By Ryan Taylor, DU Regional Director of Public Policy, Great Plains Region
It makes good sense that farmers and ranchers are also conservationists. After all, conservation and agriculture go hand-in-hand both economically and ethically. Many farmers and ranchers are multi-generational stewards of the land where they live, raise their families and grow their crops and livestock. Just as the conservation-minded strive to see natural landscapes and wildlife preserved for their grandchildren, those who farm and ranch on that same shared habitat would like their descendants to have the opportunity to carry on their family legacy. One agricultural practice that can help producers contribute to conservation while strengthening their own operation is planting cover crops.
Cover crops are not meant to be an agricultural commodity, but rather, a commonsense practice to help sustainably conserve farmland and enrich the soil. These rotational plants often provide forage for livestock or habitat for migratory birds, further strengthening the bond between agriculture and conservation. That's why we were happy to see the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA) increase the flexibility and accessibility for cover crops by allowing producers to hay, graze or chop their prevented planting acres at any time with no penalty. That was good work and a step forward for conservation and agriculture.
Under crop insurance, prevented planting acreage refers to fields that cannot be planted due to extreme weather conditions such as flood or drought. Previously, cover crops on these acres could not be removed until November 1 – unless farmers wanted their prevented planting payment reduced by 65 percent. The result was a disincentive for farmers to plant cover crops at all, given the limited time for livestock to feed on the forage. By enabling producers to harvest cover crops when it makes the most agronomic sense, they will be able to keep fields operating as working lands and retain nutrients in the soil.
Not only is this good news for farmers who are unable to plant their normal crops, it's also good news for ducks. Seeding cover crops on otherwise barren ground helps with erosion control against abusive weather, filtering rainfall so vital wetlands are cleaner and healthier, and often providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife who are more than happy cohabitants as the cows graze and food grows.
Ducks Unlimited (DU) supported this policy change from the beginning – most notably with our public backing of Sens. John Thune and Debbie Stabenow's Cover Crop Flexibility Act (S. 1458). We applaud USDA's decision to make the Senators' idea a reality. Cover crops improve soil health and water quality, which only adds to the ecosystem services offered by wetlands and grasslands. Sustainable agricultural practices mean healthier habitat and more resilient rural communities where our valued partners in conservation – farmers and ranchers – need to carry on and prosper.
DU's mission of restoring and conserving waterfowl habitat in North America would not be possible without strong collaboration with agricultural producers across the continent. Farmers, ranchers and conservationists all want the same thing – rich and productive soil that supports a healthy and thriving ecosystem. With sustainable practices more accessible on prevented planting acres, we know that people, cattle, crops, waterfowl, the overall landscapes and our water quality will benefit.