John Wilde walks slowly between rows of waist-high cotton, stops at a stalk loaded top to bottom with large open bolls, and plucks a handful of fiber from the burrs.

Pulling on the snow-white lint, he draws the fibers apart and marvels at the potential.

“Isn’t that a pretty sight?” he asks, pulling and stretching the pure white fibers out between his hands, and looking across the field that’s a large expanse of pure white under a cloudless, deep-blue Texas sky that seems to come only at harvest time.

It’s one of his best fields, and he expects it to make a bit better than four bales per acre. “Isn’t it amazing what water can do?” he says.

The field, near Miles, Texas, is watered by subsurface drip irrigation, as is 800 acres of the Wilde cotton operation, centered in San Angelo and including farms to the east near Miles and back west near St. Lawrence.

“We still water a few acres by furrow irrigation,” he says. He plants some dryland cotton, too, but most of the non-irrigated crop this year will produce little — slightly better than the 2011 crop, but nothing to speak of.

“Water is the key,” Wilde says. And he’s doing all he knows to make every drop count. Subsurface drip irrigation helps, as do reduced tillage and rotation; and subsoiling between the drip tape helps capture moisture. He uses furrow diking to reduce runoff, and also has CRP land where he installed wildlife vegetation strips. To reduce erosion, he added waterways and diversion terraces and seeded with native grasses.

He is committed, he says, to producing the best yields possible. He has three times earned membership in the FiberMax One-Ton Club. He’s also devoted to conserving soil and water so the land that has been in the family — some for as long as 100 years — will pass on to his heirs in better condition than when he took it over. In 2004 he was the San Angelo Area Conservation Farmer of the year.

Wilde is also adamant about finding something to control root rot, the most economically devastating cotton disease in his area. He has a long term commitment to helping Texas AgriLife Research and Extension discover a management option for the disease.

This devotion to the farm and to practices that make the land better and more productive earned him the Farm Press/Cotton Foundations 2013 High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.

Loves the land

John Wilde loves the land. His farm, he says, is No. 3 on his list of treasures, behind only his wife of 37 years, Betty Jo, and his family, including sons Doug and Matt and daughters Joanna and Julie Garcia.

“My life is the farm,” he says. “Any land we buy, we typically never sell; it becomes part of my heart and soul  — and my family’s future. I’m not a wealthy man, but we’ve bought land, made payments, and it became ours.

“I got a start from my mother and father, and they got a start from their parents. Betty Jo and I will hand down land to our children to give them a start.”

Conservation plays a critical role in making sure the land remains productive. “We work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Land and water are our most valuable resources.”

About eight years ago, Wilde recognized the importance of increasing irrigation efficiency when they installed the first subsurface drip irrigation on 38 acres. Now they have 800 acres of drip-irrigated cotton. “We started small,” he says. “We had some of the first drip irrigation in the area, and we saw the benefits.”

Doug recalls visiting other farms and learning from their experience.

“We saw a lot of drip laid out in 80-inch spacing,” the senior Wilde says. “ But we found that 40-inch spacing is more efficient. And we install the tape with Global Positioning System technology — it’s more accurate.”

They hired someone to install the first field, but bought their own GPS equipment and installed the rest on their own, including 250 acres last year. “I had to push to get it in,” Wilde says.

They plant on top of the drip tape and subsoil 10 to 12 inches deep between the rows. “That helps hold rainfall,” he says. “We can look at nearby fields after a rain and see runoff, but our field absorbs all the moisture.”

They’ve reduced tillage over the past few years as well. “We’re not quite to minimum-till,” he says, “but we have reduced-tillage.”

After harvest, they shred cotton stalks, then remove them with a stalk puller. “This helps reduce root rot infestation. We disk once, then make a small bed on top of the drip tape.”

They also install furrow dikes to hold water, and plant with a GPS unit to keep rows on top of the tape. About every two years they apply manure to some fields.

“We have a dairy and a feedyard close by, so we sometimes apply as much as 20 tons of manure,” Wilde says. “We help the land and at the same time help the dairy and feedyard get rid of a waste product.”

They also use reclaimed wastewater to irrigate some fields. “We filter it and put it through the drip irrigation system.”

Root rot problem

For years, root rot has been a serious problem on some fields. “I told Doug and Matt several years ago that someday we would come up with something to control root rot,” he says. “We’ve been working on it for seven years.”

One field near his home has a heavy root rot infestation. He wryly says it could be considered a “root rot nursery.” He turned the field over to Texas AgriLife Research and Extension to use as a trial for various fungicides and treatment methods, attempting to identify something to help manage the damaging disease.

