Ever wonder where the corn seed that farmers plant comes from? In order to plant the millions of acres of corn throughout the Midwest each spring, farmers need to first buy seed. The seed that they buy is often hybrid varieties that have beneficial traits like being drought tolerant or disease resistant. To get these special hybrids, farmers and the companies they work with have to make sure to cross pollinate the corn. Corn pollen spreads by wind so how do farmers ensure that the pollen from one type of corn lands on the silk of another type of corn to create the hybrid? Detasseling.
Each and every corn plant has both a male and a female flower. The tassel sits at the very top of the plant and produces the pollen. The ear of corn with the silk then is the female flower. When the wind blows, pollen from the tassel will shake loose and fall on the silk. Each strand of silk is connected to a different seed on the ear of corn. The pollen makes its way down the silk to pollinate the ovule and develop into a seed. When left to grow naturally, a corn plant will pollinate itself. To produce a better type of corn, different strains of corn are mixed or cross-pollinated.
Seed companies contract with farmers to plant these fields. The companies work with the farmer to determine when to plant, when to detassel, and when to harvest. Seed corn fields are planted with two types of corn – one will have the tassels removed and will bear the new hybrid seed. These will become the ‘female’ rows. The other will retain its tassels and serve to pollinate the first. These will become the ‘male’ rows. Fields are planted with three or four rows of female to every one row of male.
Up to 70% of tassels are removed mechanically. Then crews come through and clean the fields by hand removing any tassels that the machines missed. Timing is important because if you detassel too early yield may decrease. If you wait too long, the corn plant will start to pollinate itself. The window of the growing season to detassel is usually only 16-20 days long. Detasselers must remove 99.7% of the tassels in the female rows. That means that crews can only miss 3 in every 1,000 plants!
Each summer about 100,000 people, mostly students, head out to the corn fields to detassel. Some companies even mobilize bus fulls of people and move throughout the Midwest following the corn crops north as they mature. Of course not every field needs to be detasseled. Most field corn doesn’t need to be detasseled and the harvested corn will go to make corn meal, corn flour, corn syrup, ethanol and a myriad of other products. But you can easily recognize a seed corn field with three rows that look like the top has been chopped off and a fourth row standing tall.
Detasseling corn is vital to producing the best corn seeds possible for the next growing season. And for more than 70 years detasseling corn has become synonymous with Midwestern culture. It is a ritual in its own right. Corn is the number one cash crop in the U.S. with a value of $12.1 billion. This method of hybridization has created a 6-fold increase in corn yields over the last 60 years.
Have you ever detasseled corn or do you know somebody who has? We’d love to hear about it!