Something Not Natural About Killing Healthy Corn Plants

Time to thin in greenhouse demonstration.

Published on: Feb 18, 2008

Dave Nanda, the Corn Illustrated consultant, gave very specific instructions for a demonstration underway this winter in a greenhouse. The purpose is to grow tow inbred, plus the hybrid of those inbreds, and pollinate and produce the same hybrid inside the greenhouse. It should make for a dandy 'hands-on' demonstration of how corn breeding works.

There's just one problem- Nanda said to plant three seeds of each inbred and the hybrid in large enough pots to support one plant during development. He left it to Tom J. Bechman, Indiana Prairie Farmer editor, to actually do the work. And he also said to mix in fertilizer before planting in a vermiculate mix within the soil.

Problems started when Bechman forgot the fertilizer. But as soon as seedling emerged, he worked fertilizer in carefully, trying to keep it away form the seedlings to would fertilitze4r burn. Of all the plants, only one appeared to suffer damage, and grew out of it. Another was somehow cut by an insect, even in a greenhouse, but also grew back out of it.

The corn was planted in mid –to- late January. Now the plants are at the two- to- three leaf stage, with the growing plant still below the ground. Thanks to automated lighting that comes on and off automatically to maintain light levels that simulate sunlight during the day, the corn appears healthy. Perhaps just a touch spindly, but overall, healthy.

Now comes the tough part- going down to one seedling in each pot. There's only room for one, and only a need for one of each inbred to produce pollen and/or provide receptive silks. But if there's one thing Nanda learned about Bechman last spring during the initial season of Corn Illustrated plots, it's that he doesn't like destroying healthy corn plants. It just seems to go against the grain of all nature to wipe out healthy plants when they're so hard sometimes to produce, even if it's necessary.

Enter Nanda, He's already agreed to come do the dirty work within the next week. "Plant breeders have to be ruthless sometimes," he says. "That's how the process works. We destroy and discard far more plants and ears than we ever keep. And in research plots for practical farm trials or hybrid comparisons, the number of plants per small plot needs to be the same. The best way to assure you get an acceptable stand is to overplant, then cut out plants once it's clear what the population is, to bring the population in all plots to the same, acceptable level."

There's even a tool for doing it in the field- it looks a lot like the old tool farmers used to catch chickens just before butchering them. And in some ways it's just as brutal.

Nanda just smiles. "You can't grow three plants in one pot," he says. "Something has to give. And corn doesn't transplant very well, so two of them are going to have to go. Since Mr. Bechman won't do it, I'll do it for him- it's part of my job."

That's OK, Dave. What you don't know is that Bechman never likes to fly solo. He planted a second back-up set of pots, and they also have three plants per pot. One way or another, there's going to be corn to pollinate and produce a hybrid later this spring.

Stay tuned to learn which parent is the male and female in glyphosate hybrids. Only one carries the glyphosate gene in this combination.