Tom Isakeit, Extension plant pathologist at San Angelo, and Rick Minzenmayer, Extension integrated pest management specialist for the area, began screening fungicides and application methods about seven years ago.

“They started with Tilt,” Wilde says. That one didn’t work. “But Dr. Isakeit had a lot of fungicides. He started with drenching applications; then we cut the drip tape at the upper and lower end of the field.” That allowed Isakeit and Minzenmayer to test a number of products at various rates through the irrigation system.

“The first year, we had no result,” Wilde says. But in the second year they identified Topguard, a Cheminova fungicide, as a potential control material. They started with 4 pounds per acre, a high rate they thought would be too high for registration. They also tested new application methods, and discovered a technique that included at-planting application at rates much lower than the initial trials.

“Now, the recommended rate is one-fourth pound,” Wilde says. Last year, the EPA issued an emergency exemption for Topguard on cotton to control root rot. That exemption was recently extended for 2013.

Wilde, Doug and Matt made that field available for seven years to help identify a root rot control agent. Although they lost some yield, it was worth the sacrifice, he says.

“We had tried a lot of things to control root rot — sulfur, anhydrous, deep tillage, rotation. Some were not cost-effective. With drip irrigation, we can’t moldboard plow. We tried to keep the plants healthy, but whatever we did was never enough.”

Root rot may reduce yield by 50 percent or more, and also decreases quality and creates harvest problems. “We get a lot of barky cotton, and during harvest stalks pull up and clog the stripper. The operator has to get off and on the machine all day. Risk of stripper fire also increases with root rot infestations.”

Wilde treated almost all his cotton with Topguard in 2012. “I can drive by a field and tell the difference,” he says.  “This material has been a blessing — it’s helping. We were persistent in looking for control; we aren’t quitters, and we know the value of a fungicide that controls root rot.”

That field trial is not the only test plot on his farm. “Sometimes I think my whole farm is a test,” he says. He’s allocated significant acreage for variety trials for many years, with all major seed companies participating. Information from the trials gives him confidence in selecting varieties suited to his growing conditions.

“These trials get to the bottom line,” he says. “We get yields and grades, and we get a value for each variety. That’s what matters.”

No resistant weeds yet

He plants mostly FiberMax and some Deltapine, all transgenic — Roundup Ready and Bt. “We have had no issues with resistant weeds,” he says, “but I understand the need for residual herbicides, especially in fields where manure has been applied.”

Conditions in the San Angelo area are usually too dry for LibertyLink varieties, he says, “But I’ve tried some.” He also has trials for a Bt over-spray test, a Pima economics evaluation, a TwinLink plot, an agronomic test, a double-row cotton trial and a root rot trial evaluating two application methods. “We also have a breeding trial with FiberMax.”

Other problems pop up, he says. “With the loss of Temik, we’re more concerned with reniform nematodes — they’re becoming a bigger issue. Cotton monoculture is a factor, and we want to rotate more. Good grain prices will help. But for rotation, the economics have to be right.”

Wilde says conditions in 2012 were slightly better than in 2011. Doug says the farm had from 4 inches to 5 inches of rain in early May and from 6 inches to 10 inches the first of September.

“Other than that, we had very little rain this year. The heat was not as bad. Conditions were a little better, but not as good as we want them.”

He gives Betty Jo credit for keeping him grounded.  “I believe in honesty and fairness,” he said. “Betty Jo continues to instill those in me and we try to instill them in our children. I had a wonderful mother and father, who tried to do the same; they taught me a work ethic. My dad always encouraged and backed me — you can’t put a value on that. I value family.”

Doug and Matt work with him as partners on the farm. “It’s what they want to do,” he says. “And where else but a farm can you have the opportunity for parents to work so closely with their children?”

He’s proud of the whole family. Betty Jo teaches high school girls to become medical assistants. “She gives them opportunities,” Wilde says.

Doug and Matt plan on farming as a career. Both have degrees, Doug a masters in agriculture from Texas A&M, and Matt a bachelor’s in computer science from Angelo State University.  Julie is a physician’s assistant in Houston and Joanna graduated from Texas A&M last December with a degree in agricultural economics and plans for graduate school.

Wilde recalls that he had an opportunity to pursue an advanced degree at Purdue after he graduated from Texas A&M, but after his dad was injured in a car accident he went back to the farm to help out.

“I realized more school wasn’t what he wanted,” he says. “I knew where I needed to be.

rsmith@farmpress.com