Had America's horses been a little less girth, the movement toward narrower-row corn might not have seen the uphill battle it has. "The 44-inch paradigm was there forever, and it's because 44 inches was the width of the Belgian horse," says Marion Calmer, CEO Calmer Corn Heads. "It came down to 40 inches around the Great Depression, but was still stuck at 40 inches throughout the 1960s."
Calmer remembers the day his farm moved to 38-rows. "You could still pick that with an ear corn picker, but couldn't go any less than 40 inches because you couldn't make an ear corn picker straddle a tractor."
As pickers disappeared and combines came on the scene, 38-inch rows became more common. About 2 years after he and his dad first moved to 38 inches, they slid the row units over another 2 inches, and were doing 36-inch rows for many years, up until he started growing seed for Pioneer in 1988.
"I went to 30 inch rows because the plants were small, didn't have a lot of hybrid vigor to them and weed control was a huge issue." After years of experience and study at his own research farm, Calmer pushed the envelope even further, growing all his seed corn in 15 inch rows by 1995.
But adoption has been slow in the U.S., even as South American farmers have proven it out, mostly, Calmer says, because no bias existed. "Many started out on narrow rows for soybeans and just assumed that was normal for corn," Calmer recalls.
When asked for the reasons behind the turtle's-pace adoption, Calmer says the early information in the 1960s and 1970s amounted to "taking a swing" at narrow row corn. Then the University of Illinois came out and said 'we've done research on it and there's no yield advantage, just stay on the 40 inch rows.' No one today would think of growing corn in 40 inch rows; it didn't make any sense at all."
"That early news that came out just hung with us. There's a few of us who've stepped up and offered a better way of adopting the system.
"It comes down to doing it right. Good management equals a good yield advantage. People blame a system when it's actually their management of it that should be blamed. You won't get to the target of 300-bushel-corn without narrow rows though, that's for sure."