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In Arizona People, cows change face of farming

When neighbors Wilford Hayden and Bruce Heiden look down the road from their farming operations in Buckeye, Ariz., they can see two dairy operations. One of the dairies milks 7,000 cows; the other, 6,000.

It hasn't always been like this for the two farmers and their neighbors. When Hayden's family moved its farming operation to Buckeye from the Scottsdale area in 1959, most of what they saw were cotton fields and cotton gins.

The dairies aren't the only sights that are changing the central Arizona landscape. Farmers throughout the region have seen new residential and commercial complexes spring up all around them as the population of the Phoenix metropolitan area continues to swell.

“When we moved here in 1959, I never expected to see this,” said Hayden, referring to the growing number of homes and businesses encroaching into traditional farming areas. Wilford grows cotton, alfalfa and grain crops with his brother, Paul.

“There are only three gins left west of Central Avenue in Phoenix,” says Heiden, who operates H-Four Farms just outside Buckeye and Paloma Gin Properties, LLC. “There used to be 15.”

Hayden, whose great-grandparents came to Arizona from Virginia in 1889, farms 1,200 acres of alfalfa, cotton and grain. The proximity of the dairies to his and his brother's farming operation has made alfalfa an increasingly important crop.

Arizona farmers planted 210,000 acres of upland cotton in 2006; about 20,000 fewer than in 2006 and about a third of the 600,000 growers were planting when Hayden's family moved to Buckeye. Arizona's alfalfa acreage has been hovering around 250,000 as the state's dairy herd numbers have risen.

Cotton producers in the state's Central Valley have been fighting an uphill battle against low prices, high input costs and urban encroachment. With cotton prices near the loan rate of 52 cents per pound, Arizona growers would be hard-pressed to make a profit without government payments, observers say.

But farmers like Hayden and Heiden, a former president of the National Cotton Council, continue to experiment with production technologies and new varieties such as Delta and Pine Land Co.'s DP 164 B2RF to try to find ways to improve their bottom lines.

Some of that experimentation appeared to pay off in 2006 when the state's cotton producers averaged 1,338 pounds of lint per acre, up 49 pounds from 2005 and 43 pounds more than Arizona's five-year average yield.

“Some of our cotton looked phenomenal this year,” said Heiden. “We were concerned about how things looked at mid-year, but the high temperatures we were experiencing moderated and the outlook improved.

The two farmers say new cotton varieties containing the Bacillus thuringiensis genes have made a major difference in Arizona.

“Bt cotton and the insect growth regulators saved the cotton industry in Arizona,” says Heiden. “Without them, we would have been out of business. Farmers were spending $250 an acre just to control pink bollworms.”

More recently, Bollgard 2 cotton, which contains two different Bt genes, has proved helpful to growers, said Hayden. “If it wasn't for Bollgard and Bollgard 2 and the latter's impact on pests such as salt marsh caterpillars, we wouldn't be having this conversation about cotton in Arizona.”

Heiden said Arizona farmers have also benefited from some serendipitous developments such as the availability of helicopters that allowed them to spray for pests such as whiteflies and plant bugs that cannot be controlled by cotton containing the Bacillus thuringiensis gene.

“We had a helicopter flying service from Kansas that had come to the Yuma area to spray insects in the vegetable crops in 2005,” said Heiden. “In July, we were shaking in our boots because of whiteflies. Someone saw them flying in the Yuma area and realized they could help us in the central part of the state.

“They gave us really good service. They could get in the corners around the subdivisions and the power lines. It was expensive — it cost about $11 an acre. But they saved our bacon.”

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