For Tim Smith, farming has always been about a lot more than just producing corn and soybeans from his rich, Wright County soils.

Since he started farming in the late 1970s, Smith has constantly searched for ways to limit erosion and save soil with new tillage systems, cover crops and other advancements. He has embraced new technologies, such as precision nitrogen applications, cover crops, buffer strips and a bioreactor, to reduce the loss of nutrients to improve downstream water quality and build the quality of his soil.

And Smith, a Wright County Farm Bureau member, has actively advocated for conservation practices in Iowa and around the country.

He’s made presentations on cover crops and other conservation tools at a variety of farm meetings. He’s met with government and private conservation officials to find ways to boost conservation practices. Smith even spoke to seventh graders in a Des Moines middle school about farmers’ environmental efforts.

"I’ve always had a strong conservation ethic. My dad was one of the first farmers around here to stop moldboard plowing, and I’ve just carried that on," Smith said. "I always think we need to remember we are farming for the long term and we need to do everything we can to improve the land and water."

2015 conservation award

Smith’s dedication to improving water quality and saving soil, along with his advocacy efforts, has earned him the 2015 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year award. The award, which is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), will be presented next month at a ceremony in Altoona.

In addition, Smith will receive the free use of a John Deere utility tractor for up to 12 months, or up to 200 hours. The tractor-use award is courtesy of the Van Wall Group, a central Iowa-based equipment dealer.

Smith, whose 800-acre farm just east of Eagle Grove includes land that has been in the family since the 1880s, takes a scientific approach to adding conservation practices that fit best on his farm.

He has completed a nutrient management plan on all of his fields and does soil and leaf-tissue sampling to obtain precise information on each field’s nitrogen and other nutrients needs.

Working with the local Natural Resources Conservation Services and Soil and Water Conservation Services offices, Smith uses an on-line tool that compares his results to other farms in terms of soil loss, carbon sequestration, water quality and other factors.

Last year, Smith joined the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), an initiative of the National Corn Growers Association to improve soil health in key farm states. Over a five-year period, SHP plans to identify, test and measure management practices that improve soil health and benefit farmers’ operations.

Prairie strips

Recently the Wright County farmer planted strips of native grasses and forbs, called prairie strips, on a portion of his land near Eagle Creek. Along with providing conservation benefits, Iowa State University studies have shown these prairie strips hold promise in adding nesting habitat and increasing wild bird populations, including ringneck pheasants.

Smith first started planting cover crops in 2011 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative and is very excited about the advantages they can provide for both farmers and the environment.

"I really think that cover crops are the next big step in improving water quality and reducing soil loss," Smith said. "All the research shows that we need something growing on the ground in the early spring, when we often get some of our biggest rains, and cover crops can do that."

Smith began by planting cereal rye and has since experimented with tillage radishes, hairy vetch and other species, working to determine which offer the most benefits.

Improving the soil

So far, corn and soybean yields are comparable when fields are planted with cover crops over the winter, Smith said.

But the farmer is confident that the cover crops are providing long-term agronomic benefits by improving the soil.

"You can really see that it is helping the health of the soil," Smith said. "The texture is better and it helps the microbes in the soil that are so important for crop growth."

Cover crops have been shown to significantly reduce the potential for soil erosion, improve water quality and provide key habitat for wildlife, he said.

"We all need to step up for conservation and water quality and start doing things like cover crops," Smith said. "It’s a long-term process but the benefits are going to add up."

Regional awards

Before earning the 2015 statewide award, Smith was the winner of the regional conservation award for District 2 in north central Iowa. Other regional winners are: Dallas Huebner, Hawarden; Dean Sponheim, Nora Springs; Donald Bahe, Stanley; Thomas W. Simons, Carroll; Timothy Minton, West Des Moines; Joe Armstrong, Montezuma and Gary and Sharon Franklin of Keosauqua.