The Production of Seed Corn: Planting through Harvest

 

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If you’re from a family farm you probably know the process your family goes through every year during planting season. But do you know how the seeds you plant every year are produced?  Before my internship with Monsanto Co., I only had a general idea of the differences between producing field corn and seed corn.  I had no idea that there were so many more steps and precautions.

Planting:

Generally speaking, growing corn for seed production requires higher quality soil than normal field corn production.  It also requires much more management.  Consequently, this results in more trips across the field and more labor required.  Seed corn is normally planted at the same time as regular corn but in a much different way.  You may know that corn is a dioecious plant meaning that it has both male and female reproductive parts.  In seed corn, the corn plant is divided into male and female seed before it is planted.  Seed corn gets planted usually 1 male for every 4 female plants or 2 male for every 4 female in a research operation. Many times either the male or the female is planted first, and then after the corn has reached a certain growth stage the other is then planted. This is done to ensure that the corn gets pollinated at the right time. Another method for maximizing pollination is a process called flaming. Flaming is the process in which an implement with oscillating burners is towed through the field across the male rows to stunt about 50% of the plants.  This is done so that not all of the pollen is throwing at once in case there are female plants in the field that are behind.

Post-Planting:

Once a field has been successfully planted it is carefully monitored and sprayed for weeds as necessary. There are field inspectors that will go into each field and inspect the corn for any planting or disease issues that could jeopardize the quality of the seed.  These inspectors have a very important job especially when it comes time to call a field.  When calling a field the inspectors will look for any silk that may be out and how much longer before the tassel comes out of the corn plant.  The main goal of this is to make sure that before the corn tassel throws pollen that it gets cut off the plant.  This is done by running a machine through the four female rows with cutting blades that are set to cut about halfway down the tassel.  After this is done, you let the field set for at least a day if possible to allow the tassel to regrow and extend.  When the tassel extends you go back through the female rows with another machine that rolls the rest of the tassel out of the plants.  Once the field has been rolled, you generally wait another day before you send a crew of people to go hand pull the rest of the tassels.  This is a very important process and requires that only .2 percent of female tassels can be left for a field to pass inspection (we don’t want the female corn plants to pollinate themselves). Once a field reaches .2 percent female tassels left to pull it can pass inspection and we can wait for the field to pollinate.  Once the field is pollinated a machine is sent through the male rows to destroy them as they are not the seed that is desired.

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Cutting machine cutting female tassels
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Rolling machine pulling tassels out of female corn plants

Harvest and Processing:

Seed corn harvest usually takes off in early September and is normally completed by early October to avoid frost damage.  The corn gets sprayed with a desiccant to dry out the plant material before harvesting.  You want the moisture of the corn to be around 32%-35% at harvest to protect the kernels.  Specialized harvest equipment is used to harvest the ears with the husk intact to provide extra protection to the kernels during transport.  The corn then travels to the processing facility where the husk is removed and the ears are sorted based on quality.  It is then dried over a period of around 72 hours to about 12%-13% moisture so it can be safely shelled.  It is then cleaned of any foreign material and sorted again by size and color.  After many quality checks and cleaning procedures, the corn is treated with various types of seed treatments if desired and finally packed for delivery.

Bio:

My name is Hunter Aten and I am currently a senior at Western Illinois University.  I am majoring in Agricultural Science with a minor in Agronomy.  I was raised in just south of Macomb, IL , and have been connected to agriculture my entire life.  I didn’t exactly live on a farm growing up, but I helped my uncle on his grain and livestock farm up until his retirement my senior year of high school. Agriculture has always been a part of my life and it will continue to be as I have accepted my first full-time position at Monsanto Co. as a Production Associate at a seed corn production facility in Grinnell, Iowa.

 

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