Pinpointing Policy: Wheat as a Cover Crop
As farmers and ranchers, we’ve always considered ourselves stewards of the land with a universal goal of leaving the land we farm in better condition than what it was when we started. American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) policy 237 / National Conservation and Environmental Policy 1 states, “We support improving the environment by enhancing conservation, wise use and productivity of our natural resources through private ownership, individual freedom and market-oriented approaches as our most important conservation and environmental goal and a consistent long-term national conservation and environmental policy should be pursued that would: 1.8. Recognize farmers and ranchers as stewards to the land and protectors of the environment.”
Over the last decade or so, Farm Bureau members have increasingly discussed, studied and implemented multiple farming practices falling under various headings such sustainable, regenerative or climate smart. Key principles often include keeping the soil surface covered (i.e. cover crops, mulch cover, etc.), limiting the amount of physical and chemical disturbance of the soil as much as possible (i.e. no till), increased biodiversity, keeping roots living below the soil and integrating grazing livestock into the system. While many of these practices aren’t necessarily new, this focus on soil and range health often relies on farmers being flexible and requiring them to adapt throughout the year as conditions change. For example, I may need to switch up mid-season and plant and graze more cover crops in late summer (than at first planned) to avoid overgrazing my pastures. AFBF policy 240 / Sustainable Agriculture, supports this need for flexibility, “2. Sustainable agriculture should recognize the benefits of accepted management practices that American agriculture currently employs, such as Integrated Pest Management. Sustainable agriculture should be flexible enough to fit America's diverse climates, cropping patterns, land use standards and regulatory requirements. Regulations should not limit agricultural practices without strong scientific and economic justification. Sustainable agriculture should rely on measurable results and focus on adaptive management for continual improvements rather than a rigid set of practices.”
Lastly, billions of dollars are and will likely continually be directed toward conservation practices and climate-smart agriculture through direct USDA actions, legislation and the farm bill. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has made one thing clear: She won’t consider any cuts to the funding she got in the Inflation Reduction Act for climate-related farming practices. “We’ll negotiate everything, but I'm not interested in any way in rolling back what farmers want on conservation.”
With all this focus on conservation, climate-smart agriculture and soil and range health, is it time to consider giving appropriate credit to farmers for growing crops that serve multiple purposes, such as conservation and soil health along with providing income as a cash grain crop. An example of this is winter wheat. We all recognize wheat is a common and profitable crop for Kansas farmers, but winter wheat also has many qualities that make it a great tool in building soil health. Its winter hardiness allows you to maintain a growing root in the soil during the cold of winter. It has quick growth in the fall, allowing it to maintain cover and hold soil in place. It can be grazed, and after the crop is harvested, its residue will remain in place for a significant time until planted into with another crop.
To that end, the Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) Wheat Advisory Committee has proposed the following policy language. AFBF Policy 225 / Risk Management / Crop Insurance
1. Crop/Revenue Insurance
1.3. We support:
new 1.3.111. The option to classify mechanically seeded (non-volunteer) winter wheat as a standalone cover crop that can be taken to grain harvest; and being eligible for cover crop programs while remaining a cash crop covered by crop insurance.
The goal of this proposed policy is to allow winter wheat to be classified by USDA as “wheat” for program purposes but with multiple intended uses, including cover crop. The wheat could be harvested for grain, insured against crop losses due to natural events, maintain base acres if needed and allow growers to be eligible for any cover crop incentive programs offered by USDA or other groups.
Note: Currently, winter wheat can already be classed by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) with the dual uses of grazing and grain. This was done to allow farmers who rely on it for both grazing and as a cash crop to also qualify for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which provides payments to eligible livestock owners and contract growers who have covered livestock and who are also producers of grazed forage crop acreage that have suffered a loss of grazed forage due to a qualifying drought during the normal grazing period for the county.
While many USDA programs recognize the soil health benefits of winter wheat as a cover crop, many rules and regulations explicitly forbid harvesting cover crops for grain. For example, FSA, in its definition of Cover Crop, Acreage and Compliance Determinations Handbook, 2-CP (Revision 16) (page 55) says, “These crops are used primarily for their conservation benefit and not for grain or forage harvest.” The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in their Conservation Practice Standard (340), Cover Crop, says, “Do not harvest cover crops for seed.” The Risk Management Agency tends to follow the lead of NRCS and FSA, defining a cover crop as, “A crop generally recognized by agricultural experts as agronomically sound for the area for erosion control or other purposes related to conservation or soil improvement.”
Should KFB forward to AFBF the proposed policy language? Should farmers work to get USDA to give appropriate credit for growing crops that serve multiple purposes, such as conservation and soil health while at the same time providing income as a cash grain crop? AFBF policy 240 / Sustainable Agriculture, includes several policy points driving Farm Bureau advocacy efforts including the need for profitability, “1. Agriculture provides society numerous benefits including, but not limited to food security, a safe and healthy food supply, environmental benefits and community stability. It is important to remember that agriculture needs the flexibility to alter cropping patterns and practices to meet the demands of operating in an open marketplace where our competition comes from farmers worldwide. When considering sustainable agriculture, there is only one constant and that is agriculture is only sustainable when it is profitable.”
If you have thoughts on the proposed policy language, email Mark Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 2/2/23 AGRIPULSE – Quote taken when talking to reporters after the committee’s first farm bill hearing of 2023.