Need help with cover-crop expenses? It’s available through a virtual smorgasbord of government and state programs.

The alphabet of programs – EQIP, CSP, SARE, MRBI, GLRI and more – offer qualifying growers $20-50 or more/acre in assistance. They are available through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and some state entities and are especially a hit on no-till and strip-till operations. (Program descriptions and application instructions are available at the NRCS website: www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs.)

Brothers Keith and Brian Berns, Bladen, NE, use cover crops in their corn, soybean and wheat rotation and depend on a CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) contract to make it happen. They also operate Green Cover Seed Co.

“We saw three times as much interest in cover crops this year over last,” says Keith Berns. “A lot of guys are working off a CSP program checklist. It’s a good program.” The Berns follow their winter wheat with “a mix of grasses, legumes and other components” to help increase the biological life of the soil until corn is planted. The result is less moisture and soil loss in winter and a stronger start for corn.

Many cover crops are planted after fall crops, a timing situation that causes many to forego the process, according to a survey last year by Corn & Soybean Digest (see http://tinyurl.com/CoverCrops), Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), West Lafayette, IN.

But the value of cover crops in preserving precious water and soil while enhancing nutrients can’t be challenged. It’s causing more growers to use them and seek financial assistance to help cover the cost, says Bill Kuenstler, NRCS conservation agronomist, Central National Technology Support Center, Fort Worth, TX.

Adds CTIC’s Karen Scanlon, “I think assistance is one way to increase their adoption. With the right financial and technical help, growers will select the best cover crops for their operation and know how to adapt their management to maximize the benefits of cover crops.”

 EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) is popular for growers without a full-fledged NRCS conservation program. In Iowa, for example, growers in 2010 could receive up to $60/acre for planting winter-hardy species like cereal rye or winter wheat. Up to $41 or more was available for non-winter-hardy, such as oats and spring wheat. For a living mulch, such as common vetch, about $56/acre was available.

“EQIP and related initiatives such as GLRI, Agriculture Water Efficiency Program (AWEP), or Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) are popular in Indiana and other states,” says Barry Fisher, NRCS Indiana state agronomist, pointing out that cover crops could receive priority over other practices when assistance funding is considered.

Kuenstler says most growers should be eligible for EQIP, since it helps address soil erosion and quality, nutrient and pest management problems.

“CSP, on the other hand, is aimed at producers already doing a pretty good job of managing resource problems and want to do an even better job. So a producer who has erosion and nutrient-management concerns under control, but wants to improve soil quality, would qualify for the enhancements that include cover crops.”

Fisher encourages growers to take advantage Conservation Cropping System workshops and other programs in Indiana and elsewhere. Information on applying for EQIP and other programs is available online, as well as cover-crop management tips.

“While there, check with the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to see if it or any of its partners offer any assistance through a special watershed project or a water-quality grant,” he says. “Many SWCDs have  cover-crop funds to offer.”

Fisher says other assistance is available through Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG). Under CIG, EQIP funds are used to award competitive grants to non-federal governmental or non-governmental organizations, tribes or individuals.

Keith Berns says the cost of a typical cover-crop seed is $20-30/acre, so EQIP, CSP and other funding can help cover much of the cost. His family company (http://greencoverseed.com) has a cover-crop calculator to help determine a program’s cost. Indiana and other state NRCS offices also offer cost calculators.

Funding for 2011 NRCS programs should be available, says Fisher, but could tighten as the year progresses. Also, the popularity of cover crops may cause seed shortages, particularly for higher quality seed varieties, he adds. “Do your homework on best varieties for your area and talk to your seed dealers early. Be cautious of cheap VNS (variety not stated) seed.”

Even if funds aren’t available, consider that many cover crops can scavenge 50-70 lbs. of nitrogen that would otherwise be lost through leaching or denitrification.

“Cover crops will also break up compaction, build organic matter and reduce soil erosion, all of which lead to healthier, more productive soil,” he says.