Corn Maverick: Cracking the Mystery of 60-Inch Rows

10:04AM Oct 28, 2019
BOB RECKER 1
Every farmer must make money, grow food and take care of the soil—and Bob Recker believes 60” row corn could be an avenue toward improving all three facets on the right operation, without trimming yield.
( Photo by Cedar Valley Innovation )

Terra incognita. When Bob Recker turned off every other row on his no-till planter, doubled the plant population, and punched seed into Iowa soil, he crossed into the uncharted territory of 60” row corn. Success or failure, Recker was about to bathe his corn—and weeds—in sunlight, and attempt to maintain yield with only half the growing space.

In 2017, Recker kicked open the door on 60” row corn, and exposed a ton of questions on sunlight capture, weed suppression, cover crops, and much more. According to Recker’s triune agricultural gospel, or triple bottom line, every farmer must make money, grow food and take care of the soil—and he believes 60” row corn could become an avenue toward improving all three facets on the right operation, without trimming yield.

A Jug of Sunshine

Recker’s question: If every other row is a zero yield, can a corn field gobble enough sunshine to reach equivalent yield, as compared with standard 30” rows? The query is typically rendered by most growers as a snowflake-in-hell proposition—i.e., it ain’t happening.

However, Recker pays little mind to the confines of consensus. A retired John Deere engineer, Recker has fueled a post-machinery career as an independent researcher with an increasingly large sustainable bone. Owner and founder of Cedar Valley Innovation in Waterloo, Iowa, Recker is intensely focused on improving farming’s triple bottom line—money, food and soil: “I retired in 2008, knowing that I wanted to give something back to the American farmer for feeding me for so many years. I started studying and became more interested in smaller data sets, even down to the yield of a single corn plant.”

Recker’s initial approach to 60” rows was a combination of heavy experimentation with a mix of configurations, and a heavy focus on photosynthesis and the edge effect. In a field of corn, the outside row, along with the on-deck row, both see significant yield benefits from sunlight. However, go inside beyond those two rows, and the shaded plants generally revert to broad acre yields.  

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“Randy Dowdy is correct: You can’t buy a jug of sunshine,” Recker explains, “but you can still leverage corn’s ability to use sunshine because it is universally available.”

Experimenting with narrow corn strips, Recker tried 12-, 8-, 6-, 4-, and 2-row corn, particularly noting the promise of 4-row corn: “Maybe God meant for corn to be grown 4 rows wide on 30” rows, with a skipped row on either side.”

“Whatever the configuration, we all know the edges always yield so well. Even discounting the fanciness on variety, fertility and population, the edge rows always yield big. I’m trying to figure out how to harvest sunlight and that’s where the 60” rows came from. I was challenged by a friend to try wide rows, and it seemed crazy, but I was willing to try and find out what would happen.”

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Prior to 2017, Recker tried alternate 20” and 40” rows, noting a slight yield increase. In 2017, he planted eight varieties on 16 half-mile rows, each separated by 60” (almost five acres total), on commercial corn production land in Iowa. Accounting for the adjoining 30” corn planted at a 34,000 population, Recker doubled all the 60” corn to a 68,000 in-row population to accomplish the same field population.

“American farmers have scar tissue from people promoting things that don’t work, so I wanted to avoid claiming a yield benefit or drag due to a different population. I kept the elements simple, treating one variable at a time. My corn got all the same treatments as the adjoining commercial corn and we planted the same day. My commercial grower/collaborator is excellent and highly vigilant in weed control, and that made a big difference.”

Recker’s 2017 60” corn, with half the ground space empty, produced a surprising result—statistically equivalent in yield to the rest of the field. “It started gaining interest from farmers because it was so easy to do, required no equipment changes and provided easy equipment access to the corn,” Recker describes.

Yet, as corn surges on sunshine, weeds thrive on solar power all the more: Nature abhors a vacuum. “Yes, you’re giving weeds a great chance to get established in the open space,” Recker says. “You must have a residue base already in place or a good weed control strategy.”

