From the Field:
Row Width Variations in Kansas – Elliott Family Farm
By Emily Koop, Eastern Kansas Corn Crew Rep.
Decades ago, the space between each corn row was determined by the width of your horse. Horses pulling the equipment needed to be able to fit between each row during planting and harvesting. Over time equipment and technology improved and row width began to steadily decrease. Today, most of the corn in the U.S. is planted in 30-inch rows. Even so, there are growers in Kansas striving to reach their acreage full potential by planting rows anywhere from 15-20 inches apart.
The Elliott family near Hiawatha, KS are one of those families who are seeking out the benefits of planting narrow-row corn. They made the switch to planting 20-inch rows more than 8 years ago and have appreciated the benefits it has provided. During harvest, we went out for a visit to hear more about the advantages and disadvantages of this practice.
The most important benefit of narrow-row corn production is the potential for increased yield. With narrower rows the corn will canopy more quickly which leads to reduced weed pressures and competition. A Kansas State University study found a 25 to 45 percent reduction of weed emergence in narrow-row corn, resulting in higher yield potential. Research in central and eastern Kansas has demonstrated that corn grown in high-yielding environments has a 12 to 15 bu/acre yield advantage over corn grown in 30-inch rows.
This year, much of the area around Hiawatha experienced drought. Even so, Mathew Elliott mentioned yield benefits from narrow-row corn continued to show in their fields.
“With wider rows, a corn plant may produce extremely big ears,” he says, “but our goal is to push total plant population. In the end we receive more bushels on each acre in the field, even in drought years.”
While yield potential may be greater for fields that typically average 160 bu/acre and above, the benefit from narrow rows decreases as yields decrease. When typical yields are 120 bu/acre or less, planting corn in narrow rows can reduce yields compared to corn grown in 30-inch rows. Planting wider rows is especially important for corn grown in moisture-limiting environments.
One drawback of narrow row corn production is the cost associated with new planting and harvesting equipment. Equipment investments include modifying or replacing a current planter, new tires on machinery to handle smaller row width, and a new combine head for harvest. Input costs such as fertilizer and insecticide may increase as well as these are typically applied in a rate calculated per row. It may not be economical to make an investment in new, expensive equipment where no yield advantage has been found.
The next generation has the challenge of feeding a growing population while utilizing less resources. Growers must balance the expected yield increase and year-to-year variability against the equipment and input costs involved. Ultimately the grower knows what is best for their soil type, climate, moisture levels and individual businesses.