Row By Row / June 2024

Evolution of Corn Production

Leading the way: the corn production revolution and its impact on harvest technology

When it comes to corn productivity, farmers have benefited from enormous advancements in technology over the last 40 years. Thanks to innovations, like field mapping, high-speed planters, variable-rate technology and significantly better corn hybrids, corn growers have become more efficient at feeding and fueling a growing world.

Despite the technological boom, corn heads remain one piece of farm equipment that has lagged behind. Their design has essentially stagnated since the 1980s — with the exception of Drago corn heads.

Harvest technology upgrades

When Olimac, the maker of Drago corn heads, introduced the first corn head with hydraulically operated deck plates in 1982, average seeding rates were 22,000 seeds per acre, yielding an average of 113 bushels per acre. This new technology for the time helped capture more yield by enabling farmers to manually adjust plates across the width of the head from the cab. Traditional-line manufacturers followed suit more than a decade later, with their own hydraulic deck plates.

Denny Bollig, farmer and president of Dragotec, recalls the benefits of Drago’s new design. “Prior to hydraulic deck plates, we were stuck with fixed deck plates. We made our best guess on stalk widths, set the plates before harvest and just kept running regardless of changing field conditions. We hoped we weren’t losing too much yield.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Research conducted by Iowa State University has demonstrated farmers can lose up to four bushels per acre if there is a gap of 1/8 inch between deck plates and cornstalks. This is part of the reason that 60% of harvest losses occur at the head.

Since the introduction of hydraulic deck plates, advancements in corn research have led to more resilient hybrids with stiffer stalks, able to withstand higher populations to produce far greater yields. Corn breeders continue to develop hybrids that are more resistant to disease, control rootworm and corn borer (once called billion-dollar pests) and include herbicide-tolerant traits that have made some previously tough-to-control weeds a distant memory.

These breeding advancements enabled farmers to plant an average of 33,000 seeds per acre and harvest 177 bushels per acre in 2023. High-yielding hybrids with stronger stalks planted at higher populations demand more than ever from corn heads.

Yet today, traditional-brand corn heads still rely on manually operated hydraulic deck plates — technology that’s now more than 40 years old. Farmers are left to continue guessing stalk width from the cab as they did in the ’80s, leading to one big challenge.

That’s a challenge that is literally under farmers’ noses at harvest, explains Dustin Bollig, farmer and Drago vice president of sales and marketing. “Hybrids have changed, seeding rates have changed, yields have gone up, but the technology they use at the front of the combine hasn’t. Farmers who still use manually operated hydraulic plates are leaving yield behind in the field because their deck plates just can’t keep up.”

Delivering much-needed improvements

Recognizing the need for better harvest technology, Olimac introduced automatic self-adjusting deck plates in the Drago Series I corn head in 1997. The improved spring-loaded deck plates, standard on all Drago models, individually and automatically adjust to changing stalk widths within and across rows. This minimizes stalk-to-deck plate gaps to capture more yield and eliminates guesswork from the cab.

“When we introduced self-adjusting deck plates, we heard from customers almost immediately that they were seeing less grain and small ears left behind in the field,” says Dustin. “With planting rates and yields increasing every year, having deck plates that automatically adjust becomes more and more important.”

A multiyear harvest study conducted by Dragotec proved there is significant variability in stalk width within and between rows. Dragotec evaluated the movement of its deck plates in low- and high-yielding corn. Across the head, they found that deck plate gaps differ by 1/8 inch or more nearly 90% of the time. Individual deck plates made nearly two adjustments of 1/2 inch every second. As yields increased to greater than 200 bushels, deck plate adjustments nearly doubled.

In addition to deck plates, Olimac has introduced other yield-capture features to handle more densely planted, higher-yielding corn with stronger stalks:

  • Longer knife rollers — Drago corn heads feature the longest knife rollers in the industry. With a slower tip speed and laser-applied tungsten blades, Drago knife rollers catch and release stalks to process them down the length of the roller, leading to less trash entering the feeder house.
  • QuadSuspension™ — The impact-absorbing “ear shocks” under Drago GT deck plates lessen the impact of ears hitting the plates, reducing ear bounce and butt shelling.
  • Improved gathering chain design — Drago gathering chains are placed farther out front, and aggressive chain lugs capture both standing and down corn. Alternating placement of the lugs also works to better gather stalks in higher populations.
  • Larger auger — Drago GT’s larger auger tube with aggressive-pitched fluting is designed to limit back feed and potential yield loss.
  • Rolled deck plates — The deck plate edges on Drago corn heads are rolled to reduce MOG (material other than grain) so it’s pulled through the knife rollers and not into the combine.
  • Stalk choppers — Drago corn heads feature choppers that are set farther back so they don’t interfere with stalks initially entering the knife rollers. The Twin Chop+ stalk chopper option on the GT counter-cuts stalks to size and splinter them for faster decomposition after harvest.

“In Drago corn heads, Olimac has introduced a corn head fit for today’s intense harvest conditions,” says Dustin. “Drago is the perfect solution for corn growers who want to harvest like they mean it.”

Check out the Drago difference for more details on Drago’s unique harvest-capture technologies, or talk to your local dealer about how a Drago can help you harvest like you mean it.