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20-inch corn rows increase profits

Cuts production expenses and increases yield 10 to 20 percent Converting from 40-inch to 20-inch rows could save Wharton County, Texas, corn farmers Gerald and John Donaldson significant production expenses and increase yield by 10 to 20 percent.

It's a calculated risk that Gerald and his son believe will pay off, especially when grain prices improve from current lows.

"We're expanding acreage," Gerald says, "and we believe we can get across the land much faster with narrow rows and wider equipment."

They'll start with the 2001 crop, and it will not be a test. "We have to make it work," says Gerald. "We'll put all our anticipated 2,000 acres of corn in 20-inch rows. We can't justify investing in a narrow-row planter for just a few acres, so whatever tweaking we have to do to make this system work, we'll do. We are committed to the change."

They bought a slightly used John Deere split-row planter that seeds twenty-three, 20-inch corn rows or twelve 40-inch cotton rows. "We can lift up every other row unit," Gerald explains.

They did a lot of homework before deciding to make the switch.

"We looked at research from the Texas Blacklands Agricultural Experiment Station at Temple," Gerald says. "They have three years of data, a dry year, a normal year and a wet year, that show definite yield advantages with 20-inch rows. The dry year showed the greatest advantage, but in each year, narrow rows out-performed conventional."

Gerald says research data show a 17 percent to 20 percent yield advantage. "We think a 10 percent to 20 percent advantage is a good goal for our farm."

The Donaldsons cite a number of advantages from narrow row spacings.

"We'll conserve moisture," Gerald says. "We'll also produce a quicker canopy that will provide better weed and grass control. That canopy also will keep soil temperatures lower early in the season and may reduce potential for aflatoxin.

"Wider spacings in the drill also will produce healthier, more robust plants."

"We hope to eliminate cultivation," adds John. "That will allow us to save on labor and fuel. And with expanding acreage, we'll cover more land quicker with the wider planting unit."

They're also going to no-till and flat planting. "Planting flat, instead of on a bed, is a scary thing in this area (The Texas Gulf Coast)," John says. Moving water off a field is often as much of a problem as getting enough to make the crop.

"But we've tried it for the past three years and it has worked well. It saves money, for one thing. We have eliminated three to five trips across the field.

"No-till looks promising," he says. "We're into our third year and the transition has been smooth."

Gerald says conservative estimates indicate a $22 per acre out-of-pocket savings with no-till versus conventional planting. "Returns are about the same. But equipment expense is not a part of that equation, and in the long run, equipment savings will be a big factor."

Gerald says they already have cut tractors from five to two.

"We're looking for an economy of scale," says John. "Narrow rows and no-till save a lot of time compared to conventional planting. We can use that time to market more effectively."

Gerald says some farmers are reluctant to make significant changes in farming operations when grain prices are low. He says this is the ideal time to gear up for better days.

"If we want to expand and make changes that will improve yield, we have to do it now and be ready to take advantage of market improvements when they come. We can't wait if we hope to realize the full potential of these changes."

He's optimistic that corn prices will rise. "We've beginning to see some movement," he says. "And if we get a 15 percent increase in yield, even at current prices, we can pay for the equipment in three years. A farmer can justify changing equipment with as little as 400 acres of corn," he says.

Gerald and John say three factors came together to convince them that 2001 was the time to make a move.

"We had research data showing yield advantages," Gerald says. "We also knew we needed to go to wider equipment to increase efficiency. And a slightly used split-row planter was available locally."

They hope seed companies will develop varieties adapted to narrow row and no-till operations in the South. "We'll use a Roundup Ready corn in 2001," Gerald says. "We look for an upright leaf and 112 day maturity. We don't really have a Roundup Ready corn adapted for our area. Most are developed for the Midwest, but we'll go with what has worked before."

They'll also stay with their usual plant population until they get a better handle on how narrow rows will respond. "We may go into the 2001 planting season with limited soil moisture," Gerald says, "so we want to make certain we have adequate seed but not too much. We'll probably do some plant density experiments the first year."

The Donaldsons will add some cotton to the corn acreage in 2001. "Cotton is a good rotation crop," John says, "but this land is more suited to corn."

"We don't irrigate, as a rule," Gerald adds. "The soil holds a lot of moisture and has a lot of depth and native fertility."

He knows his land. Gerald has farmed here for 34 years, coming back to farm after graduating from Texas A&M and serving a stint in the U.S. Army.

John also is an Aggie with a degree in agricultural economics. He's an eighth generation farmer, the third generation to farm in Texas.

"We have a partnership," Gerald says. "We're a pretty good team and are interested in a lot of the same things."

John says he's looking hard at farm economics. "Production is not enough anymore," he says. "We have to get better at marketing our crops."

They are looking at other changes, including some niche markets for organic corn, food corn, high oil corn and other crops that might offer a premium.

"We want to see if there is a crop we can manage with our expertise and with what we have available," Gerald says. "We're also looking at non-agriculture opportunities that will not conflict with our farm enterprises. So far, we're just thinking about the possibilities."

Thinking about what might work keeps the father/son team open to new ideas. They're improving their land with laser leveling. They're improving their profit potential with systems that offer potential for better yields and lower costs. And they're putting themselves in position to take advantage of any positive price movements in the market.

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