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Smith Family Setting a Standard for Stewardship

SFI, Inc., a grain and livestock farm in western Iowa, definitely sits on the water-quality firing line. 

It’s in the Raccoon River watershed, which gained notoriety due to a nationally watched (and since dismissed) lawsuit by the Des Moines, Iowa, public water system. The suit attempted to point to upstream farmers as polluters of the city’s drinking water.

Two generations of the Smith family own and operate SFI, Inc. They’ve been very proactive on the water-quality issue and have received national recognition for it. What they are learning may point the way for other farms. 

Seth Smith spearheads their conservation efforts. 

SF: How do you keep manure runoff out of your streams?

SS: We have about 5 miles of streams and rivers flowing through our farm. We have buffer strips we graze along the waterways. We don’t fence the cows out of the water, but they are moved often and in a fashion that keeps stream banks stable. 

We like to bring the cows into tall forage pastures and let them stomp down a portion of the forage as they eat the rest. What they stomp down builds biology and increases water infiltration. It has nearly doubled our grazing days. 

Our farm has a feedlot with manure containment areas. A retention pond catches the runoff water from 15 acres around the feedlot. The water runs through settling basins to catch the solids before the retention pond. We have a center pivot irrigation system that we use to pump that water out onto an adjoining crop field during the growing season.  

SF: How do you control runoff from row-crop acres?

SS: That has changed greatly in the last few years. For 30 to 35 years, we managed our runoff by using ridge-till in a corn-on-corn system. We thought that if we could slow down the water, it would equate to less runoff. 

In recent years, we have learned that if we improve our soil biology with cover crops, apply compost from our feedlot, and control traffic, we can greatly increase water infiltration and reduce runoff. If we are going to actually fix anything, we have to get the entire field to act as the buffer strip. 

We compost the majority of our feedlot manure on-site. Our original idea was to shrink the total tonnage we hauled to the field. But composting actually does far more than that. Finished compost has no foul smell, the nitrogen is extremely stable, and it spreads very easily and evenly. 

We backhaul manure compost to the field as each load of corn comes in during harvest. It cleans out of the truck boxes easily and allows us to have the compost stockpiled on each farm ready to spread as soon as the corn is gone.  

SF: What is your cover crop program?

SS: We started with oats and cereal rye used separately. Currently, we use rye, oats, rape, vetch, and radish in our program. We learned by accident that in seeding multiple cover crop species, the vigor and total forage production are higher. 

Going forward, we plan to interseed all of our cover crops in the summer. We want a beneficial plant growing alongside all of our cash crops. We are building a machine right now that will interseed a cover crop and apply our sidedress nitrogen in June in the same pass.

We think this system will allow the cover crop plants to get growing, but the corn will shade them so quickly that they won’t compete for water. They won’t do much of anything until fall when the corn leaves begin to dry down and let the sunlight in.

SF: Do cover crops pay?

SS: They do on our livestock farm. We make money grazing them, and gain the soil health benefits for free. We have noticed less crop disease and insect pressure. As we use more diverse cover crop mixes, we expect to see bigger benefits in yields and reduced inputs. 

As we interseed cover crops earlier, they will be much bigger than fall-seeded covers. We can graze cow-calf pairs on good forage right ahead of weaning. Then in the spring, we can usually graze 30 to 40 days prior to corn planting.  

Last year on 100 acres from which we chopped corn silage with fall and spring grazing of cover crops, we were able to achieve 6,150 grazing days. Custom grazing in southern Iowa costs $1.50 per head per day, so that was $9,225 that the cover crop paid us. Our cost was 2 bushels of oats and 50 pounds of rye, plus drilling expense, for a total of $27 per acre.

That’s a grazing return of about $65 per acre from the cover crop.

SF: What is in your future?

SS: We have converted some acres to organic production, and we plan to change our rotation there to corn-soybeans-oats with an aggressive multispecies mix of cover crops. We also want to bring the cows onto all of our cropland to graze cover crops in the fall.

Two years ago, we started direct-marketing some beef, and it has been a good business. Etta takes care of that enterprise. It builds relationships with consumers who don’t have a contact with the farm. As long as the consumer is buying beef, regardless of who produced it or sold it, we all win.  

Our attitude toward change is much different than it was just eight years ago. Between building the total containment manure system and having a devastating tornado in the same summer, change became our new norm. Those events both turned out to be very positive in the end, and they’ve reshaped our management and perceptions.  

Now, when I see changes in consumer preferences and demands, it makes me look forward to the opportunity that awaits. We are in the business of producing food, and there are a lot of efficient ways to do it. 

SF Bio

Name: SFI, Inc.

Location: Nemaha, Iowa

Principle Operators: Lynn and Joy Smith; Seth (their son) and Etta Smith, whose children are Skylar, 8; Lane, 6; and Levi, 3

Farm Basics: 1,900 acres of row crops; 2,300-head feedlot; 260 cow-calf pairs; 500-head hog finishing barn

AWARDS: Regional winner and national finalist in the 2017 Environmental Stewardship Awards program of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

Seth Smith’s email:

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