How Thick Should I Plant My Corn? What are other farmers doing?

Dr. Joe Lauer, UW-Madison Agronomy and Extension State Corn Specialist

Farmers continue to increase corn plant populations in Wisconsin and the U.S. Midwest. Every year as part of the Objective Yield Survey, the USDA-NASS counts plants in September at 150 locations in Wisconsin. Similar data collection is done in other corn producing states of the U.S. Midwest. Corn plant density in Wisconsin during 2018 was the highest ever measured at 30,650 plants/A. In 2018, Illinois had the highest plant density at 32,000 plants/A, followed by Iowa (31,100) and Minnesota (30,900).

In 1982, corn plant density ranged from 19,400 to 22,200 plants/A. Minnesota has consistently had higher average corn plant density than other states (Figure 1). In Wisconsin plant densities were 20,300 plants/A in 1982. Plant density has since increased at the rate of 267 plants/A*yr. Iowa and Illinois have had the greatest rates of change at 308 plants/A*yr.

Figure 1. Corn plant density changes over time for states in the U.S. Midwest Corn Belt. The rate of change (slope) in plants/A*yr since 1982 is reported for each state. Data derived from USDA-NASS.


Adjusting plant density for your fields is one of the key production decisions for producing high yielding corn. Clearly farmers are adjusting plant densities higher. Farmers still have numerous questions about plan density including:

  1. What plant density achieves maximum yield (MYPD)?
  2. What plant density achieves the economic optimum (EOPD)?
  3. Are the MYPD and EOPD the same for grain and silage?
  4. Do hybrids differ for MYPD and EOPD?
  5. Do fields differ for MYPD and EOPD?
  6. How does risk change, especially during years of drought or lodging?
  7. What happens to plant bareness?
  8. Do precision farming variable rate technologies make a difference?

Over the next few articles we will try to address some of these questions.There is likely no standard recommendation for achieving MYPD or EOPD given that hybrid, environment, and economics (grain price and seed price) affect these measures. Rather MYPD and EOPD are moving targets where if we can get to within 95% of these values, it might just have to be good enough.

One approach that might be useful for your farm is to plant fields with a target plant density based upon your experience. Then for one round (or pass) in a couple parts of the field, increase plant density 10% (Figure 2). If harvest yield is affected, then adjust plant density the following season. If not, you are out the difference of ROI for seed.

Figure 2. An example of using reference strips for testing maximum yield plant density. Plant most of field to plant density based upon experience. In one strip (ideally 2 or 3) increase plant density 10%. Measure yield at harvest.