Corn detasseling gives a kernel of hope to next year’s crop
Hartung Brothers contracts with farmers to grow vegetables and seeds in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. The business also includes a trucking service. The business was founded near Janesville, and the headquarters moved to Madison in 2000.
To learn more, visit www.hartungbrothers.com.
LA PRAIRIE TOWNSHIP Corn detassling.
The words are enough to make many southern Wisconsin adults shudder, remembering their first jobs. Detasseling is a first job for many local teens.
If you’ve never stood in a cornfield in July, you might not realize how the sun beats down, and how humid it is among thousands of growing corn plants.
Step in among the green leaves for just a minute, and you walk out with wet clothes.
While it’s sticky, hot labor for a few, it’s the first step in creating the seeds that will be planted to grow next year’s crop.
The detassling season lasts only a few weeks in mid-summer. It started and will end early this year because of the warm weather, said Hartung Brothers field representative John McCarthy.
Hartung Brothers is a seed corn grower. Instead of selling corn as feed for cattle or food for people, the kernels are saved and sold to farmers for next year’s crop.
On a recent morning, Hartung workers were cutting into the last field of the season in La Prairie Township south of Janesville. In the fall, the kernels will be harvested, dried and bagged for next year’s crop.
Hartung Brothers is one of several companies that grow seed corn in Rock County. The plants have been specially selected to contain traits that lead to high yields.
Farmers have many brands and types of seeds to choose from.
What they choose depends on the weather, the location and personal preference, said Hartung field representative Jeff Bublitz.
Farmers in northern Wisconsin or Canada might want corn that matures quickly—in 70 days or so—for the short growing season. Farmers in southern Illinois could grow 100-day corn.
Some plants are grown to stand up longer in the field in the fall and into winter for late harvesting. Some corn grows better on dry, sandy soil, while some makes better silage. Silage is cattle feed made by chopping the entire corn plant, preserving it and storing it in a silo.
Some corn hybrids have been genetically modified for protection from pests or diseases.
One example is Bt-corn, which has been modified to create a protein found naturally in a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. When the borer feeds on the corn plant, it consumes the protein and dies.
To make a hybrid seed, producers must cross the genetic material from two types of corn plants, McCarthy said.
To make the cross, seed companies plant two varieties of corn in a pattern: one row of “Type A” corn and four rows of “Type B” corn.
In late June and July, tiny ears start to form on the stalks. Inside, hundreds of “silks” are forming. The “silks” are the strings you might peel off a cob of sweet corn.
As the tiny ear grows, the silks grow inside it. The silks are the female reproductive part of the plant.
Bublitz picked a thin ear and peeled it open to demonstrate. It contained nothing but a wad of silks.
He uses the width of his thumb to measure how far the silks have to grow before they emerge from the ear.
Three or four days before the silks emerge, it’s time to cut the tassels off the corn.
On the top of the plant, the spiky tassel creates pollen. The tassel is the male reproductive part of the plant.
The pollen ripens into yellow grit; it drifts on the breeze and is caught by the sticky silks.
The pollen protein travels down the silk, and a kernel develops at the end, McCarthy said. Each silk makes one kernel, he said.
This happens in every cornfield in the world, whether farmers are growing sweet corn for the grocery store or field corn for cattle.
However, seed corn producers such as Hartung Brothers need to mix the genetic material from two types of plants to get hybrid seed.
They can’t allow a plant to pollinate itself.
That’s where detassling comes in.
Right before the silks emerge from tiny, growing ears, a cutter rolls through the field and mows 6 inches off the top of the four rows of “Type B” corn.
That removes about half of the tassel. The other half is growing inside the stalk.
Overnight, the tassel will grow an inch or so out of the stalk. Then a roller is driven through the field. Each plant is squeezed between two small, rubber wheels. The maturing tassel pops out and is discarded.
The roller removes about 80 percent of the tassels.
A day or two later, workers walk through the field and remove the rest by hand.
Without a tassel, the plants are referred to as “female” corn.
The single rows of “male” corn are knocked down after they’ve done their job of pollinating the “female” corn. The kernels are of no use to seed producers because the plant might have pollinated itself.
A generation or two ago, farmers didn’t buy hybrid seed from commercial seed producers.
They saved the best ears of corn from their crops, dried the kernels carefully and saved them for planting, McCarthy said.
Technically, any kernel could grow into a corn plant, but modern farmers don’t save them for a few reasons, Bublitz and McCarthy said.
First, it’s against the rules. Buying and planting hybrid corn means farmers are contractually prohibited from saving seed for planting. The hybrid is patented material, McCarthy said.
Also, seed corn requires special care.
When picked for seed corn, the whole cob is harvested to avoid losing any seeds. The seeds are dried at lower temperatures than field corn. They are sorted for bagging and treated with fungicides.
The hybrid seeds have greater yield potential that fits with today’s cash crop market, Bublitz said.
“It’s not like when you were out there tossing out one seed at a time.”