Ed Hain thought his corn was a liar in the fall of 1975. Atop a John Deere 7700 rumbling through a Nebraska field 80 miles west of Omaha, Hain watched his combine swallow four acres of 200 bu. corn. When the scale ticket came back, he began walking the freshly cut rows, questioning his own ground. Roughly 150 bu. was a bin-buster, but 200 bu. per acre? Couldn’t be.
Hain’s hunt for extra yield paid off in spades. In the spring of 1975, he rolled the dice and planted several six-row strips of corn and soybeans on silt loam soil. One more experiment, one more tweak, and possibly one more dead-end for an insatiably curious Midwest farmer. Instead, Hain picked the lock on a corn yield secret that translated to almost 50 extra bushels per acre and catapulted him to an unlikely title: father of six-row corn.
Hain, 84, retired in 2008, after a lifetime farming 800 acres in Butler County. His farm brew always contained lashings of mad science flavor, and he incessantly prodded and poked at higher corn yields. In the early 1970s, he went high-low, planting two rows of a tall variety beside two rows of a short variety, essentially using a corrugated effect to grab more sun. Didn’t work.
Hain followed corrugation with box blending. “I used a short corn that needed thick planting and a tall corn that puts on a bigger ear, but needs a thinner stand,” he recalls. Hain blended the seed in the planter boxes hoping the tall variety would gobble sunshine and put on big ears, while the tougher-bred short variety competed well below. Didn’t work.
And then 1975 arrived. “I was trying to figure out a way to harvest more sunlight and I came up with an original design of six-rows of corn and six of soybeans. I was just experimenting, hoping for a 10- or 15-bushel increase in corn. I had never heard of anyone trying this before.”
Hain planted four strips of six-row corn and four strips of six-row soybeans (both set on 30”). Each row was a half-mile long, roughly one acre per strip. At harvest, Hain cut 200 bu. per acre on the six-row strips, but the adjoining solid corn only pumped out 150 bu. per acre. The market math was a quick tally: Factored on $2.50 corn, a 50-bu. increase meant a $125 increase per acre. In anticipation, Hain built an extension on his combine bin and prepared for a second trial in 1976.
“No way. I honestly thought I’d made a mistake. I didn’t want people to think I was crazy, so I planted the exact same test plot the next year and got the same yields. That second year my doubts were gone,” he says.
“The increase was so pronounced and the difference between the inner and outer rows was huge. Lots of stalks on the outer rows had two or more full-sized ears,” Hain continues. “The outer rows were thriving off the sun and anyone could see it.”
In 1977, Hain spread the innovation to more ground, placing 160 acres in six-row strips of corn and soybeans. He jumped to 320 acres of six-row strips in 1978, with 160 acres in furrow irrigation and 160 in tow line irrigation (essentially a sprinkler system where a 4” water pipe is pulled through a field with a tractor). The same year, brimming with confidence, he placed an ad in the classified section of an agriculture periodical offering to share his yield secrets with anyone for $20 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
A double-sawbuck for a bevy of agronomic detail, guaranteeing significant yield increases? “The responses poured in and I was just glad to help other farmers. I never pushed any seed or products; just the six-row method. Seemed plenty fair to me for $20. Still does.”
By 1979, Hain had all his corn acres in six-row strips, except for a few check plots as a measuring tape. The agronomics, according to Hain were relatively simple. Using a 12-row planter with the outer three rows tossed off on both sides, Hain planted corn at 34,000 seeds per acre on the outside rows and 26,000 seeds per acre on the inner rows. Roughly a week later, he came back and planted soybeans.
“I sidedressed most of my nitrogen when the corn was 12” tall. Phosphate was applied at planting.”
“For herbicide, I used a 15” band of herbicide behind the planter and except for the rub bar at cultivation, that’s it. Ramrod atrazine for corn and Lasso with Sencor for beans. I never had trouble with corn herbicides hurting my beans.”
50 Bu. Bump
During Hain’s first years of strips, his soybeans climbed high searching for sun and yielded 2-3 bu. less than normal. “I switched to a semi-dwarf bean and solved the problem, but it wasn’t a big thing anyhow due to the big corn yield jump.”
