Frank Howey’s grain carts can’t keep up with his new 40-foot-wide head harvesting 15-inch corn rows. The head is the first of its kind.

Howey, the seventh generation of the family to farm near Monroe, N.C., isn’t complaining, though.

The 40-foot head is the first produced by Illinois-based Calmer Corn Heads. The company, founded and run by farmer Marion Calmer, produces harvesting heads designed for narrower 20-, 15- and even 12-inch-row-corn. In addition to the new wide head, two additional combines working these fields use 20-foot-wide Calmer Corn heads.

So far, wider has been better. On these well-drained hills, the yield monitor hits 240 to 265 bushels per acre. Frank Howey Family Farms has planted corn in 15-inch rows exclusively on its 17,000-acre operation for several years.

“We’re long-time no-tillers, and that’s helped us conserve moisture with crop residue on the surface,” says Howey. “We had been looking for a way to conserve early-season moisture. If we could narrow our rows up for a quicker canopy, we’d retain moisture with better weed control.”

That’s turned out to be true for Howey. He met Calmer nearly a decade ago at a farm show. Their shared desire to increase yields through higher plant populations—which generally means narrower rows—sparked an ongoing business relationship. Howey jumped at the chance this year to get a wider head for 15-inch rows, and Calmer added another farmer-researcher to the several dozen who help him test narrow-rows.

Most of Howey’s corn is planted at variable rates of 28,000 to 38,000 plants per acre, depending on productivity zones. He planted test plots using various hybrids—one of which is from Iowa-based Stine Seed Co.—bred specifically for use in narrow-row corn. Those tests include seeding rates up to 45,000 plants per acre.

“There is a lot of upside potential,” says Howey. “All the hybrids used now were bred for 30-inch rows. Plant breeders believe that the genetic material is there to get the yields up to 300 bushels per acre using narrow spacing.”

In the meantime, he’ll settle for increased productivity and cost savings. “I need one less person combining by using one combine with the larger head rather than two combines with two heads,” Howey says.