Conservation Compliance an Important Part of Planning

5/2/2014 12:05:12 PM

As the days become a little longer and warmer, and Nebraska producers start making preparations for spring planting season, it’s important to make conservation compliance part of the checklist. Conservation compliance refers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirement that highly erodible lands be farmed in a manner that maintains a certain level of residue and minimizes soil erosion. This may include taking steps such as incorporating minimal or no-till operations or planting cover crops. Conservation compliance also prohibits the conversion of a wetland, or planting of an agricultural commodity on a converted wetland. Converting a wetland may include removal of trees, installing new drainage or modifying existing drainage to an area.

The Agricultural Act of 2014 (farm bill) continues the requirement that producers adhere to conservation compliance guidelines in order to be eligible for most programs administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This includes the new farm bill price and revenue protection programs that will be implemented by FSA in the upcoming months, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Livestock Disaster Assistance Programs and Marketing Assistance Loans, as well as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) administered by NRCS. The 2014 Farm Bill now also extends conservation compliance as an eligibility requirement for federal crop insurance premium subsidies, which may account for approximately 60 percent of a producer’s overall premium cost. When a producer is determined to be in violation of conservation compliance rules, it not only causes ineligibility for USDA program benefits on the farm in violation, but also on all other farms in which that producer has an interest. The result can be a very significant monetary impact on that producer and his or her farming operation.

Conservation compliance may be of particular concern for livestock producers who apply manure to their cropland. While the normal nutrient management evaluation should be made, there are additional considerations if the manure will be applied to highly erodible land, especially if the manure will be injected or incorporated. Although the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality does not require that manure be injected or incorporated, several counties do have zoning ordinances in place that require injection or incorporation. If the manure will be applied following a low residue crop, such as silage or soybeans, and the producer plans to incorporate it, the producer should consider planting a cover crop after incorporation to ensure that there is adequate cover to control erosion and meet conservation compliance requirements. Fall planted cover crops, such as cereal rye, should be planted no later than mid to late October. Spring planted cover crops, such as oats, must be planted early enough to allow for six to eight weeks of growth prior to termination. If the manure is applied following a high residue crop, such as corn or wheat, incorporation is usually acceptable providing that tillage is normally allowed in the conservation plan and the required amounts of crop residue are maintained.

To ensure that conservation compliance requirements are met, it’s important for producers to work closely and be in good communication with their local NRCS and FSA offices. Review and understand existing highly erodible land (HEL) and wetland (W) determinations on FSA maps. Visit with NRCS regarding what steps are required on HEL to ensure that an approved conservation system is being actively applied. Request NRCS to develop a conservation plan to outline the use of crop rotations, tillage methods, cover crops and other conservation practices to ensure compliance with HEL provisions. When weather events or some other circumstance occurs that is not addressed in the conservation plan, talk with your NRCS staff first to ensure any proposed changes in tillage or cropping will not result in a compliance issue. Now more than ever, it’s critical for conservation compliance to be a strategic part of each producer’s operation.

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