“And that kind of got me to thinking, it really didn’t matter how big the corn ear is, it’s how many you have out there.”

Understanding this, when it came time for Gray to buy new equipment, he made the switch to 20-inch rows. And he’s glad he did, because he believes the change has brought him higher yields.

Indeed, Heiniger’s research showed that growers could increase yield by 15 percent if they simply planted rows of corn closer together. And today, more than 40 percent of North Carolina’s corn acres are planted in these narrow rows, with more narrow-row acres added each year.

Growers have reported yield increases of 25 to 30 bushels per acre or more and report less stress and more consistent yields during dry seasons. Heiniger estimates that the research has increased the value of North Carolina corn by more than $50 million.

Heiniger’s research also demonstrated that growers could plant more corn plants per acre and increase yield — a 3-bushels-per-acre yield increase for every additional 1,000 plants per acre.

Growers have taken this information, provided through Cooperative Extension programs, to heart. The average corn plant population in North Carolina increased from 28,000 plants per acre in 2000 to 34,000 plants per acre in 2010.

Gray says he can’t estimate the value of the help that local Extension agents and specialists have provided, but he knows their recommendations make a difference.

“Without the Extension service,” he says, “there would be a lot of trial and error. When we have a problem, they always come up with the right answer as far as what we need to do.”