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For a grower solely focused on growing corn, Recker recommends adherence to 30” rows, but for someone interested in taking advantage of the open row space, Recker urges consideration of cover crops, companion crops or grazing potential. “No BS. Do 30” if you only want corn, and don’t do 60” without something in between the rows. Done right, you can get much healthier crop dividends, and a grazing opportunity may be the biggest bonus.”

In 2018, Recker recorded 30 growers trialing 60” corn across nine states. He obtained results from seven plots without cover crops, and five plots utilizing cover crops. All told, the 12 plots showed an overall yield decrease of 5%, with a plus/minus of 10%, according to Recker. “If you’re enthusiastic about cover crops or grazing, the results are very interesting. Or if you think this could be fine-tuned and done better, it also grabs your attention.”

“I’m not expanding my 60” row research. I’m just encouraging people to do their own experiments and urging them to adapt and adopt this to fit their system, rather than me tell them how to farm. It could be a big deal for cover guys on the right farm. I’m convinced sustainable practices are the right thing, but they must be profitable and not a logistics nightmare.”

Jack Boyer

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) seized on Recker’s proposition in 2018, conducting trials on four farms to see if yields would keep pace with conventional 30” rows, and determine if 60” rows could reap significant biomass growth from interseeded cover crops. Results of the trial were mixed on yield. At two locations, farmers saw equal yields between 30” and 60” rows; at two other locations, farmers observed yield declines. Most of the 60” ground showed heavy cover crop growth, but weed control was a challenge, and possibly contributed to lower yields.

(See here for a pdf download of the PFI study.)

Tama County producer Jack Boyer participated in the PFI study, and has also worked with Recker on multiple research projects. Boyer grows corn, seed corn and soybeans, and is 100% no till: “I’ve been working on 30” rows, trying to get cover crops planted earlier, like at sidedress in June. But 60” rows caught my eye because they allow a diverse crop mix and plenty of sunshine.”

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As part of the PFI corn study, Boyer planted four segregated strips of 12 30” rows and four strips of 6 60” rows (eight strips covered roughly 3 acres). The overall results were equivalent, with the 60” rows (205 bpa) outperforming the 30” rows (200 bpa) by 5 bu.

In between the 60” rows, Boyer planted cow peas (warm season species), anticipating fast movement and weed suppression, but the weather dipped and the peas sat tight. In addition, the pea presence (legume) ensured Boyer couldn’t use a herbicide without killing the cover—complicating his management. When waterhemp emerged, Boyer pulled the handbrake, came back with a herbicide, killed the covers, and replanted with a multi-species mix after burndown, finally wrangling a degree of good weed control.

“The weeds love sunshine, too, and unchecked, they’ll proliferate with a vengeance. You have to pick a cover crop combination that comes up quickly and spreads quickly to make sure weed seed can’t get started,” Boyer says.

“Overall, the 60” covers grew 10 times the aboveground biomass of the 30”, and the amount of nitrogen captured by the 60” was 10 times that of the 30”. My advice to other growers is to stay with 30”, unless you are really interested in grazing cattle after harvest or improving soil health,” Boyer adds.

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In 2019, Boyer has an 10-acre plot of replicated 30” and 60” corn, and has utilized the weed lessons from 2018. “I applied a half-rate of chemicals with a short half-life so the covers wouldn’t be bothered, and later went in with a no-residual cleanup herbicide, planted covers, and got decent weed control.”

Boyer’s consistent plot research has revealed data which may move him away from future 60” study. A mix of annual ryegrass, cow peas and rape seed has performed well under a 30” canopy, according to Boyer. “As individual covers, they didn’t work, but together they appear to have some kind of synergy, and they may be an ideal cover situation for 30” rows. All I’m doing is experimenting and learning. I don’t have cattle so extra biomass is not important to me. Again, if you’ve got cattle, grazing covers could be a serious reason to look into 60”.”

Loran Steinlage

On 750 acres of Fayette County ground, Loran Steinlage perpetually breaks the mold, and has moved his operation toward regenerative practices, on a trajectory from interseeding to companion cropping to relay cropping, with an eye on space for livestock despite a lack of pasture ground. Steinlage, explains Recker, is a “real deal” farmer and doesn’t adhere to convention: “Loran is willing to try stuff and always has something unique going on. You’re not going to find anyone exactly like him and he’ll always tell it like it is.”

