Many growers see planting corn on their farm as the start of the season, but actually the seed they are about to plant has had a long and adventurous trip and planting is the end of its journey.
The latest greatest hybrid that you had to plant this year is not new but actually more than five years old and has had a long and interesting journey. All hybrids begin with an idea from a corn breeder wanting to cross two different inbred parents, male and female parents that are crossed together to make a hybrid. The inbred parents have shown some characteristics the corn breeder likes — yield, dry down, test weight, etc. — and when they are crossed the breeder believes they will make for a great hybrid.
The breeder begins with a few plants of both inbred parents planted close to one another. Then in the middle of the summer some research associate takes the pollen from the designated male plant in a paper bag and places that bag of pollen onto the ear shoot of the designated female plant, making the first cross of the new hybrid. The 70 or so kernels from that ear are then harvested by hand and prepared to be planted next year in its first yield trial.
The first yield trials are small trials of just a few short rows to make sure the new hybrid produces the desired results. While these kernels are trying to win their spot in next year’s larger yield trial, the corn breeder is busy producing more of the hybrid for a larger test the following year in small one- to five-acre production plots. During the first year of yield trials there may be more than 30,000 new hybrids trying to make it to the big leagues, but after harvest that number is reduced to hundreds of hybrids to be tested in the next year’s trial.
The testing process will continue for a couple of years in different growing environments and will only continue to be tested if it continues to impress the breeders and research groups. The hybrid is not only tested and grown in the United States, it is also grown in the Southern Hemisphere at several different locations such as Puerto Rico, Chile, Argentina, Hawaii to name a few, to speed the process of bringing it to market.
The final step for a new hybrid is to be tested in farmers’ fields and test plots. But behind the scenes there is a lot more occurring to make sure farmers can have this new hybrid to plant. In production fields spread across the Corn Belt, the female and male inbreds have been planted at different times to ensure that the males have pollen ready when the female inbreds have silks present. After pollination is complete the male plants are destroyed and the female plants are nurtured and cared for to help produce high quality seed. Harvest is started when the grain moisture is still in the 30s and is harvested with a sweet corn picker to limit damage, dried with an amazing amount of warm air, shelled and stored until later into the winter.
Once harvest is complete, the job of getting the seed from a bin into the bag begins. The seed is cleaned using a gravity table and other devices that separate the good kernels from the bad. The next step of the process is grading for seed size. The kernels are separated according to their shape, size and weight using different size of holes in screens that remind you of the screens from a hammer mill. The different sized seed is then treated with a quality seed treatment, put into a bag that will be delivered to your farm to be planted.
The process of bringing a bag of seed to your farm sounds easy and not complicated on the surface, but there is plenty of time and energy spent to make sure that the hybrid you are planting is going to perform as promised and the seed you have is the highest quality possible. So when you dump that bag or box of seed into your planter remember it all started with just a couple of kernels and a desire to make something new and exciting just for you!
Watch this video with John Brien discussing what to consider when scouting corn emergence across fields this spring.