Being called narrow-minded when it comes to corn production is a compliment to a University of Illinois crop scientist and a pair of Hoosier farmers.
Randy Bales and his son, Brad, Lewisville, Indiana, used to plant corn in 30-inch rows like most farmers nationwide. They switched to 20-inch rows in 2017 after seeing results from several years of research on the production method from plant physiologist Fred Below and his University of Illinois agronomy students.
From 2013 to 2018, the university's studies show 20-inch corn in an enhanced management system, as Below refers to it, averaged 264 bushels per acre (bpa). The system includes 44,000 plants per acre, banded MicroEssentials SZ (granular fertilizer consisting of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc) from Mosaic, 240 pounds of total nitrogen per acre split applied pre-plant and in-season and a foliar fungicide treatment. Narrow rows and enhanced management yielded 51 bpa better than corn planted in 30-inch rows at 32,000 plants per acre, no fungicide, 180 pounds of nitrogen applied pre-plant and phosphorus and potassium applications based on soil tests.
"Narrow rows (less than 30 inches wide) are the future of corn production," Below contends. "Plant populations will continue to go up to increase yields, but at some point, you can't do 30s anymore."
Corn plant populations have steadily increased annually by about 300 to 400 plants per acre. Many farmers already shoot for 32,000 to 35,000 or more plants per acre, Below explains.
At some point, growers will hit the 38,000-plants-per-acre threshold in 30-inch rows. Higher populations mean corn will be planted too close together, which will hamper growth and reduce yields.
"That will necessitate the change to 20-inch rows or narrower," Below predicts.
The Baleses saw the writing on the plant population wall. By 2016, their variable-rate planting population already averaged 35,000 seeds per acre. Long-term average corn yields in 30-inch rows were 165 bpa, and 200-bpa yields were exceptional.
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Randy and Brad decided to go all-in on 20-inch corn three years ago to increase yield and revenue. The farm invested $600,000 (after trade-ins) on a new planter, corn head, high-clearance sprayer, strip-till bar and two high-horsepower track tractors to make the transition. The Baleses opted for tractors with tracks to navigate narrow rows easier. They also adopted Below's enhanced management practices for 20-inch rows, which both parties say is essential to get the best results.
"We're always looking for the next step to economically increase production and returns," Randy says. "We're getting a greater return with the 20-inch-row system.
"We're still learning, and there's a lot of things that go together to make it work," he adds.
Brad continues, "The high management and nutrients are essential to keep the crop happy as much as Mother Nature allows. But, it's not just about (better) yields; there's got to be an economic benefit."
So far, 20-inch corn and following Below's management blueprint -- some changes were made, such as a 40,000 seeding-rate average -- have treated the family well. Corn yields average a little more than 200 bpa, with some fields hitting 240 bpa. Twenty-inch corn netted $20 more per acre in 2018 than 30-inch rows in the Baleses on-farm study, which included all input costs. Higher yields and lower drying costs were contributing factors. Corn in 20-inch rows was consistently a growth stage ahead of 30-inch rows. As a result, it dried down quicker and was about 1 percentage point drier at harvest.
Randy expects results to improve with time as they continually tweak the system to fit their operation. Eventually, the family expects a net income increase of $60 per acre for 20-inch rows over 30-inch rows in a 50-50 corn-soybean rotation. The estimated return on additional capital investment is 13.5%.
The Baleses purchased operating assets and equipment from Fairholme Farms, owned by Kim Drackett, in 2019 and leased its 1,500 acres to raise row crops. Randy was previously the farm manager. Now, the Baleses operate as Fairholme Ag, which includes a custom-farming business.
Farmers can drastically increase plant populations in 20-inch corn rows compared to 30-inch rows while increasing plant separation. Corn plants are spaced 7.1 inches apart in 20-inch rows at 44,000 seeds per acre, compared to 6.3 inches apart at 32,000 seeds per acre in 30-inch rows, according to Below. Corn needs to be at least 5.5 inches or more apart, he adds. If plants are closer than that, competition for water, sunlight and nutrients increases, which impedes development.
As seeding rate increases in 30-inch rows, seed spacing decreases. That means competition for water, sunlight and nutrients increases.
"Narrow rows is a good strategy for managing higher seed populations, allowing for more light interception and better water and nutrient uptake," Below says. "Yield potential increases."
University of Illinois studies show root systems in 20-inch corn are 20 to 25% bigger than 30-inch corn. More light inception and plants being further apart are the primary reasons.
"Standability is better, and we don't have as many disease issues," Brad continues.
Along with enhanced management, Below and the Baleses say choosing the right corn hybrids is important for 20-inch rows. Corn with narrow, upright leaves works the best.
Below understands 20-inch corn isn't for everyone, because it requires more management and often a large investment in equipment. In 2018, the percentage of farmers growing corn in row widths less than 20.5 inches was in the low single digits in 10 of the largest corn-growing states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That didn't discourage brothers Ty and Tim Trisler, Sidell, Illinois, and farming partner Curt Craig from switching to 20-inch corn in 2019 and following Below's enhanced management tactics.
"Our main incentive was to bust through the yield ceiling we reached at about 250 bpa," Ty says. "We felt we couldn't do that in 30-inch rows."
Last year, high winds that caused green snap slashed yields by 50 bpa, he estimates. Without the damage, he believes yields would have been close to 300 bpa.
"The potential is there this year," Ty adds. "I'm excited to see what we get this fall."
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