Volunteers on the Farm

A volunteer is normally a good thing.  A great thing if they show up to assist at a charity event. A class -parent. A rural firefighter. However, there is one place where volunteers are not welcome, and that is in the field.  If you haven’t guessed it by now, I am talking about volunteer corn.

volunteer corn

Volunteer Corn Stalk


These spindly stalks of corn are the products of corn ears and kernels that were left in the field after the previous year’s harvest. They grow in between rows of planted corn and rob precious nutrients from the desired ears surrounding it. Any plant in a field that isn’t supposed to be there can be considered a weed – even if it is corn!

Plants need nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Volunteer corn will use up the available nutrients and not allow the cash crop to thrive. Plants also need sunlight to grow. The volunteer corn blocks the light from the plants within the rows. And moisture that is needed for a healthy stalk is depleted, used up by the volunteer plant.

Maybe during harvest, the equipment was not working properly and ears were left on the ground. Or maybe grain was spilled when transferring it from the  combine to the auger wagon.  Or maybe the local deer population knocked ears down while gallivanting through the field.  The result of all these is that volunteer corn pops up in unwanted places throughout the field.

volunteer ear

Volunteer Ear of Corn


regular ear of corn

Regular Ear of Corn

Corn that was not planted on purpose can be a real yield-killer for farmers. Corn usually yields over 160 bushels per acre. Crop inputs, or costs involved with growing a crop, are increasing, so a farmer needs every bushel possible to stay ahead. The weather and the markets are things that an individual cannot control. Volunteer corn will reduce that potential yield by using nutrients, using water, and blocking sunlight from the desired crop. But, volunteer corn is controllable, to an extent.

Here are some ways to prevent volunteer corn:

  • During harvest, set and adjust the corn head on the combine to the proper level to collect and gather the maximum number of ears possible off the standing corn.
  • Drive and run equipment (combines, trucks, and wagons) volunteer ear on stand tractor backgroundat lower speeds to prevent large spills caused by an auger unloading too quickly. Also, don’t overfill grain wagons which could cause spill going up hills or around turns.

    close up of volunteer ear

    Close up Photo, Volunteer Ear of Corn

  • Maintain good fences. After harvest farmers can turn cattle out to graze the corn stalks. This means cattle can help clean up any kernels of corn that may have been spilt during harvest. An excellent fence features five barbed wires with alternating wood and steel posts for stability. Wires must be stretched taught or else animals will push through gaps attempting to reach grass on the other side of the fence line. If an electric fence, or “hot-wire” fence, is used it must be checked regularly to ensure it has not been knocked down by deer or hunters and is still working properly.
  • During the winter months a cow might eat up to 12 pounds of shelled corn a day. Cattle are great at searching out those lost ears in the field and making short work of the kernels. They will take the entire ear into their mouths and use their flat back teeth to shell the corn, even eating the cob when finished. Here is a video of calves eating ears of corn.

Farming is a balance. Farmers must consider what to plant and when. Farmers must do what they can to manage the outcomes of their fields and crops.  Volunteer corn is considered a weed that can be as damaging to row crops as waterhemp, giant ragweed, marestail, or morningglory.

So the next time you pass by a field and see a plant that doesn’t look like it belongs, it is more than likely an unwanted volunteer.

stand of volunteer corn


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