How big was Hain’s corn yield jump over time? He estimates an average 50 bu. yield bump over 15 years of corn and soybean strips. In 1992, a major company offered Hain a lucrative seed corn contract and he transitioned from strips to solid seed corn. “I changed strictly due to contract money. If it wasn’t for the enticing contract, I’d have planted six-row corn until the day I retired. I’ll never forget the size of those ears on the outer rows.”
“For anybody who wants to try this: Go to your seed dealer and request a variety capable of putting on multiple ears because that will be necessary for the outside rows.”
Shaking the Tree
Dead-center in the Cornhusker State, and 150 miles west of Hain, Conard Sutton, 67, farmed for 45 years outside the tiny town of Sargent. With steady corn and soybeans on 1,100 acres of sandy soil and clay silt loam, Sutton was highly dependent on irrigation to supplement roughly 18” of annual rainfall. In the mid-1980s, dealing with a dismal agriculture economy, Sutton caught wind of Hain’s yields and decided to shake the tree.
By nature, Sutton was constantly in pursuit of a yield edge, relentlessly testing new hybrids, herbicides or management techniques, and keeping meticulous records: “I was never afraid to try different things because a farming career only offers 40 to 50 chances to try something new. That’s it. Every year is different and every year is a big lesson—or it should be.”
“Every farmer’s goal is gaining the highest yields in an economical manner and that’s what I knew was coming out of Ed Hain’s fields,” Sutton adds.
He called Hain and received a wealth of advice on six-row, narrow strip farming. In 1986, Sutton started with 100 acres of corn and soybean strips, essentially “ridge tilling” using a six-row Sidewinder with mounted planter units, and a six-row Buffalo planter. All fertilizer was placed immediately prior to planting in a basic formula: 180 lb. of nitrogen, 25 lb. of phosphorus, and 12 lb. of potassium.
Sprockets, Pops, Hybrids
Mirroring Hain, Sutton began seeing major yield increases. Solid corn averaged 200 bu., but Sutton’s strips hit 260 bu. He experimented with planting populations and maturity (119-day on rows 1 and 6; 109-day on rows 2 and 5; 103-day on rows 3 and 4) by row, sometimes climbing as high as 56,000 seeds per acre on rows 1 and 6. “One year I had 56,000; 42,000; and 33,000 mixed into the strips. I should have cut down the outer row to 47,000. Anyhow, my Lord, the bushels were still rolling in. I remember one field coming in at 293 bu.”
Sutton consistently manipulated the rows, playing with hybrids and populations, always seeking an optimal combination. Between solid corn and six-row strips, he consistently noted a 50-plus bu. difference. “It’s all from the sun. If a person wants to try strip rows, don’t be afraid to tinker with sprockets, populations, hybrids, or maturities. Try pineapple leaf corn, flat leaf corn, all kinds of corn. The possibilities are really endless and everyone’s ground is different. You want every bushel at the least cost? Then try six-row strips.”
Sutton acknowledges a soybean loss (2-4 bu.) during his first years of six-rows strips. After watching Group 3 soybeans climb and lodge, he found a 1.9 maturity group maintained yield. “I had to do some testing, but I found a bean that fit.”
Addressing strip exposure to wind, Sutton never dealt with fallen rows, and believes six-row strips provide increased protection. Why? All roads to lead to photosynthesis, according to Sutton. “My strip corn actually withstood wind storms better than solid corn. In solid corn I’d have hybrids go flat while adjoining strips stood tall like trees. It’s amazing because when you’ve got 200 acres of solid corn, the middle plants never get wind. If the wind gets up, they’ll topple like dominoes, but the strips stay upright because they have so much strength from photosynthesis.”
By the late 1990s, Sutton’s 500 acres of strips produced outstanding yields, but irrigation management became an Achilles’ heel. Strip rows in need of water made for a labor-intensive situation, particularly when trying to get soybeans laid-by despite thirsty corn. In Sutton’s case, irrigation became a restriction. When Sutton’s farming partner and brother, Sterling Sutton, decided to move back to solid fields, the die was cast and six-row strips were out.