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In 2017, Steinlage planted a plot with alternating corn rows of 30” and 60”, with cover crops in between. He noted standard cover crop growth in the 30”, but lush, knee-deep biomass in the 60”. “It’s pretty clear to me that if you’ve got livestock, 60” is the perfect opportunity to get a post-harvest grazing option very quick. We can maintain yield from what we’ve seen, and get good tonnage for livestock the very day we harvest,” he says.

Steinlage is all no till and 100% interseeded on corn acreage. Once again, in 2019, Steinlage is testing a 60” plot. “I do something different each year and I’ll push even with minimal success. Right now, we’ve seen phenomenal no till organic corn on corn with almost zero purchased inputs,” he describes. “I hope to bring livestock back on the farm, but minimizing inputs is my focus at present.”

“I try to set up everything for relay cropping in the fall, but Mother Nature unfolds her hand in the spring, and we really don’t know our rotation sometimes until June 1.”

Steve Walder

Steve Walder grows a mix of conventional and organic crops in Vermilion County, Ill., in addition to fulltime work as an engineering manager at RhinoAg. Walder has consistent giant ragweed control issues in organic corn.  “I heard about 60” rows and controlling these weeds was my initial thought because I knew I’d be able to get between the rows much easier and have 50% fewer rows with weeds. Secondarily, cover benefits were a factor that would help keep organic inspectors satisfied and build soil health and nutrient levels, which are particularly important in organic crops.”

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Walder planted 12 acres of 60” organic corn in 2018, and noted a 20% reduction in yield. “Normally I’m at 34,000-36,000 planting population, but part of the yield problem was my populations were off because my planter can’t go up high enough to accommodate a doubling. In the past I have seen similar yield loss on these acres from the giant ragweed pressure.”

In 2019, Walder tried 5 acres of 60” plots, adjusting planting population to 25,500 on 30” and 51,000 on 60”. “This year after harvest I’ll know better if my yield comes close to the 5% percent average drop that others have seen.”

Walder intends to try 60” rows again in 2020: “It takes multiple growing seasons to get a real idea. There are so many variables with weather and you can’t rely on just a couple of years of data. Long term, with the right hybrids and optimal population, and the right cover crops, that 5% yield drag may disappear. This takes time and years of research to get it right.”

Easy to Kill

Beyond 60” rows, Recker urges growers to constantly tinker and experiment on a small percentage of a given operation. For example, he advocates taking a 4% chunk (40 acres) of a 1,000-acre farm and trying unique management. Further, within the 40 acres, he recommends using 4 acres for any outside-the-box growing practice—even if deemed bizarre by conventional agriculture. “Understanding comes from failure. Do the research on a small piece of ground, and then ask the right questions. What does it do for income? What does it do for the total output of the farm? What does it do for the soil?”

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Recker isn’t wed to 60” rows—he’s wed to sunlight harvest. “If we find a cover crop or companion combination along with a yield increase, people will adopt any configuration. I’m not there yet. I don’t know what configuration is ideal, but maybe it’s 30”-60” or something else. I’ve done some crazy stuff that usually doesn’t work, but I’m not afraid to go find answers. I’m convinced that in the near future, the yield winners across the country are going to be using different row configurations.”

“Somewhere out there is a soil scientist or agronomist, that is just like me, wanting to do more and leverage their abilities into this,” he continues. “My network of farmers and researchers is often the crazy bunch because they are willing to listen and think about what might be possible.”

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As automation and driverless technology increase across agriculture, Recker says the importance of row configurations will become prominent. Smaller equipment, he believes, may be a catalyst. “Things are going to change; they always do,” he adds. “Autonomous vehicles will be the economic, agronomic and sociological winners. The vineyard industry already uses automated equipment to get up and down the rows, and is already close to 60” spacing. That tells me something about what may happen with row crops.”

Recker never sugarcoats his findings, welcomes criticism from all corners, and coats his reflections with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, but the maverick researcher has little patience for the incurious: “What have you got to lose? Do something no one else is trying and pay attention to the details. Don’t listen to the crowd because an idea is like a young plant just sprouting—it’s very easy to kill.”

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