Cantaloupes and cotton are two crops that normally aren’t mentioned in the same breath, but that wasn’t the case during a presentation at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta, where a southwest Georgia county agent discussed the possibilities of this unique inter-cropping arrangement.

“We have some very innovative farmers in Tift County, and one of the things we continue to learn is that they are always looking to maximize profitability and economics on their farms,” says Extension County Coordinator Brian Tankersley.

Some growers approached him last winter, says Tankersley, and said they had heard about the possibility of planting cotton into cantaloupes as a way of maximizing farm income.

“I told him he wouldn’t get the cantaloupes off until about the middle of July. How would he make a cotton crop? His idea was to plant cotton into cantaloupes, but I wasn’t sure how he would keep people from walking on them. This was a producer-driven research study where we had the opportunity to participate with the grower because he was going to try it, and he was willing to put the money behind it,” he says.

The primary aim of the research was to determine the economic feasibility of cotton and cantaloupe intercropping, says Tankersley.

“Tift County is not large geographically, with about 60,000 acres of farmland and 60 percent of it irrigated. But we also produce about $150 million in farm-gate value, and about $100 million of that is in produce. In a typical year, we produce anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 acres of cantaloupes, and we also produce from 17,000 to 20,000 acres of cotton. Last year, we produced more than 25,000 acres. But these two commodities — cotton and cantaloupes — are two or our high farm-gate-value crops. They make up about $25 million of our farm-gate value, so it’s very important if we can maximize both of them,” he says.

When growing cantaloupes, three to five separate plantings are made in March over about six weeks to stretch out the spring harvest.

“We normally plant transplants on slightly raised 24-inch plastic beds and we use overhead irrigation like center pivots to water,” says Tankersley. “We normally harvest cantaloupes starting around Memorial Day and going through July 15, depending on the season. We usually pull plastic and till the soil, and then we might plant a program crop like grain sorghum or a late corn crop after July 15 with the hopes of getting an additional income using some of the residual fertilizer and other inputs.”

The profitability of planting grain sorghum and other grain crops after cantaloupes has been marginal, he says. “We estimate normally that we get about 75 bushels of grain sorghum per acre, but when you think about the price, it’s not as profitable.”

Primary objective of study

The primary objective of the study, he says, was to evaluate per-acre profitability of intercropping cotton and cantaloupes. The secondary objective was to try and determine how to actually do it.

“We wanted to look at how intercropping affected weed control strategies in both crops. Also, what is the proper planting time of the cotton into the transplanted cantaloupes, and would nematode control be enhanced in cotton grown in cantaloupes because both crops have the same type of nematode pressure?

“In addition, would there be pesticide compatibility issues as it relates to utilizing labeled pesticides for each crop, and what type of harvest challenges would you experience with cantaloupes and cotton. Would you trample the cotton plants when you’re harvesting cantaloupes and would you be able to harvest cotton in raised plastic beds? What insect control issues would arise with each crop?”

Ninety-five percent of all cantaloupes produced are started in the greenhouse and then transplanted into the field, says Tankersley. The ones in the study were transplanted on April 27, 2010, on 24-inch black plastic on a 80-inch row spacing. On May 18, Phytogen 375 WideStrike Roundup Ready Flex with seed treatments was planted on 36-inch rows between cantaloupe rows. In between the dry middles were eight cantaloupe rows and 16 cotton rows.

“Keep in mind that cantaloupes initially have to take priority because when you think about cantaloupe production, to grow one acre is in excess of $4,500.”

Herbicide treatments on the cantaloupes consisted of 1 pint per acre of ethalfluralin in a row middle application at planting. For cotton, glyphosate was applied at 1 quart per acre, at the time the cantaloupe crop was terminated.

Cantaloupe harvest dates were between June 17 and July 3. Roundup was applied on July 4 to terminate the cantaloupe crop and to provide weed control for cotton.

“Then we came back with 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 100 pounds of K-Mag with side-dress on July 12,” says Tankersley.

Plenty of residual fertilizer

“We had a lot of residual fertilizer from the cantaloupes. Escaped weeds were hand-pulled on July 17, and most of our produce growers are accustomed to hand-pulling weeds. Nematode samples were taken in the cotton crop and in terminated cantaloupe beds on July 26, and we monitored the crops with photographs.”

On one field, 1,270 pounds of cotton per acre was picked behind cantaloupes. “In field two, we ran out of water after we picked cantaloupes, so it was essentially a dryland field, but we harvested 740 pounds per acre. With water, we would have had similar results on both fields. Obviously, the grower felt good about that situation.”

University of Georgia economists compared cotton intercropping with grain sorghum following cantaloupes, using an expected yield of 1,000 pounds per acre for cotton versus 75 bushels per acre for grain sorghum and an expected price of 90 cents per pound versus $5 per bushel for grain sorghum. Gross returns per acre were $900 for cotton and $375 for grain sorghum, and return to land and management was $304 for cotton and $41 for grain sorghum.

Yields on the cantaloupes were typical to what the grower normally has with cantaloupes alone, about 4,500 to 4,750 cantaloupes per acre. “Once he got the cotton planted, this grower managed for cantaloupes. Harvest of the cantaloupes did not result in any damage to the young cotton plants and the cotton intercropping did not cause a delay in cantaloupe harvest. Removal of the black plastic was delayed until after the cotton harvest.”

The economic returns and profitability of cotton compared to late-planted grain sorghum is very positive for cotton, says Tankersley. “The total fertilizer applied to cotton was reduced and insect pressure was relatively light. Nematode samples were taken in the cotton and terminated cantaloupe beds and samples indicated that no treatments were needed. Weed control was accomplished with the standard application of herbicides and one hand weeding.”

Many producers are excited about the possibilities of intercropping, he says. “My concern is whether or not we can duplicate this on a year-to-year basis. Things went together really well this past year as far as timing. Questions still remain about the timing of the planting of the cotton and cantaloupe crops. We planted the cotton based on when the cantaloupes were running off the plastic. More research also needs to address questions related to pesticide compatibility issues.”

The question of whether or not intercropping cotton is a possibility with other spring vegetable crops also needs to be answered, he adds.

phollis@farmpress.com