Corn Detasseling 101

If you grew up on a farm, chances are you know all about seed corn detasseling. Many people are unaware of how the process works, however, and still others don’t even know what it is in the first place.

If you are someone who knows little about seed corn detasseling, what follows is a short tutorial on it. The first question many people ask is what exactly is a tassel. The tassel is the upper part of a corn plant. It is the part of the plant where the pollen that fertilizes the corn comes from.

Pollen from the designated “male” parent tassel is carried through the wind to contact the silks from plants designated “female” parent. Thus, pollination occurs, creating offspring with traits from two parents. This produces hybrid seed. The hybrid kernels begin to grow at the base of each silk strand pollinated, on the female plant’s ear. This process is managed by human intervention due to the value created by producing more durable and productive seed.

Years ago, corn producers would save part of their crop to use as seed. Now that corn hybrids are available, much more corn is produced. Since cross pollination resulted in hybrid corn, controlling pollination is the key to producing hybrid seed corn.

Removing tassels from female corn plants results in hybrid seed corn, since the tassel contains pollen and self-pollination creates inbred offspring. Detasseling, or removing tassels from female plants, allows only pollen from the male parent to reach the silks. Likewise, leaving the tassel on male plants allows the female plants to receive pollen only from designated male plants. These male plants supply the female plants with a different set of genetic traits. The result is unique hybrid seeds for planting the following year.      

Detasselers are able to tell the female and male corn plants apart since corn is planted in a specific pattern. This allows for tassels to be removed only from female rows. The pollen from male plants then pollinate on the detasseled female plants and hybrid seed corn kernels is the end product.

When detasseled female plants are harvested, they are used for hybrid seed in commercial production. Most commercial corn grown in the United States today comes from hybrids. To be certified seed, 99.7 percent or more of the tassels must have been removed from the female line in a specific amount of time.

Today’s hybrids are vigorous and high yielding and have a number of traits including disease resistance and drought and insect tolerance. They also mature early. Despite these improvements, these traits are not passed down from year to year so it is necessary to breed new hybrids annually.

Detasseling is an important part of farming culture. This is especially true since corn is the number one cash crop in the U.S. and detasseling is vital for it to remain that way.

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