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Shedding light on narrow-row corn

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:21pm

The benefits of narrow-row corn have proven to be illusive. In the past decade, studies have shown everything from 10% yield increases to actual yield losses. Researchers have found that pinning down the benefits of narrow rows is a bit like trying to catch their own shadows. In fact, growing narrow-row corn has a lot to do with shadows.

Corn production is a competition for sunlight - the energy source that fuels photosynthesis. At the same population, corn in narrow rows is spaced more evenly in the field than corn in wide rows. Plants have greater access to sunlight because fewer leaves are shaded. The result is increased growth and development.

In Wisconsin, researchers found that 20-inch narrow rows resulted in a 6% increase in the amount of light absorbed by month-old corn compared to 30-inch rows. In Illinois, there was a 13% increase in light interception by 3-foot-tall corn growing in 15-inch rows compared to 30-inch rows.

The benefits of narrow-row corn have proven to be illusive. In the past decade, studies have shown everything from 10% yield increases to actual yield losses. Researchers have found that pinning down the benefits of narrow rows is a bit like trying to catch their own shadows. In fact, growing narrow-row corn has a lot to do with shadows.

"When water is adequate, the efficiency with which a crop harvests radiation becomes a major factor," says Jerry Nelson, agronomist at the University of Missouri. "Planting patterns can be used to optimize the radiation distribution in a crop canopy."

Besides making more efficient use of available light, narrow rows also shade the soil surface more completely during the early part of the season. This results in less water being lost from the soil surface by evaporation.

Research points to the northern Corn Belt as the best place to grow narrow-row corn. It is irrigated producers on the High Plains, however, who have become some of the practice's most avid fans.

"With narrow rows, we don't need the 90 days of control that labeled rates provide. The canopy closes more quickly, and the sunlight needed to germinate late-season weeds doesn't reach the ground," says Borth.

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