ground was holding up our equipment instead of sinking in like some of our neighbors. I love planting no-till beans – it’s such a smooth ride!”

As we headed back inside, Mike was joined by fellow farmers Aaron Lehman and Mark Kenney on a panel to discuss how they are using cover crops in their conventional, organic and seed corn operations, respectively.


Left to right: Aaron Lehman, Mike Helland, and Mark Kenney

 “I thought there’s got to be something better than seeing the fields black, allowing soil to wash and blow away following seed corn harvest,” commented Kenney. “So we started seeding oats after harvest to protect our Century Farm. There is no natural system that leaves the soil black, so his is our effort to keep the soil protected!”

IMG_1800As the panel wrapped up, Helland shared this great piece of advice, “Everyone should try cover crops on 10 acres. It doesn’t cost much and who knows – you might like it!”

We have a few more field days still on the schedule, visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

If you missed this field day, be sure to tune in to our webinar December 12th at Noon to learn how #NotillB4Beans and #CoverYourBeans can help save time and money.

Liz Juchems


The field day was hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farmers Union, the Soil Health Partnership, the Iowa Seed Association, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Iowa Learning Farms.

Cover Crop Crop Insurance Demonstration Project

This article was originally published on Clean Water Iowa’s website.


Crop insurance is an integral part of the farm safety net that provides protection for farmers after bad weather impacts their crops. Cover crops can help prevent erosion and improve water quality and soil health; among other benefits.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and partners worked with the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) to establish a 3 year demonstration project aimed at expanding usage of cover crops in Iowa.

Through this project IDALS will provide $5/acre for cover crops to eligible applicants. Funding will be provided through RMA as an additional insurance premium discount through normal crop insurance processes. The new premium reduction will be available for fall-planted cover crops with a spring-planted cash crop. Some policies may be excluded, such as Whole-Farm Revenue Protection or those covered through written agreements. Participating farmers must follow all existing good farming practices required by their policy and work with their insurance agent to maintain eligibility.

Sign up is currently open until 5:00 pm on January 15, 2018, for farmers and landowners to certify cover crop acres for the program. Sign up to begin the application process. Please note that cover crop acres currently enrolled in state and/or federal programs are not eligible for this program.

For more information, please see the Program Rules, Frequently Asked Questions, or contact IDALS.

Julie Whitson

Do Crop Insurance Rules Put a Chill on Soil Health Practices?

An opinion piece by authors Ryan Stockwell and Jim Moseley argues that inflexible crop insurance rules are slowing the adoption of conservation practices that build soil health such as cover crops.

Practices that can improve soil health such as no-till, cover crops or multi-year crop rotations can decrease erosion, decrease nutrient loss, improve water infiltration and even provide added value in the form of fewer field passes and increased forage value for livestock. The authors argue, however, that crop insurance rules could force farmers to choose between crop insurance coverage and adopting practices that could improve their soil health:

“Yet, a significant barrier stands in the way related to crop insurance, which has become an absolute necessity in today’s weather extremes. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers who use cover crops must meet specific management rules. No other agronomic practice includes such eligibility rules.”

While some rules have been changed in the past several years, confusion persists over rules and requirements. The article encourages policy to become more flexible by allowing local agronomic experts to guide best practices, as is the case with many other agricultural practices such as fertilizer application or weed management.

Read the article from Agri Pulse here. What do you think? Do you have a crop insurance question or story related to a soil health practice?

Julie Whitson

Crop Insurance Considerations for Prevented Planting

IMG_2431For some areas of Iowa, frequent rains this spring/summer created prevented plant acres that are a great opportunity to seed cover crops.  If you were unable to get your corn planted by May 31 or soybeans by June 15, you may be eligible for prevented planting payments.  Contact your local FSA office and crop insurance agent before making decisions about prevented planting acres to determine your payment eligibility.

What choices do producers have if they are prevented from planting by the final planting date?

