Sunbury, N.C., grain and cotton grower Robbie Umphlett is a self-proclaimed early adopter, so making a big change in row-widths and seeding rates in 2010 wasn’t a big surprise.

Like most of Umphlett’s innovative changes, switching to 20-inch rows on his corn and from a drill to a more conventional corn seeder on his soybeans came only after a lot of testing, some on-site observations and plenty of thinking and re-thinking.

“We thought about going to 25-inch rows from the 38-inch row spacing we’ve used for years on corn. That would give us three rows in the same space as we used to have two,” Umphlett says.

“Ron Heiniger (North Carolina State University corn specialist) said the 25-inch rows would work fine in corn. However, Jim Dunphy (North Carolina State soybean specialist) said that row spacing wouldn’t quite do it for soybeans,” the grower recalls.

Umphlett, who manages Umphlett Brothers Farms, says growing more than 3,000 acres of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and barley requires more precision than ever to stay profitable.

The third generation North Carolina farmer has farmed all his life and says making tough decisions is a part of farming and usually comes down to economics. An award-winning peanut farmer in the past, he says giving up peanuts was a simple matter of soybeans being more profitable.

Umphlett bit the bullet and invested in the planting equipment that now allows him to plant 20-inch rows. The economics of the move makes sense, he says.

He says a 10-20 percent increase in yield can be expected from narrow-rows. 

“We’ve been averaging 150 bushels of corn per acre. At a 15 percent increase that’s more than 22 bushel per acre increase and with $4 corn that new equipment will pay for itself in a hurry,” he adds.

On soybeans, he had been planting narrow-rows for a number of years, so planting on the new row configuration wasn’t anything new. The narrow-row spacing made it easier to drop from 70 pounds of seed per acre to 45 pounds per acre. With seed costs at roughly a dollar a pound — that’s a savings of about $25 per acre and on 2,000 acres that’s a savings that adds up quickly.   

Combining the extra income from corn and beans will allow the North Carolina grower to recoup the cost of the new planting equipment in a couple of years. “That will happen, if everything goes as planned,” Umphlett says.

Because of the different soil quality on his farm, the North Carolina grower plants grain crops using conventional-tillage, no-till, strip-till and some corn is planted on 80-inch raised beds. “Some of their land needs some extra drainage, so they plant some on beds,” says veteran Extension ag agent Paul Smith, who worked with Umphlett and Ron Heiniger to come up with the planting configuration.

“The 80-inch beds have four rows of corn. The top of the bed is flat and has a slit cut for drainage every 80 inches. The land is bedded with a hipper roller, which is fairly easy and worked really well in planting his 2010 crop.