Row By Row / July 2019

Re-evaluate your equipment. Now’s the time to prepare for the plant variability at harvest

The unusually wet planting season this past spring has created significant plant variability that may cause harvest challenges this fall.

And while many producers are re-evaluating their equipment and tillage practices to limit variability at planting, Denny Bollig, farmer and president of Dragotec USA, suggests they should also be re-evaluating equipment that can reduce yield loss at harvest.

A Nightmare Scenario

“In my 44 years of farming, I’ve never seen as much variability across as many states as we are seeing now,” Bollig says. “It’s a nightmare scenario. We all want as much uniformity in our crop as possible, but this year we were pushed into making decisions we knew would create new issues down the road. And now the plants are making decisions to deal with those issues, including how big to grow, how long the ear, how many rows – even whether to produce an ear at all.”

“Nobody wants to have to stop planting, let alone not to plant,” Bollig says. “Producers may be considering moving from wheels to tracks. They may be looking at attachments to keep their planter from getting balled-up in damp soil – or maybe even getting a bigger planter. They may change tillage and fertility practices, too.

“Producers know the conditions that created the plant variability this year will likely happen again and they want to be better prepared for when it does.”

Bollig notes that preparing for plant variability at harvest is as critical as anything they may do to limit it in the spring. “Sixty percent of yield loss occurs at the corn head and most of that loss is from kernels and small ears slipping through the deck plates.”

Deck Plate Settings Critical

“Plant variability with its different sized stalks, different sized ears and even different maturities means that proper deck plate adjustments will be critical,” says Bollig. “Corn with an extra six inches of space will try to fill that up with a large plant and even try to grow a second ear, while plants in compacted areas will be struggling to get rooted and set a reasonably sized ear.”

“Just like at planting, nobody wants to stop harvesting either. When deck plates are set too tight you bring in more trash, which can result in plugs and added harvest loss through the combine, so producers tend to set their deck plates wider,” he says.

“The fact is they are losing yield at the corn head, but that is acceptable because it doesn’t stop harvest.”

Losing Potential Profit

“There are grain loss sensors in the combine, but no such thing in the corn head” Bollig says. “So producers really don’t know what their corn head loss is. Those kernels and small ear loss can make a significant difference in overall yield.”

He notes that losing just two kernels per square foot translates into a one-bushel-per-acre loss. “Losing those nubbins, even with as few as 100 kernels per ear, really adds up in terms of yield loss.”

“Producers should be just as concerned about the ugly parts of the field as they are the decent ones because that’s your profit potential.”

Hydraulic Deck Plates Fall Short

“Every corn head brand today has some form of adjustable deck plates, so we know the critical role they can play in capturing yield. The problem is that hydraulic deck plates fall short in their ability to adjust for row-to-row plant variability in a normal crop year, and even less with the kind of variability we have now.

Bollig says for most corn growers, “the question isn’t ‘if’ we will see variability like this again, it’s how many times they will see it in their farming career. “So why not have a corn head that can handle all the variables – including standability – as well? Drago corn heads with self-adjusting deck plates in each row represent the most advanced technology when it comes to capturing yield.”

“Nobody wants a ‘fair-weather planter’ and producers shouldn’t settle for a ‘fair-weather corn head’ either,” Bollig says. “We talk about precision planters that can react to soil types and density every second, and they can get a corn head that can react to plant conditions every second, too.”

Editor’s Note: Drago recently completed a field study that measured the variability of stalks at harvest. In terms of potential harvest loss, the results were eye-opening. You can view this study online at