Why Plant Cover Crops?
Cover crops are important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the productivity of Maryland’s farmland. In the fall, cold hardy cereal grains such
as wheat, rye and barley are planted as cover crops in newly harvested fields. Once established, cover crops recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil from the previous summer crop and protect fields against wind and water erosion. In addition to their water quality benefits, cover crops improve soil health, increase organic matter in the soil, reduce weeds and pests and provide habitat for beneficial insects.
Grants to Plant Cover Crops
To help offset seed, labor and equipment costs associated with planting cover crops, the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS) Program provides farmers with grants to plant small grains and brassicas (plants in the cabbage family) on their fields immediately following the summer crop harvest. MACS typically offers a traditional cover crop program, which does not allow harvest, and a commodity program for farmers who want to harvest their cover crops.
Sign-up for the Cover Crop Program is held in early summer at soil conservation district (SCD) offices. Cost-share rates vary from year to year, however, in recent years harvested cover crops paid an average rate of $25/acre while traditional cover crops ranged from $45/acre to $100/acre. MDA provides cover crop farmers with attractive field signs to place on their property.
The following provides a basic overview:
- Cover crops may be planted after corn, soybeans, sorghum, tobacco or vegetables are harvested.
- The planting deadline is early November. Incentives are available to farmers who plant cover crops in October.
- There is a five acre minimum, but no acreage caps.
- Barley, canola, rapeseed, kale, rye, ryegrass, spring oats, triticale, forage radish and wheat may be used as cover crops.
- All seed purchased for cover crops must be tested and labeled in accordance with Maryland Seed Law and Regulations. Seed must be free of prohibited noxious weed seeds, have a minimum germination rate of 80 percent and have no more than 16 restricted noxious weeds per pound.
- If homegrown seed is used, it must be tested prior to planting for purity, germination and noxious weeds by either the Maryland or Delaware State Seed Laboratory.
- The current year's seed tag for all purchased seed must be attached to the fall certification.
- Fertilizer applications are prohibited in fall and before March 1.
- Applicants must be in good standing with MACS and in compliance with nutrient management requirements.
Farmers who want to participate in the Cover Crop Program must sign up at their local soil conservation district office during the annual enrollment window, which usually takes place in early summer and runs for approximately three weeks. Beginning in June, farmers should check this website or contact their soil conservation district for the current year's sign-up details.
Planting Deadlines and Incentives
Incentives are available for early planting. All cover crops must be planted by early November to qualify for payment and ensure their success. Farmers may qualify for additional incentives by using highly valued planting practices.
To qualify for payment, farmers must certify acres planted with the soil conservation district within one week of planting and after kill down or suppression, which takes place between March 1 and June 1. SCDs conduct field checks on a percentage of certified acres to verify compliance.
The Cover Crop Program is administered by the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS) Program and funded by the Chesapeake Bay Restoration
Fund and the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund.