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Where narrow rows fit

Over the past several months, there have been quite a few questions about narrow-row corn in the Agriculture Online™ discussion groups. The Internet was still a figment of someone's imagination when corn rows less than 30 inches apart first appeared on the American landscape, but word still traveled fast.

It's been nearly 40 years since Clyde Hight made 20-inch corn famous. In the winter of 1964-65, Hight was poised to switch from wide rows to 30-inch rows. With encouragement from a Successful Farming editor and support from suppliers, Hight switched to 20-inch rows instead.

Allis-Chalmers, which was already making a planter capable of planting in 20-inch rows, developed an experimental 20-inch corn head. And DeKalb had a corn hybrid that handled high populations well.

With plenty of rain and intensive management, Hight produced a whopping 201 bushels of corn per acre on 388 acres that first year. One 100-acre field yielded 211 bushels per acre.

A few years ago, Larry Hight, who started farming with his father in 1965 near Moweaqua, Illinois, told me that he personally talked with 5,500 people who visited the farm.

Clyde Hight died in 1985, but his legacy lives on. A sprinkling of farmers throughout the Corn Belt have raised 20-inch corn for years. And some farmers have started raising corn in 15-inch rows, thanks primarily to the 15-inch corn head developed in the mid-1990s by Marion Calmer, an Alpha, Illinois, farmer.

There was a flurry of interest in narrow-row corn in the 1990s, and quite a bit of row-width research was done during that time period.

Now, it seems, interest is picking up again in some parts of the country. And there was a symposium on narrow-row corn at the Agronomy Society of America's annual meeting in November.

This time around, some of the interest in narrow rows is coming from livestock producers who grow corn for silage. Research in the upper Midwest and Northeast has shown that narrow rows help silage yields more than grain yields (see sidebar at the end of the story).

Over the past several months, there have been quite a few questions about narrow-row corn in the Agriculture Online™ discussion groups. The Internet was still a figment of someone's imagination when corn rows less than 30 inches apart first appeared on the American landscape, but word still traveled fast.

Joe Hummert, who farms just east of St. Louis at Caseyville, Illinois, posted this question in the Crop Scouting discussion group of Agriculture Online several months ago: "I'm wanting to narrow my planter to 24 inches for corn and beans. Am I wasting my time, or are the benefits of narrow-row corn paying off?"

Hummert may have defined the issue exactly right in the question he posted online because you can have agronomic benefits from narrow-row corn that don't necessarily translate into economic benefits because of the costs involved.

The narrow rows also help on weed control, says Drenkhahn. "The first year, I had corn on corn in east-west rows," he recalls. "You could stand at the edge of the field and see the difference in weed control. There was foxtail in the wide rows but none in the narrow rows."

The first thing many people want to know about narrow-row corn is whether it yields better. The simple answer is, it depends. That's accurate, but not particularly helpful. In general terms, yield increases have been significant and fairly consistent in the northern Corn Belt. As you move south across the country, yield differences due to row width decline and sometimes disappear.

Much of the research on corn row spacing was done in the 1990s. There are a few newer projects, many of which compare twin rows to other row spacings.

Yield isn't everything. Weed control is also important. Researchers and farmers alike have seen cases where narrow rows suppressed weeds.

Michigan State University corn specialist Kurt Thelen says that interest in narrow-row corn is rising in Michigan, "particularly among livestock producers who grow corn silage."

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