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Serving: West
Loralee and Greg Wuertz Todd Fitchette
Loralee and Greg Wuertz stand in their cotton field.

Arizona cotton grower promotes beneficial insects

Third-generation farmer and High Cotton winner consistently achieves above-average yields

Greg Wuertz likes to make it easier on beneficial insects to do their job keeping his maturing cotton clean by eliminating early insecticide sprays. His experience suggests that he can lose control of problematic pests throughout the season through blanket preventative pesticide treatments. The dry heat of south-central Arizona helps right up until the moisture arrives from the annual summer monsoon.

“We take integrated pest management seriously,” says the Coolidge cotton farmer. “We haven’t been big fans of spraying early on, even with stuff labeled ‘safe’ for beneficials.”

A third-generation cotton farmer and Arizona native, Wuertz consistently yields above the statewide average with his cotton. He followed in his father’s footsteps in his choice of crops and cultural practices, utilizing subsurface drip from his early days in farming — a practice unheard of when his father pioneered the technology in Arizona decades ago. It’s Wuertz’ dedication to environmental stewardship and his farming acumen that earned him this year’s Farm Press High Cotton Award from the West.

PEST MANAGEMENT

Wuertz says the early insecticide sprays for things like white fly can trigger unintended consequences. Controlling lygus can also be achieved by not planting cotton near alfalfa. “That’s another reason why I’m not doing a lot of alfalfa,” he said. “You can get some issues when you start cutting alfalfa early.”

He tried leaving unharvested strips of alfalfa near cotton fields to give damaging insects a home and avoid chasing all of them into his neighboring cotton fields, a practice suggested by Extension agents. “It helped, but it seems like we got some other issues with other bugs we didn’t want, so we quit that altogether.”

He’s also dabbled with releasing beneficial insects to help control the bad pests, but that’s been a hit-or-miss proposition over the years. As fate would have it, the beneficial insects don’t weather the Arizona heat as effectively as the problematic ones, but they can still be effective.

Of the drip irrigation practices Wuertz says he would like to utilize the technology more, however because of changes in agricultural land lease practices that limit the number of years a grower can be assured of a lease, it’s not economically feasible to install subsurface drip irrigation if the landowner is going to allow only year-to-year leases of land with no guarantees for future years.

“We went from having four- and five-year leases to a one-year lease,” he said. “It’s hard to justify putting that kind of money into the land on these short leases.”

DRIP IRRIGATION

Still where feasible Wuertz uses subsurface drip to gain an economic and production advantage with the proven practice. Where he must flood irrigate, he does this after laser leveling to ensure maximum water efficiency, using borders in his cotton to aid this practice. Moreover, he attempts in his rotation with grain crops to plant cotton through the stubble and use minimum-till practices to achieve better soil health and aid in providing useful habitat for beneficial insects. He also uses animal manure as a soil amendment.

Wuertz’ cotton is typically rotated with wheat or alfalfa to reduce the chance of soil disease and replenish the soils. After removing cotton stalks with a Sundance root puller, he’ll run minimum tillage equipment between the planted rows. This single pass with discs and short ripper shanks at depths of 10 to 13 inches will oxygenate the soil and enhance decomposition. This helps microbial life and allows salt to flush from the soil.

The effort pays off with quick crop rotations and an improved soil profile.

Outside of the typical dry season, which can easily be managed with timely irrigation, the summer monsoons from July through September can be challenging with their higher humidity and torrential rain.

“That’s typically when you have the crop dialed in,” he said. “Then you get a big flush of water and it either starts shedding fruit or growing, or both.” Adding a plant growth regulator and closer management can help keep the plants from going overly vegetative.

FARMING FAMILY

Wuertz began farming Fast Track Farms in 1981. “Fast Track” is coined from the acronym in “Father and Son Team.” His father Howard is well-known in Arizona for pioneering drip irrigation before it was widely known or understood. Aside from Upland cotton, he farms alfalfa, Durum wheat and barley across 3,800 acres of owned and rented land near Coolidge in partnership with his wife, Loralee and sons Bobby and Thomas.

Over the years Wuertz farmed melons and chili, but cotton has been a mainstay. He tried growing Pima cotton, but due to the longer growing season and short price of the extra long staple varieties, he gave that up.

“We’re not like California when it comes to Pima yields,” he said. “Our yield history for Pima in this area is 900 to 950 pounds, so you’d need the price up quite a bit more to make it work.”

Wuertz also favors the shorter season Upland cotton varieties because his growing season has constricted at either end. In recent years that season has been challenged at both ends by rain. Varieties planted last year included NexGen 5711 and 3930, BASF 5610 and 4880, and Bayer 1646 and 1549. He also has seed contracts, which for Arizona farmers continues to be financially helpful in the otherwise low U.S. cotton markets.

He gins his cotton through Chandler Ginning Co., and markets it through Calcot, of which he is the current board chairman.

“Greg has shown himself to be an effective chairman of a cotton marketing cooperative, whose membership spans four western states,” said Paul Bush, president and chief executive officer of Calcot in his support of Wuertz’ nomination for the Farm Press High Cotton award.

Born in Tucson, Ariz. in 1958, Wuertz was active in Future Farmers of American and sports, and was FFA chapter president at Coolidge High School. He received his State Star Farmer Degree his senior year. He later went on to earn a degree in agronomy and plant genetics, with a minor in business, from the University of Arizona.

Wuertz has also been active in his local community, serving on the Casa Grande Elementary School Board, the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council, Arizona Cotton Growers, the River Co-op Gin, and as past president of the Arizona Grain Council. He also previously served as chairman of the Arizona Cotton Growers, was a delegate to the American Cotton Producers of the National Cotton Council, and as a member of the NCC’s Pink Bollworm Action Committee. He is also an elder at Community Presbyterian Church

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