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Steve Ford says he owes it to himself to take a closer look at high-population narrow-row corn based on limited experience with the practice his farm in 2013.
“I am not a big risk-taker, but if you could return an extra $150 to $200/acre, you have to look at it,” he says. “At $4 corn, if it is worth 50 bushels/acre, it would be about a five-year payback on specialized equipment.”
He plans to keep the cost of continuing to test high-population narrow-row corn to a minimum. He will double plant with his 30-inch planter and harvest with a soybean platform in 2014.
“I am not convinced this is the future at this point,” he says. “I have to test it on my farm, in my conditions, and my methods.”
Corn planted in 12-inch rows on the left and 20-inch rows on the right highlights how in-row spacing differences could help boost yields in high-population production systems.
What could be the future of high-yield corn production got a test run on a tiny plot on one of Steve Ford’s best fields in 2013.
Ford, one of about two dozen Corn Belt farmers with similar Stine-sponsored test plots, was more than a little curious about how high-population corn planted in 12-inch rows would stand up – and how it would yield.
“It made 283 bushels per acre,” says Ford, who farms near Redkey, Ind., in northeastern Indiana, close to the Ohio state line. “My combine doesn’t get to see yields like that. There was almost none of it down. That is something you worry about at high populations. The strength of the stalks, surprised me.”
Ford says similar ground planted at 34,000 seeds per acre in 30-inch rows yielded about 220 bushels per acre in 2013, a year that produced his best-ever corn crop. That corn, planted May 15, had a head start on the 12-inch corn, which was planted June 8 or 9 at a 54,000 population.
“In my mind, I do not know how much difference the excellent growing conditions made for the 12-inch corn,” he says. “I am not going to go out and buy a new planter for this. But I am going to play around with it in 15-inch rows on a high-clay nob across from my house in 2014. It intrigues me enough to continue working with it.”
The high-population premise
Corn plant populations – and yields – have been edging upwards in roughly lock step over past 80 years. It’s that correlation that convinced Stine Seed to begin pushing the concept in its breeding program in recent years by selecting for corn specifically suited for populations well above today’s standards.
In 2012, it made a splash when it showcased special-bred high-population hybrids planted in 12-inch rows on its Adel, Iowa seed farm. In 2013, it upped the ante by planting 15,000 acres in 12-inch rows, and rolled out an on-farm trial program with test plots at 26 locations across the Corn Belt.
“We have increased yields by a factor of almost five over the past 80 years, and plant populations are up by the same factor of four or five,” explains David Thompson, Stine national sales and marketing director..
“What that means is that we harvested the same amount of grain per plant in 2012 as we did in 1930,” he adds. Once you understand that, the path to 300 or 350 or 400 bushels/acre is pretty clear. By our math, to harvest 350 bushels/acre, you need something in the neighborhood of 60,000 plants per acre. The question is, how are we going to get that many plants on that acre?”
Stine’s answer? Plant in significantly narrower rows. For example, in 12-inch rows, at 60,000 seeds per acre, plants would be spaced every 8.7 inches. In 30-inch rows, spacing would be about every 3.5 inches at the same population – too close to avoid competition from crowding, says Thompson.