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Why you can plant corn thicker today

Agriculture.com Staff 02/24/2009 @ 12:57pm

The corn hybrids you plant fare much better under higher populations than ones your father and grandfather planted.

The late Don Duvick, who led corn breeding efforts at Pioneer Hi-Bred before retiring in 1990, studied corn plant populations with hybrids dating from the 1930s into the 1990s.

"When he compared hybrids from the 1930s planted at 4,000 and 32,000 plants per acre (ppa), there wasn't much of a yield gap between populations," says Steve Paszkiewicz, Pioneer agronomy research scientist. "It was around 55 (bushels per acre) for 4,000 and 60 for 32,000.

"In the 1990s, the differences between populations just exploded," Paszkiewicz adds. "Plant those hybrids at 4,000, and yields were around 55 bushels per acre. But at 32,000, yields were 150 bushels per acre."

Since that time, the merits of even higher population levels have become apparent to farmers. In 2008, farmers in North America planted around 18% of corn acres to populations of 33,000 ppa and above.

Percentages are even higher in certain states. Minnesota farmers, for example, seeded 40% of 2008 corn acres to 33,000 ppa-plus populations. Farmers in northern states like Minnesota plant tend to plant thicker because early-maturing hybrids need higher populations to optimize yield, says Steve Butzen, Pioneer agronomy information manager.

"On a per plant basis, the size of ear didn't really increase," he says "What's changed is the ability of modern corn plants to withstand levels of density stress."

Paszkiewicz adds that's even true at population extremes. Pioneer tested modern hybrids planted at 90,000 plants per acre.

You wouldn't want to plant corn at that rate. "There is intense competition between plants at that rate," says Paskiewicz. "The plants are just 3 to 4 inches apart and are spindly-looking."

Still, those ultra-high populations produced surprising results of 140 to 160 bushel per acre results. "I didn't expect to see yields that high."

The corn hybrids you plant fare much better under higher populations than ones your father and grandfather planted.

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