By Chris Bennett, Farm Journal, Technology and Issues Editor | September 11, 2018
Camera in hand and a thousand miles from home, a Nebraska farm boy stepped off a tour bus and already knew the drill, whether in an expanse of wheat in Montana or a row of cotton in Mississippi. The 10-year-old clicked his Polaroid, flapped the photo in the wind, and added it to an ever-growing collection of agriculture pictures. Under the watchful eye of a patient father, the boy was a sponge and soaked in facets of farming from virtually every state in the lower 48. Ever the visionary, the father taught the boy an invaluable lesson: how the other half farms. Forty years later, the father is gone and the son remains, thriving by surrendering his soil to the past.
Who slashes farmland acreage by three-quarters, jettisons a machinery fleet, and upends field practices, yet watches profits rise by 70 percent? Meet Del Ficke and a less-is-more farming approach. When Ficke shrunk a traditional row crop and livestock operation to 700 acres and implemented regenerative agriculture across his ground, the southeast Nebraska producer flipped convention on its head and used the past to unlock the future. Adios to inputs.
Fourteen miles west of Lincoln, outside of Pleasant Dale, Ficke dryland farms in rolling, heavy clay hills. He grows a mix of corn, covers, grain sorghum, soybeans, and small grains, relying on roughly 30” of rainfall each year. Just four miles west of Ficke’s property sits some of the most picturesque farmland in Nebraska—manicured fields, center pivots, massive shining bins, and huge tracts of land. Only half in jest, Ficke describes his own ground as “hills and rocks in the sticks.” Yet, there is nowhere else the Seward County producer would rather farm. “I’ve been across this entire country and my land is the best damned place I could be. Love it.”
A fifth-generation producer, Ficke, 51, works 700 acres and maintains an elite nucleus herd ranging from 70 to 100 cows. Net profit per acre and net profit per head are dual kings at Ficke Cattle Company, their rule undergirded by absolute devotion to soil health. A quick glance over Ficke’s shoulder and a short walk through time reveal the radical transformation from convention to conservation.
No Heart, No Plan
Thirty years back, working alongside his father, Kenneth, and cousin, Greg Eggerling, Ficke’s operation was large-scale and reached across three counties. “We were hustling our asses off, thinking we were making great strides for agriculture. I had no idea all we were doing was wearing out soil and equipment.”
Constantly pressed for time, Ficke placed 100 percent of his acreage in no till in 1986, just prior to a major drought. “I tried no till for one reason—saving hours. Maybe save on passes and fuel too, but I was just trying to cut time.”
Ficke’s no till investment paid major dividends. In the grip of extremely dry conditions, surrounding farms produced 12 bu. corn, while his ground averaged 77 bu. per acre. In 1987, all of his neighbors followed suit and went no till. Despite initial no till and cover crop success, Ficke missed the big picture and says his “heart” was a major roadblock. “I didn’t factor in soil benefits. We were still farming several thousand acres, but I didn’t have change in my heart and I didn’t have a plan.”
Unsure of direction, he didn’t stray further from the conventional path. But just a few years over the farming horizon, seismic change was on a collision course with Ficke and his world was about to flip. The Nebraska grower was on the cusp of losing everything he loved.
In 1999, a series of back injuries (two crushed vertebrate) resulted in debilitating pain for Ficke—made all the worse by tractors and combines. “I’d always assumed I’d run cows and farm my whole life. I was depressed because I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
Spurred by necessity, Ficke went to college, earning degrees in radiology and hospital administration before managing a medical clinic in Lincoln for five years. Kenneth and Greg continued to farm several thousand acres and Ficke worked on the operation when possible. “Mentally, these were rough years trying to figure out where my place was going to be. God had it under control and it all worked for the best.”
Despite multiple back surgeries and an incessant chain of pain, Ficke was gaining invaluable daily exposure to the public’s view of agriculture. As his back condition slowly improved, Ficke consistently fielded questions from clinic patients about the cloistered nature of agriculture. “The whole direction of my life began to change regarding the farming culture around me. People were curious about why things seemed so secret on farms.”
