Overwintering cover crops and small grains

By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services

The H2O Ohio program is a state conservation program that pays farmers for conservation practices.  It includes overwintering cover crops and a small grains program to help keep nutrients out of Lake Erie.   Farmers are now signing up for these programs but may not know or remember all the details.  Here is a summary of the key points for each program.

The purpose of these two programs is to encourage the establishment of overwintering cover crops program or a small grain.  The primary goals are to reduce sheet, rill, and wind erosion  and improve water quality by reducing excess nutrient flows to surface water.   Adding overwintering cover crops and small grains also increases crop and soil diversity to improve soil health.

Some key points on the overwintering cover crop program:  The overwintering cover crop must be established no later than October 15th.  Some farmers may need to hire a plane, helicopter, or a highboy applicator to get the cover crops planted in time, depending on time of harvest. Drilling and surface broadcasting are allowed if finished by October 15th.  The cover crop must be maintained until at least March 15th to qualify for payment.  The seed mix must include a minimum of 50% of the full rate of an overwintering species.  Producers need to follow NRCS Appendix A Cover Crop guidelines on seed quality and testing requirements. Make sure you apply enough seed based on pure live seed and germination!  Contact your seed supplier or local Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) to make sure you meet this requirement to get payment.

Adding a small grain to a corn-soybean crop rotation adds both crop and soil diversity but also improves soil health by breaking up the pest cycle and allowing other cover crops to be grown after the small grain is harvested.  This practice is limited to no more than one third of an applicant’s total cropland acres. Small grains include winter annuals (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) and must be harvested as a grain; the crop cannot be harvested as a forage.  A cover crop or double crop is required to be planted following the harvest of the small grain crop and must be planted by October 15th to qualify.

Other requirements that apply to overwintering cover crops and small grains include that manure and/or fertilizer, based on the voluntary nutrient management plan (VNMP), may be applied prior to seeding or after March 15th. Manure shall not be applied on frozen, snow-covered or saturated soils or applied when the local weather forecast for the application area contains greater than a 50% chance of precipitation exceeding one-half inch in a 2- hour period. Fertilizer shall not be applied on frozen, snow-covered or saturated soils or applied when the local weather forecast for the application area contains greater than a 50% chance of precipitation exceeding one inch in a 12-hour period. Producers may apply for these practices for up to three years. In addition, for small grains, no broadcast fertilizer applications are allowed during the time period the cover crop or double crop is required to be maintained.  Crop residue must be maintained until March 15, no fall or winter full width tillage is allowed.

Farmers need to fill out a VNMP to qualify and must supply that to their local soil and water conservation district.  As part of both the overwintering cover crops and the small grains program, they need to provide acres and field maps where the cover crop and or small grain  is established.  Also provide seed tags or seed tests (including: % purity, % germ., % weed seed, Ohio noxious weed content) and bills for the cover crop and or small grain. For small grains, the local SWCD will verify whether the small grain was harvested and whether a cover crop or double crop has been planted.

The local SWCD will review all information to complete the contract and determine eligibility, enter info into their Beehive, and conduct site visits to verify overwintering cover crop are established and maintained until March 15.  Payments to producer’s include $25 per acre payment annually for overwintering cover crops and $35 per acre for small grains, for up to three years when verification of all program requirements are met. These conservation practices keep our soils covered with living plants and living roots after the main crop is harvested and keep both soil, sediment, and nutrients on the land, and out of surface water.

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