David Wildy, the winner of the 2001 High Cotton award for the Delta region, is a student of cotton production.
His farm headquarters in Manila, Ark., contains a working laboratory with microscopes, computers, orderly piles of cotton and insect samples and filing cabinets full of data from plant mapping.
The classroom setting extends onto Wildy's 6,200-acre cotton farm where university, industry and other on-farm tests are almost too numerous to name. During the season, people call upon Wildy nearly every day with more ideas and products to pitch. Wildy is never too busy to talk with them. To Wildy, everyone is a potential mentor.
"We try to keep our minds and eyes open and not say we're doing it right and this is the way to do it," Wildy says. "If you surround yourself with people who know more than you, you're going to do better. We have 15-20 tests on the farm. We're always looking for better, cheaper ways to do things that are more environmentally friendly."
Ongoing tests include grid sampling of root knot nematodes for the variable rate application of the nematicide Telone. There are two variety demonstrations with Delta and Pine Land Co. and the University of Arkansas. Paymaster CottonSeed has a breeder plot on the Wildy farm with over 700 strains of cotton. The latter hopefully will result in cotton varieties specific to the northeast Arkansas region.
Wildy, a fourth generation farmer, is working with Jimmy Sanders Seed, his chemical and fertilizer supplier, grid sampling around 1,600 acres of cotton. Currently, they are variably applying lime and fertilizer and in time hope to precision apply other inputs.
"There's just an unlimited number of things we can do with GPS," said Wildy. "We're planning to do more smart sampling than grid sampling. That's taking the maps from our yield monitor and only sampling certain areas that look different from others. We have a long way to go and we need to figure out all this data to see if we're helping ourselves."
He's even looking at how he may replace technology that itself is barely out of the shipping box. For example, he's evaluating the use of satellite images taken during the growing season as indicators of potential yield. He explained, "Maybe we don't have to use all these expensive yield monitors."
There's no limit on the creativity of the testing at Wildy Farms. Wildy is participating in a pilot program with the University of Arkansas, which will be funded by Cotton Incorporated in 2001, in which the fungal disease that attacks aphids is introduced manually into a cotton field.
Recently, a research team traveled to Louisiana by plane to gather aphids infected with the fungus for transport to Wildy's on-farm laboratory and for later application into the field. It shows some promise.
"That could save growers millions of dollars plus save us from putting chemicals in the environment. We're excited about it."
Perhaps the most successful new technology for Wildy has been COTMAN, a cotton plant-mapping software program developed by the University of Arkansas. Not surprisingly, Wildy was the first farmer to try the computer software program back in the early 1990s.
Today, not only has Wildy fully adopted COTMAN, but he and two other farmers lured away a former county Extension agent involved in COTMAN's early development, Dale Wells. Wells is consultant, COTMAN expert and new technology guru for the three farms.
"It's been a blast working for him," Wells said of Wildy. "He likes being on the cutting edge of new technology."
The hiring of Wells underscores Wildy's philosophy to surround himself with the best of people and ideas. "It's hard to absorb and digest all the new technology that's coming to us," Wildy explained. "I don't think a farmer can keep up by himself."
Part of Wells' duties are to manage a team of scouts for an intensive moth trapping program for budworm/bollworm, "that's run better than any I've ever seen," said Wildy. Wells, along with other consultants, trap around 45,000 acres in northeast Arkansas. "They check traps every day for the moth flights so we can predict when the next flight is going to be."
The same group of scouts also do a weekly plant map for COTMAN, which then generates reports that indicate how a plant's fruit load is reacting to various stresses. This works hand in hand with regular insect scouting and shows that COTMAN is also an environmentally friendly program.
"If we're seeing some insect damage, but plant mapping indicates we're not shedding those squares, then maybe we can save an application. Other times, plant bugs may be hard to find. But if we're getting square-shed, we go back to those fields and back check them."
COTMAN also helps Wildy decide when to terminate insecticide applications without incurring a yield loss, which also results in at least one less pesticide application a year.
A study on the use of COTMAN in determining when to terminate irrigation is also underway on Wildy Farms, in conjunction with the Northeast Research and Experiment Station in Keiser. "I think it will save some irrigations," Wells said. "I believe it will help us terminate the crop a little earlier which helps us in getting ready to defoliate."
COTMAN can also help Wildy schedule defoliation in a way that optimizes grades, quality and picking efficiency. "You put in your acreage, picker capacity and risk factor (the percent probability that certain bolls will mature in time for harvest)," Wildy said. "It will tell you when you need to start defoliating and ranks the fields by maturity based on weather data for your area. It's just another tool, like cutting bolls and nodes above cracked boll."
Incidentally, much of the data compiled for the use of COTMAN in defoliation timing was gathered by Wells as part of his master's thesis during the time he was still with University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
During harvest, the extra steps necessary to accurately record information from all those test plots can be a headache. But, if Wildy is to adopt any of the products he's testing, he has to prove to himself that it works. That's not only good science. It's a matter of survival.
"All it took for my grandfather to make it was hard work and love of farming," he said. "It still takes that, but the farmer who works hard is not necessarily the one who is going to succeed today. You can't sit still. You either go backward or forward."
To help Wildy keep up with all types of farming information, he has developed his own record-keeping system, using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and a Dell laptop computer. "We can look at anything we did to any field on any given day on any given year. We've got all our soil tests, scouting and every single production practice we've done on every single field. We carry all that out to yield and we can pull that out of the database whenever we want. We also use it to generate our worker protection reports and records that we need. It takes some time and effort to keep those records up, but it's very helpful."
All the test plots, information management and 6,200 acres of cotton keeps Wildy busy, but he still has time to nurture the close relationship that he and all farmers have with Mother Nature.
"We have put in wood duck boxes on the farm," he said. "We see those boxes every morning as a reminder that we need to be good stewards of the land and water and do things to protect our environment, so future generations can enjoy it. Those duck boxes jog my memory to keep protecting what we have."