If Sutton could turn back the clock and jump back into farming, he would be back in six-row management in a heartbeat: “I’d try it again for sure, and especially if I was on dryland, I’d put 100% of my acreage in six-rows and I’d strip till everything. Anywhere with dryland possibilities is a great fit for strips.”
Sutton retired in 2015 and averaged nearly 300 bu. per acre corn during the final years of his farming career. Although 300 bu. corn equates to major production, the Nebraska grower doesn’t mince words about what might have been: “With all the jumps in seed technology, I can easily say I would have been close to between 350 bu. to 400 bu. with strips. I don’t care if people think that sounds crazy because it’s not an exaggeration.”
“It’s unbelievable because there is so much room for manipulation in six-row strips and still so much more to find out, but the answers are waiting to be found. I learned from Ed Hain and I hope others can learn from my experience.”
Picking up the corn baton, Jim Nichols has sprinted down a six-row path in southwest Minnesota. Battered by wind and cold atop the Buffalo Ridge at 2,000’ in elevation, Nichols began farming six-row strips in 2012. In four years he watched corn yields jump by 100 bu.
Nichols switched 200 acres to six-row, alternating strips of corn and soybeans (north-south orientation), and focused fertilizer application on a 21-day July window. Harnessed to photosynthesis and nitrogen, Nichols rode a yield beast, culminating in a 292 bu. average across the acreage. “It’s not complicated. I’m using the power of carbon dioxide and pulling bushels from above,” Nichols, 71, explains. “I’m actually just growing carbon. I farmed 30 years and never realized the true power of photosynthesis.”
Nichols adheres to a 37,000 seeding rate, but is moving toward varying population by row, as well as changing varieties within the six-row scheme. “I’m going to make population and variety switches, but I’m still learning what works best and I don’t have enough data gathered yet.”
“Watching photosynthesis has changed the way I think. Since half my crop is carbon, I want to know which seed variety sucks the most carbon dioxide out of the air, but I haven’t found out yet. There are still so many variables to discover and that’s why I test things in my fields to see what is best for myself.”
(For more on Nichols, see Corn’s Carbon Cowboy Busts Outstanding Yields)
“Here is the key,” Nichols concludes. “Each acre of corn absorbs 8 tons of carbon dioxide every year. Farmers just don’t realize 46% of every corn kernel is carbon. All of that carbon comes from carbon dioxide. For example, 220 bu. corn weighs 6 tons and almost 3 tons of it comes from carbon. That means the secret to growing is photosynthesis. I never thought about it my whole career and didn’t grow any different. If you remember to feed corn when it needs three-fourths of its nitrogen in 21 days, and provide plenty of sunlight capture, then yields are going to jump. It’s a simple truth and a big yield secret: I farm carbon.”
Hain, Sutton and Nichols are of one accord: On the right ground, six-row strips lead to low costs and high yield. “I’d love to see someone on particularly good ground, maybe somebody like David Hula, try out strip production. I’d bet there’d be no limits because nobody has to pay for sunshine,” Sutton says.
“I sometimes think about 4-row corn strips,” he adds. “Just imagine the photosynthesis blast if someone figures out 4-row corn.”
“Oh my,” Hain echoes, “I’ve always wondered about 4-row strips. Just imagine the yield explosion.”
Four-row strips carry inherent management issues, and Hain says harvest is a particularly tricky problem. “You could use the four outside rows of a 12-row head, with the four middle rows removed. There are a whole lot of variables to play with and you could experiment on small acres because it costs nothing except a little effort to try.”
Reflecting on the gnawing curiosity that triggered innovation on his Nebraska fields beginning in the 1970s, the father of six-row strips grins as he wades through memories of six-row corn. “You should have seen those ears. People were skeptical at first, but I didn’t mind because I laughed all the way to the bank. Even today, I wouldn’t hesitate on six-row strips. I’d do it again right now.”
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