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Good ideas have a way of resurfacing, even if “progress” seems to have left the ideas far in the past.
In the U.S., corn-row spacing has generally been getting narrower over the decades. Rows that used to be spaced 40 inches apart to make room for horses to pass through have shrunk to 30 inches in general, but sometimes as low as 15 or even 12 inches, packing plants tightly together in pursuit of ever-higher yields.
But recent experiments fly in the face of this trajectory, as a number of farmers are now exploring the possibilities beyond yield by no-tilling corn in 60-inch rows. The system creates the potential for harvesting more sunlight for seeding cover crops or companion crops, grazing livestock, building soil health and growing nitrogen to benefit the next year’s rotation.
Retired John Deere engineer Bob Recker of Waterloo, Iowa, says that farmers need to focus on developing advanced practices that can enhance what he calls the “triple bottom line” — sustainable income, improved soil and, of course, high crop yields that can feed and fuel the world.
In 2004, Recker was working with a grower on strip-intercropping and noticed that the outside row or two of corn in the strip had consistently higher yields than the inner rows.
A few years later after retiring from John Deere and starting up the consulting firm Cedar Valley Innovation, he worked with another farmer on a trial of 12 rows of 20-inch corn. The overall yield…