Why Do we Detassel Corn?
I remember watching the 2021 Field of Dreams baseball game and hearing the announcer ask about the corn. He mentioned that it didn't look like sweet corn, and folks that is because it wasn't sweet corn. Less than 1% of the corn grown in Iowa is actually sweet corn. Majority of the corn we grow is Dent #2 field corn. Iowa is known as the corn state but less than 2% of our population is involved in producing that corn therefore it is not surprising that there would be questions.
Many people remember the good ol' days when they would lace up their boots, slap on a hat, and head out to the field for their summer job of detasseling. I had a fair goer stop by our booth and ask me if we still detassel by hand and if we detassel all corn.
Detasseling is the act of removing the pollen producing flowers, the tassel from the tops of the corn plant. It is a form of pollination control to increase variety potential by crossing or hybridizing two varieties of corn. Detasseling is only performed in seed corn fields. The corn that will be used for planting next growing season. Seed production is very highly monitored to guarantee seed purity and uniformity. Hybrid corn increases uniformity out in the field, it ensures the plants will pollinate and be ready for harvest all at the same time. Hybrid varieties also offer the opportunity for fast growing, drought tolerant and pest resistant characteristics.
Detasseling machines remove about 85 – 90% of the tassels in a field. Manual labor is then needed to finish the field. By hand, tassels are removed by grasping the base of the tassel, breaking it, then pulling it from the top of the corn plant.
Seed corn is planted in patterns or blocks of a 6:2 or 4:1 ratio; six female and two male rows or four female and one male row. We detassel the female rows. Corn plants have two separate flowers, the tassel makes the pollen and the ear of corn collects it. By detasseling the female rows, we are ensuring that the male rows pollinate all of the corn. This will create the future hybrid corn seeds that will yield high and have desirable environmental traits.
The start began around 1910 when corn breeders experimented with crossing two high yielding corn varieties. Researchers found that an inbred (genetically pure) line had potential to cross with more vigor but still high yields, by selecting the traits we desire we can improve corn genetics.
"Before hybrid seed corn, farmers would keep ears of corn that looked the best so they could use them to plant the next spring, but this took many years to see significant genetic improvements," according to Bob Nielsen, Extension corn specialist at Purdue University (Hybrid seed corn basics (farmprogress.com)). Only seed from the female parent is harvested to be sold as seed corn. Male rows are either destroyed after pollination is finished or are harvested separately, Nielsen says.
1933: Less than 1% of people planted hybrid corn
1944: Over 83% of people planted hybrid corn
Through my research, I found that the average detasseling jobs pay about 15.00 an hour. Detasseling is great for a high school or college student looking for summer work. The season is relatively short!
Here is a fun video showing the season of detasseling!
Video showing the detasseling process: https://youtu.be/fHUHg6iCDKM