Ohio Farmer

Heavy soils prompt brothers to embrace conservation

The Rethmel brothers are among the 2023 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award winners.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

August 16, 2023

11 Slides

Here’s a tale of four brothers — Roy, Ron, Rod and Roger. Farming in northwest Ohio, they share the last name Rethmel as well as the passion to farm with conservation front and center. It’s proven to improve the environment and profitability.

In the 1990s, RR Farms in Defiance, Ohio, started with no-till and is now 100% no-till, except when manure needs to be incorporated.

A nutrient management plan encompasses all 1,400 acres they are farming and with heavy soils. They have worked with Defiance County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to establish 40 acres of filter strips, a recharge area and two rock chutes, as well as a windbreak and multiple manure storage options.

“Our dad, Frank, who has since passed, was a farmer at heart,” Roy says. “He worked off farm to build the farm so we could have a career farming.”

RR Farms is named for the “R” Rethmel brothers. Ron and Roy are full time on the farm. The oldest brother, Rod, who owns farmland and is a retired rural mail carrier, helps on the farm, as does Roger, who is in the grain-handling structure business and lends his expertise with the grain dryer.

Despite losing his father, Wade, in a farming accident when he was only 16, Frank always wanted to dive deeper into the ag industry. “My dad would be so excited about this award, as he was a very forward-thinking person,” Roy says.

Frank owned some acreage and, early on, raised sheep and a few beef cattle. In the 1960s, he ventured into hogs and erected one of the first dedicated farrowing buildings in the area with wood slatted floors.

The barn has been remodeled several times and is used as the nursery now. The small operation has expanded into 100 sows producing about 2,400 feeder pigs annually. They are farming 1,400 acres of corn soybeans, and wheat. “About the time us boys started graduating high school in the 1970s, more opportunities came along,” Ron says. “It was a gradual expansion, and as it became financially feasible, he purchased a couple more farms and helped us boys purchase some farms.”

Manure management

The brothers were looking for a way to store manure to embrace the 4R’s of nutrient management: right source, right rate, right time and right place. Again, they worked with conservation district and NRCS to apply and receive cost-sharing money to help build a lagoon for liquid manure from their farrowing and nursery facilities.

“It gave us better opportunity to handle the manure in a way we wanted to,” says Rod, who notes they also used Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding to help build two manure storage dry stacks. “We still keep gestating sows and raise hogs [market hogs and replacement gilts] on solid concrete floors with bedding, and having an opportunity to spread manure periodically was difficult because we’re growing crops on all the acres. Having a dry stack allows us to manage the manure, rather than having the manure manage us.”

Removing water, keeping the soil

Going back to the mid-1960s, Frank worked with the conservation district to establish surface, graded waterways, to control and remove water from their poorly drained, heavy clay soils.

Where water takes a significant drop from the field to a waterway, RR Farms has installed two rock chutes for erosion control.

In a corner of one field where a creek runs adjacent, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program provided cost-share to create a recharge area. Oak trees were planted to create a long-term, unfarmed conservation area.

They are currently reseeding some filter strips to have a little less fescue, and more timothy and alfalfa, which are good for wildlife. “The filter strips also include big blue stem, little blue stem and warm-season grasses, as well as some flowers and forbs to enhance the pollinator population,” Rod says.

No-till adoption

With heavy ground that required multiple tillage passes to create an adequate seed bed, the brothers moved to no-till in the 1990s. “No-till has helped with the management, economics and health of the soil,” says Roy, who also notes it allowed them to farm more acres. “Leaving that residue on top and with fewer trips across the field has made the soil healthier.”

In recent years, they have been trying more cover crops and planting green, terminating cereal rye while planting soybeans. “The cover crops concept is very good; we’re still trying to figure out the best system for our ground. We’re still working on what we can do to plant corn into a cover crop, which has been a bit of a challenge. We planted corn into clover and oats with mixed results. We’re still experimenting.”

Having wheat in the rotation supplies the straw for bedding, as well as the opportunity to try out cover crop mixes. “We follow wheat with cereal rye and radishes for ground that will be planted to soybeans in the spring,” explains Roy, who adds they’ve experimented with clover and vetch and other mixes before corn.

Cereal rye has been their go-to cover crop following soybean and corn harvest, given the lateness in the year. “We really feel like there will be long-term benefits,” Roy says.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what works best on the farm is the vast inconsistencies in weather. “What seems to work really well one year doesn’t work the next because it’s completely different,” Roy says.

Farm future

What’s ahead for the farm is still being sorted out. Roy and his wife, Vicki, have three daughters, and their husbands like to help, he says.

Ron and his wife, Cheryl, have a son and a daughter. Both are happy with their off-farm jobs. “There’s interest, and there’s nothing better than raising kids on a farm, but you have to really want to do it. We’ll see,” he says.

All the brothers agree the Defiance County Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS have helped them tremendously. “They do a really good job, and we respect them,” Rod says.

“They have a lot of good ideas for helping implement programs and practices to address some of our challenges with heavy soils,” Roy adds. “They help us to better manage the assets we have.”

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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