Less-Is-More Approach Regenerates Optimism and Savings

Fourteen miles west of Lincoln, Del Ficke farms 700 dryland acres of heavy clay hills, relying on 30" of rainfall each year. He also maintains 70 to 100 cows. ( Brenda Ficke )

Who slashes farmland acreage by three-quarters, jettisons a machinery fleet and upends field practices, yet watches profits rise by 70%? Meet Del Ficke and a less-is-more farming approach. When Ficke shrunk a row crop and cattle 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.

Thirty years back, Ficke’s operation was large-scale and reached across three counties. Constantly pressed for time, he placed 100% of his acreage in no till in 1986.

In 1999, a series of back injuries (two crushed vertebrae) resulted in debilitating pain for Ficke—made all the worse by tractors and combines.

Spurred by necessity, he went to college, earning degrees in radiology and hospital administration before managing a medical clinic in Lincoln for five years. His father, Kenneth, and cousin, Greg Eggerling, continued to farm several thousand acres and Ficke helped when possible.

Despite multiple back surgeries and an incessant chain of pain, Ficke was gaining invaluable daily exposure to the public’s view of agriculture. He 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 who 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 have to get in touch with.’”

Leaving behind the security of a well-paying job, Ficke transitioned to full-time farm work 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. 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. Profits jumped more than 70% despite fewer acres and cows thanks to the following savings:

  • Basically, Ficke put his cows on a diet of grass, hay and cover crops, with a miniscule amount of extra protein ($250) for the entire herd. With the elimination of feedlot pens, annual vet 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, he explains.
  • Ficke rolled away his machinery and whittled $250 per acre in equipment payments down to $30. He has one tractor for hay work and contracts the rest with custom operators.  “We already weren’t doing tillage. Then we got rid of about $1 million in equipment payments,” he says.
    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,” he says. “It blows people away to tally time, equipment and foolishness. In fact, foolishness is probably the biggest money-sucking machine of all.”
  • The difference in overall fuel consumption is remarkable and requires a single purchase of 250 gal. of diesel per year. Previously, Ficke chopped silage throughout the fall, fed silage all winter and spread manure the rest of the year. No more.  
  • 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. On pastures, he has eliminated 95% of chemical use, relying on a hand pump to spot-spray thistles.

Ficke’s transition 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,” Carey says.

“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,” he adds.

Ficke estimates his operation is 50% regenerative. “I admit regenerative is not a cool-sounding name. It just means using things on the farm that have already been done,” he says.

What is Ficke’s advice for fellow farmers? “Just change 10% of your operation. I can walk in a bank with anyone and get their banker on board to change 10%. I can’t show cash in hand, but I can show the savings very quickly,” he says

For more on Del Ficke’s goals to create the finest soil and most accountable cowherd, visit bit.ly/Del-Ficke