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Profiles in Soil Health - Meet Joe Rothermel

Joe Rothermel returns to the family farm. Read ahead to find out all of the conservation methods this father/son team has been trying out!

Not Your Average Joe

  • Joe Rothermel
  • Champaign County, Illinois
  • Acres: 1,000
  • Crops: Corn and Soybeans
  • Planting: No-till, Strip-Till
  • Covers: Annual Ryegrass, Crimson Clover, Radish, Rapeseed


What do a Technical Service Specialist at an international aerospace manufacturing corporation and a conservation farmer in Central Illinois have in common? Not much, unless you are Joe Rothermel from Broadlands, IL.

Joe grew up on a small Illinois family farm dating back to the 1880’s. But after going to University of Illinois to study Aviation and Southern Illinois University to obtain his bachelor’s degree, he skipped off to Long Beach, California and took a job with McDonnell-Douglas where he could live on the west coast.

Ten years later, when his father Robert was ready to retire, Joe returned to the farm, looking to settle down. He was ready to get away from the 9 to 5 desk job and all the travel. He was ready to be his own boss, take the reins, and live back in the Midwest.

Farm equipment

Joe’s father was a conventional farmer most of his life, but in 1992, he tried no-till planting. With fewer trips across the field, less labor and fuel, the advantages just made sense. He bought a drill and found the new process worked well on his Drummer/Flanagan soils. When Joe stepped in and began learning the ropes in 1995, no-till was truly gearing up as the conservation option of the future. The Rothermel Farm was out in front.

In order to learn more than what dad was teaching him, Joe began attending local and regional ag meetings. Hearing directly from researchers, professionals, and other farmers, Joe continued to learn more in order to satisfy his natural curiosity.

In 2002, Joe joined the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District. It was a good way to meet and work with other local farmers. He has served on the Board for 13 years and confirms it has been a good experience and a great asset to his own operation. Joe was enjoying being in charge of the family farm; enjoying the freedom and opportunities agricultural life offered. “I saw farming as a job where I could try new things and experiment with different ideas and options. And that’s exactly what I did,” Joe said.

Strip-till sounded like a promising option. His father was up for it, so in 2009, he began using a strip-till bar. “I found it was the best of both worlds—I still got the benefits of no-till but also enjoyed what strip-till did to warm the seedbed and soils. It was a good option for us and allowed us to band fertilizer,” Rothermel explains.  

Soon after, Joe attended a National No-till Conference in Ohio and heard a speaker who got his attention. Dr. Joel Gruver from Western Illinois University talked about cover crops. He explained the biological activity, microorganisms, and incredible things that go on beneath the soil. Joe was sold. He wanted to tap into that on his farm.

Once again, Joe’s dad was game, so they planted their first cover crops in 2010. They started with drilling annual rye grass on 80 acres. Joe experienced some complications in those first years and did not see any great benefits right off. He did learn a lot about cover crop termination, nitrogen carryover and other lessons. All good lessons to learn.

About that time, Joe decided to try something else. He wanted to find a way to perform strip-till operations and plant cover crops at the same time. His goal? To place annual rye grass between next year’s corn rows and radish seed on 30 inch rows for next year’s corn crop. To do this, Joe put his technical hat back on and built something himself. His creation, a bar that mounts to the front of the tractor for planting annual rye grass, and an air seeder on the strip-till bar for planting radish or other small seed.

With five years of cover crops under his belt, what has Joe learned? “The main benefits I’ve seen are nutrient recycling, reduced erosion, and improved weed control,” Joe says. “I have cleaner fields and the soil structure is better.” For 2015, he plans to plant cereal rye and add rape to his cover crop mix after corn. After beans, he will seed annual rye, crimson clover, and radish.

With a farm located in Champaign County, a spot with some of the finest soils on the planet, Joe started out with good soil. As a continuous no-till or strip-till farm since 1992, the soils were nurtured and made better. Organic matter and soil structure is good, “Our organic matter level is about 4%. The best way I can keep improving my soil and my land is through reduced tillage and cover crops. Hopefully, the underground soil biology will continue to improve the soil’s health," says Rothermel.

According to Joe, farmers who no-till or strip-till and plant cover crops have to think about things a little more. “You’re in a continual learning mode because there are more parts to manage,” Joe says. "That’s what makes it interesting.”

When asked why other large ag operations across Central Illinois have not switched to no-till or tried cover crops, Joe explains that it’s a natural progression to go from no-till to using cover crops. Change is always hard. It would be even harder to make that jump from a conventional tillage operation. Perhaps owners and operators of big farms are looking for something less complicated.

Says Rothermel, “Maybe they want something that’s more predictable. Maybe they want less factors to manage. I’ve made choices that actually complicated my operation. I increased the management required, but I’m seeing good results. I plan to keep trying new things.”

To learn more about using cover crops on your operation or improving the health of your soil, visit the Illinois NRCS Soil Health webpage or stop by your local USDA Service Center.


Producer posing

“The main benefits I’ve seen are nutrient recycling, reduced erosion, and improved weed control.”

Joe Rothermel, landowner