Farmers everywhere can remember their first time detasseling corn. Walking through a field in 90 degree heat with 10 pounds of mud on their boots thinking there was no end in sight.
It’s tiring, back-breaking work, but somebody has to do it. This is why Bob Miller hires teenagers to help detassel corn fields every year in Forest City, IA, where detasseling is often their first job and considered a rite of passage in the industry.
Detasseling is necessary to produce high quality hybrids. Farmers don’t want inbred corn because hybrid corn produces a stronger crop with higher yields.
“It’s like you have a purebred puppy and you can’t let it breed with others or it would be ruined,” Miller says.
This can become quite the task when the farm has hundreds of acres of corn to be detasseled by hand, but this could all change soon. For the past few years Monsanto has been working on a new technology called the Roundup Hybridization System (RHS).
RHS is an efficient system with the ability to sterilize the male part of the plant, says Jeff Neu, Senior Corn Media Communications Adviser at Monsanto.
“The system is designed to allow hybrid seed producers to stop the production of viable pollen in specific, targeted plants through timed applications of glyphosate,” Neu says.
Through these timed applications, the tassel of the plant becomes decoration and reduces the need of manual and mechanical detasseling, Neu notes. This helps ensure the genetic purity of the hybrid corn seed.
However, male sterility isn’t a new idea, just a reinvented one. In 1952, J.S. Rogers and J.R. Edwardson discovered a Texas corn variety with a unique gene: cytoplasmic male sterility. This gene allowed for the production of a seed with a sterile tassel.
“The Texas, or T-cytoplasmic male sterility (cms-T) system, was used extensively in the 1960s to eliminate the need for hand detasseling in hybrid maize production,” says Roger Wise, an Iowa State University professor of plant pathology and microbiology.
This was a revelation to farmers everywhere. Without the need to detassel corn farmers were able to reduce their labor costs and focus on other tasks.
It was so successful 70-90% of U.S. hybrid corn carried cms-T in 1970, notes C. Wayne Smith in his book Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production. However, the same year also marked the spread of the southern corn leaf blight, a fungus which infected all corn with the cms-T gene.
“As a consequence of the 1970 epidemic of southern corn leaf blight, cms-T is no longer widely used commercially,” Wise notes.
The leaf blight would result in a 15% corn yield loss for the U.S. After the removal of cms-T, detasseling returned with a vengeance in the 70s, but machines were invented to help offset some of the labor.
Cytoplasm wouldn’t be used again until the 1980s, and never to the same extent. It also would never be as successful at maintaining infertility.
“They have been trying for years to get away from detassling and are just not too successful at getting rid of them,” Miller says.
The different cytoplasms used today are cms-C and cms-S but certain environmental conditions can spontaneously restore fertility.
RHS is currently in phase four of Monsanto’s pipeline and waiting further regulatory approval and could soon be available to reduce the hassle to detassel. It may remove the decades old deteassling rite of passage, but it will also help make production more efficient.
What are your memories of detasseling? What do you think about Monsanto's Roundup Hybridization System? Let us know in the comments.