Ficke expressed his concerns to Kenneth. “I said, ‘Dad, there’s a lot of people that don’t think much of agriculture and in some ways I don’t necessarily disagree.’ Dad didn’t hesitate and said, ‘Yes, those are the same people we’ve got to get in touch with.”
“My dad was forward-thinking. Change resonated with him. We decided to be totally open to questions or tours to the public; no more protectionism.”
Ficke slowly transitioned to full-time farm work, left behind the security of the well-paying clinic job and geared up for the change of his life. His plan was layered with a host of moving pieces, but centered on radical reduction of inputs and long-term soil health. Ficke cut the cord on rented ground and made a strategic retreat to 700 family acres and 100 cows, set on a carousel of row crops, cover crops, pasture and livestock. In the view of many outsiders, he had taken a figurative hammer to the operation’s ankles, but the farm ledger told a counterintuitive story, according to Ficke: Profits jumped over 70 percent higher despite diminished acreage and a smaller herd.
Where did the 70% jump originate? It hinged entirely on savings.
“You name the input and we made serious cuts. We cut out the middleman as much as possible. Bankers, chemical dealers, equipment lots and seed dealers, I just felt everyone was making money but us. I think farmers suffer from Stockholm syndrome and sometimes they are friends with their captors. You have to get costs per acre down to bare bones.”
Cow be a Cow
Grazing, grazing and more grazing; no more jams in a feedlot. Basically, Ficke put his cows on a diet of grass, bale grazing and cover crops, with a miniscule amount of extra protein ($250) for the entire herd. With closed pens eliminated, annual veterinarian bills dropped from $10,000 to $1,200. Ficke’s average cow deposits 75 lb. of manure and urine across the operation. Extrapolated by 100 head across 365 days a year, the math isn’t difficult to tally, Ficke explains. “No more contaminated pens. We just let the cow be a cow. Savings and soil health are building up and this is the same thing our grandfathers did until someone came along and unfortunately said, ‘You’re not efficient. Buy an upright silo and a confinement building.’”
Ficke rolled away his machinery and whittled roughly $250 per acre in equipment payments down to $26-$30 per acre. He kept a tractor for hay and bales, dumped the rest of the fleet, and contracted with custom operators.
“We already weren’t doing tillage. Then we got rid of about $1 million in equipment payments. I see a lot of farms with six tractors and too many tills to count, and guys wonder why they’re not making money.”
Ficke admits custom work does not provide equity on the balance sheet, but he emphasizes the elimination of depreciation and breakdowns. “You write a custom guy a check and it’s way less time than all you fool with on equipment payments. People in agriculture never apply actual costs because they don’t think their time is worth anything. It blows people away to tally time, equipment and foolishness. In fact, foolishness is probably the biggest money-sucking machine of all.”
With reliance on custom operators, Ficke’s most important piece of equipment is a utility vehicle. He does not run pickups except to haul cattle. The difference in overall fuel consumption is remarkable and requires a single annual purchase of 250 gallons of diesel per year. Basically, the fuel truck only visits once a year. Previously, Ficke chopped silage throughout the fall, fed silage all winter and spread manure the rest of the year. No more. Manure hauling has been virtually eliminated, as has the need for multiple tractors to feed silage or grind hay. “It shocks your mind to see all the time and money savings.”
With cattle contributing to soil health and cover crops boosting soil and weed suppression, Ficke estimates a 50% reduction in row crop fertilizer and a 25% reduction in herbicide, with incremental improvements each year. On pastures, he has eliminated 95% of chemical use, relying on a hand pump unit to spot-spray thistles. “We’ve also gotten rid of 95% of fertilizer use on pastures due to condensed manure and urine. The savings just keep piling up from so many areas like this.”
Ficke’s transition from one agricultural system to another would have jolted many bankers, but despite the lack of a baseline, Joe Carey, vice president and senior ag loan officer at Arbor Bank in Nebraska City, listened and learned. “Certainly there was risk because we didn’t have trend analysis or industry data to fall back on. But we clicked immediately because Del didn’t shoot from the hip. He was a calculated risk-taker and he’d already done the math.”