  • Plant the insured crop during the late planting period, if applicable. The late planting period is generally 25 days after the final planting date but varies by crop and area, as specified in the policy. For most crops, the timely planted production guarantee is reduced 1 percent per day for each day planting is delayed after the final planting date.
  • Plant the insured crop after the late planting period, in which case the insurance guarantee will be the same as the insurance guarantee provided for prevented planting coverage.
  • Plant a cover crop and receive a full prevented planting payment (but do not hay or graze this cover crop before November 1 and do not harvest it at any time).
  • Plant a cover crop after the late planting period and hay or graze it before November 1 and receive 35 percent of the prevented planting payment for your first crop.
  • Plant a second crop after the late planting period or hay/graze a cover crop after the end of the late planting period but before November 1 and receive a prevented planting payment equal to 35 percent of the prevented planting guarantee.
  • Leave the acreage idle (black dirt) and receive a full prevented planting payment. Conservation improvements are allowed.

For more information on Prevented Planting, check out the 2015 USDA Risk Management Agency Fact Sheet for Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Liz Juchems

Natural Crop Insurance

Insurance is perhaps the only thing we purchase with the hope that we never need use it. Farmers have long been active in using insurance to mitigate some of the uncertainties inherent to farming. Insuring against uncertainty has been popular amongst farmers over the past decade; especially here in Iowa, which has seen a substantial number of extreme weather events.

However, Iowa is not the only place to experience these extreme vagaries in weather; the changes have literally been on a global scale. The problem has become so extensive that the most recent Farm Bill offers increased subsidies for crop insurance and has lowered the threshold of insurance payouts (for more info see the blog “Not your Father’s Farm Bill”).

Although we have put considerable resources into bolstering traditional crop insurance, we have largely neglected the value of healthy soils, which are nature’s own crop insurance policy. Healthy soils have minimal erosion and a healthy supply of soil organic matter. These soils provide slow-release plant nutrition through mineralization of organic matter. The organic matter in soil can also hold up to 20 times its weight in water, meaning excess water is absorbed during wet times and soil moisture is retained during droughts.

Adding cover crops and no-tillage to your farm operation are two of the best ways to invest into a “natural crop insurance policy”. Both practices enhance soil organic and reduce soil losses due to erosion. These practices do require a greater investment in field management, but it is worth remembering that the only thing more expensive than having insurance is not having it.

Crop Insurance and Cover Crops National Webinar Thursday, January 23rd

Thursday, January 23rd,  the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are hosting a national webinar from 1:00-2:30pm CST to discuss the USDA’s new cover crop termination guidelines.


The webinar will feature short presentations from four members of the USDA task force that created the new cover crop termination policy. The speakers will be Rob Meyers, North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program, Tim Hoffman, USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA), Norm Windman, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Jeff Schahczenski, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).

There will be opportunities for participants to type in questions about the guidelines and presentations.

The webinar is free and open to the public. To log on to the live webinar click here. If you can not attend webinar, a recorded version will be posted on the on the NCAT website webinar/video page within 24 hours.

Liz Juchems

NEW for 2014 – NRCS Guidelines for Cover Crop Termination

The NRCS has updated their cover crop termination guidelines for non-irrigated cropland for farmers looking to insure the following cash crop. The guidelines have divided the country into four zones based on primarily on rainfall and soil hydrology models to help achieve the conservation benefit of cover crops while minimizing risk of reduced yield of the following crop due to soil water use.

The majority of Iowa is in Zone 4, with western Iowa falling into Zone 3.

CC Termination Zones

If your farm is located in Zone 3, then the guidelines require the cover crop to be terminated at or before the time of planting.

If you are located in the Zone 4 portion of the state you have up to five days after planting, but before crop emergence to terminate the cover crop.

Information on how the guidelines were created, additional considerations for cover crop termination timing, and frequently asked questions can be found here.

Be sure to share this information with your crop insurance agent when discussing 2014 policies!

Liz Juchems