Seed Corn Extra – Detasseling

So in the last post I talked about flaming and how it helps the pollination period of seed corn. Now I’m going to talk about detasseling, the first job of many Iowa kids, which directly affects the plant pollination. Farmers only detassel seed corn. Quick refresher: Seed corn is what will be planted as commercial corn next year. Commercial corn is what is made into corn flakes, ethanol, some plastics and corn syrup. Sweet corn is what we are all enjoying this time of year and is found in the freezer section of your grocery store. Seed corn is detasseled because it forces the male and female rows to cross pollinate. The scientists have it all mapped out of what traits they want passed down to the seed (or ear of the current plant). Every stalk of corn has 2 flowers on it; the tassel and the ear. Since you pull the tassels of the females plants off you are left with the tassels of the male plant to pollinate the female ears. This is how they cross pollinate.

Detasseler making a pass.

When a field of seed corn has started to tassel then whoever’s seed it is (Monsanto, Pioneer, etc) determines when it is go time. First they will call a cutting crew. They have machines that buzz off the tops of the female rows. Then 2 days later come the detasseling machines. The 2 days allows for the tassels to grow up through the leaves so when the detasseling machine goes through it is mostly pulling the tassel, not the entire plant. When you’re driving down the highway this time of year it is easy to tell the difference between a commercial corn field and a seed corn field. The commercial corn will have all the tassels and a seed corn field will have 4 short rows with no tassels then a tall row with the tassel. This is the 4 female rows and the 1 male row.

The way our machines work is each female row has 4 small tires that turn towards each other and when the plant moves through the tassel is pulled out. Every 2 rows of female are controlled by a ‘head’ that actually has a laser that reads the height of the 2 rows. Based on that reading the head will go up or down automatically to get the best pull percentage possible. Our machines have 6 heads for a total of 12 rows being detasseled each pass through the field.

Close up of the head. The black boxes on either side are the lasers and the 4 tires spin inwards.

We own 2 detasseling machines that are attached to the sprayers. It is great to have multiple uses for the machinery! In those 2 machines we have 2 great guys, Steel and Jared (not brother Jared – we just like to keep everyone on their tows and hired another one). The best part about these two is they know their stuff and take those machines wherever need be. We couldn’t possibly have both machines running on fields 40 miles apart if it weren’t for them. We are fortunate enough to not only pull our own seed corn fields but others’ as well so when the growers say it’s go time it is go time no matter where the field or what day of the week.

A few days after our machines run through the field then the walkers get their turn. We see many kid crews but also more adult crews each year. The part that was such a surprise for me personally was how high of a pull percentage the machines average (around 90%). I never detasseled when I was a kid so all my knowledge was based on my friends and their complaints of how hard it was. The way they talked they had to do every single plant out there. I’m not taking anything away from the miles and miles they walk or the heat they do it in but I was lead astray on the number of tassels being pulled by a 14 year old. I actually didn’t pull my first tassel until Josh and I were dating and I was riding with him in the machine and decided to give it a go. I will say they make an interesting sound if you pull them just right (you can’t hear that when you’re in the cab of the sprayer).

The 2 machines ready to hit the road.

It is truly amazing to see the machine running through the field. Obviously the entire unit is moving but then each head is adjusting up and down, all the tires are spinning, tassels are popping out, hitting the guards and falling in between the rows. There are a lot of moving parts all happening at once. All of this is done to facilitate the plant to produce the best possible seed for next year’s planting. There is one more extra step for seed corn which I will write about in a few weeks. It is simply called male destroy, because of course the female plant is the best. (I couldn’t resist.)

Thanks for coming to the site – check our Instagram page for great pictures!

Until next time!


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