Switching to narrow-row corn has been a yield enhancing experience for Union County, N.C., growers Steve and David Parker, helping them to garner second place among all dryland entries in the state last year.
The Parker brothers produced 268.4 bushels per acre, tops in the Piedmont area and second only to Cherokee County, N.C. grower Ed Wood, who produced 278 bushels per acre last year.
“We switched from 30-inch rows to 15-inch rows six years ago, and it’s been a good change for us,” says Steve Parker. “We were stuck in the 230-240 bushel per acre range for a long time, and we feel going to the narrow-rows has helped us move to a higher level of production, and it makes it easier in bad weather years to still get to the 230-240 bushel per acre range,” he adds.
Parker says he and his brother were not the first Union County farmers to switch to narrow-rows. “One of our neighbors, John Ashcraft, planted corn on 15-inch rows a year before we switched,” Steve Parker says.
They start out with their narrow-row corn with a typical burndown, using a glyphosate-based herbicide. They then come back with a vertical tillage tool three to four inches deep to loosen and warm the soil before planting.
The Parkers plant corn on 15-inch row spacings, and stay between 28,000 and 32,000 seed per acre. They spread poultry litter a week or so ahead of planting and use a light tillage tool to incorporate the litter into the soil.
“I believe the real key to getting higher yields with 15- versus 30-inch row spacings in corn is the precise seed spacing we get with this system,” Steve Parker says. “We’ve had people come look at our corn and they are amazed at how uniform the seed are spaced,” he adds.
The narrow-row pattern gives each stalk its own space and equal access to sunlight. “When corn first comes up it looks like it’s been planted every which away, but when you get in the field and look at it closely, you can see the rows,” he says.
John Deere system
They use a John Deere CCS Seed Delivery System, which Parker says is very efficient and in the long-run saves them a lot of time and costs they used to incur changing from 30 inch spacings for corn to 15 inch spacings for soybeans.
Using narrow row spacings for corn isn’t for everybody, Steve Parker notes. “In our case, we were going to have to replace our 30-inch header anyway, and after talking to a lot of people we made the decision to replace our worn out header with a 15-inch header.
“Making the change just to get to narrow-rows might not be the best economic move to make, because the new headers can be very expensive, the North Carolina grower says.
This year David Parker says the narrow system, especially the vertical-tillage tool came in real handy to warm up the soil enough to plant corn. Still, he says, they had to come back and replant sections of some fields — a rare thing on their Union County farm.
Last year, when they produced their county record 268 bushels per acre, they planted corn in late March. This year they couldn’t even get on most of their fields until mid-April and later in some cases.
“We had the coldest spring in 70 years, according to weather reports and fifth coldest March in history.
“Switching to 15-inch rows and a few other tweaks to our corn production system has helped us push our farm-wide yields up over the past few years, but none of that matters much, if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate — not when you’re growing dryland corn in the Piedmont of North Carolina,” Steve Parker says.
Even so, he says the narrow-row system they use makes it easier to replant in small sections of a corn field, if weather forces you to do so.
Many of their fields have irregular shapes and the new planting system allows them to plant and harvest their corn at different angles.
Makes harvest easier
The narrow-system really makes combining corn easier, Steve Parker says. “You don’t have to follow the rows when you combine corn, and you could even cut it diagonally to the rows if you had to do it,” he adds.
David Parker says it helps at harvest time that their corn fields are clean. “I have no doubt our fields are cleaner now than they used to be when we planted in 30-inch row spacings.
“It looks like the corn starts off slow, then boom — it takes off and it looks like the ground is covered quicker than we used to see with wider row spacings,” he adds.
The brothers agree that the quicker row coverage helps with weed and grass control. “Once our corn gets up and growing, I’m sure we spray it less than we used to with 30-inch spacings,” David Parker says.
As for their soybean crop, the Parker brothers say the convenience of planting both crops on the same row spacings and with the same equipment is a bonus. They say there appears to be little difference in soybean yields between the two row spacings in their farming operation, and certainly not enough leave the convenience they have with the 15-inch row settings.
Being in a grain deficit region, grain growers in the Southeast have two-fold reason to increase corn yields—to keep themselves in business and too keep their best customers—area livestock producers—in business.
Nationwide the results on 15 versus 30 inch row spacings for corn are inconsistent, but generally show some advantage for the narrow spacings, regardless of the soil type, hybrid planted or other farming practices. How much of a yield increase has shown to be highly variable from year to year and from state to state.
For North Carolina growers David and Steve Parker there is no doubt the narrow-row spacings are better. Some solid support comes from Francis Childs, a corn farmer in Manchester, Iowa, who produced 441 bushels of corn per acre using 20-inch row spacings.
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