A historic study of USDA’s farmer records showed that cover crops and conservation tillage could significantly lower crop insurance claims in some cases, but the research also identified some key gaps in the department’s massive databases.  

The study, which focused on the impact of cover crops and no-till practices on prevent-plant claims in 2019, was made possible by a provision in the 2018 farm bill that was intended to find ways to make use of USDA records to guide future policy decisions while ensuring that farmers’ private information is kept secure. 

The study’s key finding was that the use of those conservation practices reduced the chances that farmers in six Midwest states were unable to plant their crops during what was an extraordinary wet spring.

The results were stated as a reduction in the probability of prevent-plant insurance claims being filed: The fraction of prevent-plant claims to non-claims was reduced by 24%, said University of Illinois economist Bruce Sherrick, who managed the analysis of the USDA data.

“I have more confidence in these results than any I've ever seen before, because we have more and better data than any have ever seen before,” Sherrick said on a webinar sponsored by the Meridian Institute, which co-sponsored the research. 

USDA provided the encrypted data to the university, which maintained the records on a special server after stripping out any of the farmers' personal information. 

Bill Northey, who oversaw the delivery of the data as USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation in the Trump administration, said the study shows conservation practices can improve farmers’ individual crop insurance coverage, even if they don’t realize it. A farmer’s individual yield history is used to determine their coverage level. 

“If a producer is getting better yields and or missing losses, they are seeing some benefits …. in their own individual rating versus others that are showing some losses,” Northey said.

He said the study results raise the question of USDA should offer those farmers even better rates on their insurance.     

The researchers had to overcome several challenges, one of which prevented the study from analyzing the effects of cover crops and conservation tillage on crop yields. 

Sherrick personally took the blame for one of the challenges. He said he asked USDA for 2019 data on crop yields, but it turned out the 2019 data was for crops harvested in 2018; he said he should have asked for 2020 data. 

Another challenge: USDA’s collection of data on cover crops is so inconsistent that the researchers were forced to turn to satellite data compiled by a private company, Indigo Ag. 

The researchers say USDA collects data on annual cover crop acreage systematically in some counties, but only occasionally or not at all in others. The study recommends USDA find an efficient way to compile annual cover crop and no-till usage data on a field-by-field basis.

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“We all knew going into this, both USDA staff and those of us working on the pilot, that not all the data that we would ideally like would be available, just due to the limitations in funding and the way the data is collected,” said Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri. 

“But we also thought that this pilot effort would give us a chance to see how we could improve the data system going forward in the future, which is a goal everyone shares.”

In a statement to Agri-Pulse  in response to the study, USDA said: "We welcome analysis and public dialogue on how conservation practices interact with farmer success and sustainability. This sort of work can spur innovation and creativity in improving USDA programs." 

There were a couple of ways that cover crops and no-till benefitted the farmers. The conservation practices tend to be used more frequently on lower productivity fields, the same areas that are normally more likely to have insurance claims because the soil is less resilient.

Also, farmers with cover crops and no-till who didn’t get their crops planted until later in the normal planting window were still ahead of other farmers whose planting was delayed.  

The fact that farmers with those conservation practices can get their crops planted earlier in a challenging year can mean they ultimately get better yields, Myers said. 

“If we have a week or two delay (in planting) in April, maybe even intentionally, it really doesn't impact yield in most years. … But as we get later in the spring, that's when it's really important to get the crop planted on a timely basis,” Myers said. 

Prevent-plant claims were filed on about 19 million acres in 2019, about half of which were in the six states involved in the study: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota.

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