It’s fun in the spring to walk through fields and see earthworm hutches, says Gail Rodabaugh, who farms with her husband, Chris, in Ohio’s Hancock and Hardin counties.
“An earthworm will come up, gather crop and cover crop residue around the area of the main hole, pulling much of this residue into the hole,” she says. “If you pull that fodder out, it will be down several feet in the ground. So those earthworms coming up have created a natural drainage in a lot of our fields, which has tremendously helped in clay soils.”
Chris attributes much of the soil improvements on his 1,200-acre farm to 30 years of cover crops and no-till. Using USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program, the farm has been 100% cover-cropped for the past three years.
“Like most farmers, we like to utilize government programs to help pay for some practices,” Chris says. “It was more hit and miss before, but we’ve learned a lot in the last three years on how to handle cover crops. Now that we’re out of the program, we may not plant 100% cover crop, but it will be pretty close. There are some management issues with it, but I’m a big believer in cover crop practices.”
Conservation practices have always been important on the farm, starting with Chris’s father, Charles, and uncle, Dr. Roy Rodabaugh, who was a veterinarian. In the 1960s, they used the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Hancock and Hardin County Soil and Water Conservation districts to put in a waterway and a pond to slow down and filter water eventually entering the Blanchard River and then Lake Erie.
“My father and uncle were willing to allow new practices on their ground. A lot of times that generation wasn't necessarily eager to change,” Chris says. “But they saw the value in it, and how it was helping the soil. As they began to step out of the farm operation, they let us do what we thought was best.”
By far, the family’s conservation strides were in exploring no-till and cover crops. Chris and Gail started farming in the late 1970s with his dad and uncle raising hogs and row crops. Some of the land in the farm today has been with the family for more than 150 years, and their grandkids are the sixth generation.
Two of their sons, Clint and Cody, are farming with them and also have a retail and custom meat processing business. Their third son, Chet, lives in West Virginia, but he helped with a lot of the conservation practices while at home.
In addition to no-till and cover crops, the Rodabaughs have installed waterways, drainage water management structures, wetlands, windbreaks, riparian tree plantings, filter strips and buffers, and many more. They were one of the first in the area to install a mortality compost structure.
For their efforts, Chris and Gail Rodabaugh have been named a 2021 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award winner.
“The Hardin SWCD proudly nominated the Rodabaugh family for this award because of their leadership over the years in promoting conservation in the county,” says Denna Clem, Hardin SWCD administrator. “They were early adopters of no-till and took their experiences and shared with other producers. They have also hosted field days and other events to help educate others.”
Chris says serving on the Hardin County SWCD board was the most educational and interesting board he’s ever served on.
John Deere came out with its 750 no-till drill in 1989. As the farm began to transition to no-till, the family decided to buy that drill in 1990. It was used not only on their fields, but also on many others.
“We probably custom-drilled up to 1,500 acres a year for several years on different farmers’ fields,” Chris says.
“There were a lot of people wanting to try it without the investment,” Gail adds.
The custom work began to taper off as more and more farmers were buying their own drills. “But that work helped pay for the drill, which was an expensive piece of equipment for us at the time,” Chris recounts.
Most of the planting is done in the green, and the cover crops are terminated after planting. Chris likes to plant rye and says a good stand can help with weed control, “especially the longer you let it go grow in the spring,” he says. “Cover crops have helped improve soil health on our farms.”
The farm purchased a cover crop seeder this year, and the goal is to get the seed spread evenly after harvest and before the first rain.
Last year, Chris used a mix of regular spring oats, winter oats and rape before corn, and cereal rye before beans. “I liked the winter oats; it came on late in the spring and gave us extra cover and root mass,” he says. “We'll probably play around with that a little bit more.”
Together with their sons, they have about 120 acres in tree plantings and wetlands. One of the first wetlands established was to thwart major flooding caused when state Route 30’s four-lane freeway was established.
“Water would come right across our farm and onto the next farm,” Chris says. The freeway created an odd-shaped field. “We signed it up in the wetland program, and installed 30 acres of trees and wetlands.”
Their first tree planting was in 2000. “We had three other small, odd-shaped fields that were close to Eagle Creek,” Chris says. “Through SWCD, we planted about 5,000 trees 21 years ago, and now my grandkids call it the woods.”
Clint and Cody have both installed wetlands and tree plantings on about 68 acres of highly erodible ground. “I’m not big on taking farm ground out of production — who is?” Chris says. “But if you have areas causing more environmental damage and more economic loss when in production, it makes sense to use these programs to help.”
There are several acres of filter strips and buffers along fence rows and streams. “We planted warm-season grasses in these areas for wildlife habitat,” Chris says. Water control structures are primarily used to control the wetland and also to close off tiles when they had hogs and were applying liquid manure.
Their 125-head sow-to-finish hog operation was sold in 2003 when none of the sons expressed interest. They were soon replaced with a new project — 65 head of Boer goats. As their boys transitioned out of FFA, the goat herd was slowly downsized.
“Our son, Chet, started raising Boer goats for a 4-H project for his kids,” Gail says. “So, we got back into it for the heck of it. We missed the babies on the farm.”
Chris says he’ll be 70 next spring and, “I’m not one of those who have to farm the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m willing to turn it over to the next generation. It’s been my duty to take care of the land. I’ve got boys that want to continue to farm, and maybe a couple of grandsons in the future. Whoever farms this land, hopefully it’s better than it was when I took it over. I think it is.”
The Rodabaugh family
The family. Chris and Gail Rodabaugh farm with two sons, Clint and Cody, who own Rodabaugh Meats, a retail and custom slaughter business. Chris and Gail also have another son, Chet, who lives in West Virginia. There are 10 grandchildren, ages 2 to 13.
The farm. The Rodabaughs farm 1,200 acres of no-till corn and soybeans in Hardin and Hancock counties. They have been no-tilling for more than 30 years and have had cover crops on all the acres the past three years. About 130 acres are enrolled in various conservation programs such as waterways, wetlands, tree plantings and quail buffers. They raised hogs for many years, but now have a small meat goat herd in partnership with son Chet.
Nominated. Hardin County Soil and Water Conservation District. The Rodabaughs were the 2020 Conservation Cooperator of the Year.
Outreach and education. The family has hosted conservation field days and worked with Hardin SWCD on many projects. They have been a promoter of no-till, and in the early stages, custom-planted no-till beans on many of the area farms.
Community leadership. The Rodabaughs are active in their church. Chris has served on the fair board, township board, school board and several others. His favorite was his 12 years as Hardin SWCD supervisor. Gail has served on FSA county committee, many church committees, and is presently Washington Township fiscal officer.