“Starting off, it’s a tough deal for a bank to understand. How does he produce such quality grain with such minimal input expense? But you don’t have to understand Del’s practices as long as you understand his numbers. Today, he’s got traction and a baseline, and we can show you the results.”
In addition to his ag operation, the plainspoken Ficke also runs a consulting service, maintains an open farm, and invites curious, eager or skeptical producers to educational seminars.
Tillage is the biggest error Ficke encounters, he contends. “I’ll drive up to a farm and see four new tractors, each with its own tillage equipment. I’ll tell the farmer all he needs is two tractors, two grain carts, a planter, and a drill. The rest? Send’em back and don’t look back.”
“Nothing kills soil like tillage. You’re just making everyone in the business chain happy but yourself.”
Graham Christensen, 38, grows conventional corn and soybeans an hour north of Omaha in Oakland. He also has non-GMO corn in the crop roster, and is starting to mix in small grains. Influenced by Ficke’s success, Christensen is preparing to plant covers, and hopes to bring in livestock, as well as tree-range poultry—a system similar to free range with the addition of a perennial canopy that provides extra income from nut and fruit trees. Christensen is already heavily reliant on solar power and he’s trialing a permaculture project.
“Del has inspired me and I was blown away the first time I was on his farm. He’s done simple things with grass, crops and pasture, and let the cattle out of the cage. It’s all done with no new equipment purchases.”
Most impressive, according to Christensen, is Ficke’s no-cost transition. “This is a massive change with virtually no transition costs. I want to do the same without putting my farm at risk. Simple and low-cost—that’s the model I want to copy.”
Ficke’s system has parallels with other growers across the Midwest, Christensen insists. “I see more young people farming like Del and it leads me to believe I’ve been misled by some agribusiness companies. My family has always been told we need all this stuff and more. I don’t believe that now because I see young people like Del cutting inputs by using livestock and soil health. This really, really makes sense for an independent operation.”
Christensen is adamant: Young farmers are taking an interest in regenerative agriculture. “Young people have to keep the business open and they want to have these conversations. The interest is percolating and that’s why we started Regenerate Nebraska, to help try to move the needle more aggressively.”
Ficke should never have to rent or buy more ground, he contends, because only 4.5 of his acres are maximized. He defines maximized acreage as ground requiring no inputs. “Last spring, our soil tests showed a piece of ground that had gone from 2.6 organic matter to 6.9 in a decade. Nitrogen and phosphorus were maximized and it was nearly back to a prairie state. Production goes through the roof and inputs drop to nothing.”
Ficke has two goals. One, create the finest soil in the world. Two, craft the most accountable cowherd in the world. He estimates his operation is 50 percent regenerative. “I admit regenerative is not a cool-sounding name. It just means using things on the farm that have already been done. The small regenerative practice as a first step will blow a person’s mind.”
“We have to study the past, even in agriculture. Ten years ago I had to go to another state to see regenerative agriculture, but now I can go every five miles and see some of these practices.”
What is Ficke’s hope for overall agricultural change in the U.S.? “Just change 10 percent of your operation. I can walk in a bank with anyone and get their banker on board to change an operation just 10 percent. I can’t show cash in hand, but I can show the savings very quickly.”
As a rule, he refuses to discount any new farming practice. (Ficke has an upright silo and is considering converting it to aquaponics production.) “Somebody throw an idea out and I’m the guy that won’t laugh. I’ll at least give it genuine consideration.”
A Father’s Hand
Ficke’s willingness to step far beyond convention stems from a father’s guiding hand. Kenneth either accompanied his young son or sent him on farm tours across the United States, insisting Ficke keep records of every farming practice encountered. “My dad believed we couldn’t do the best job on our farm unless we knew what others were doing far away. He was the greatest mentor. He knew where agriculture was headed and he prepared me.”
“All farmers are in this together and what I do now is a calling. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead balance it out. I have every confidence in the world we’re making real changes in agriculture. We just have to start not only using our heads, but also using our hearts.”